Title: FACES OF DEATH
Director: John Alan Schwartz (as “Conan LeCilaire”)
Cast: Michael Carr
Newsreel footage of death, disease, famine
Animal slaughter (ritual and farming)
Mauling by alligator
Mauling by grizzly bear
Electrocution (by state execution)
Ritualistic cult sacrifice (human)
Suicide by fall
Exposed brain matter
Scattered limbs and remains (after a plane crash)
For many who grew up in the 1980s, the snuff film (fake or not) was a rite of passage. The most infamous such exploit was Conan LeCilaire’s FACES OF DEATH, a late installment in the cycle of Mondo films of the 1970s. The “shockumentary” features a series of unrelated scenes of footage shot in the documentary style, with the theme of death as their common thread.
The film is finely tuned into society’s morbid curiosity, granting a slew of lurid visuals under the solemn narration of a “doctor.” Such a device allowed for the presentation of vignettes considered too appalling for a mainstream (or even a standard grindhouse) film. How often does a movie open with an up-close observation of real open-heart surgery?
An argument could be made for FACES OF DEATH’s recognition as more arthouse than grindhouse. The film is presented as real-deal-Holyfield vignettes of death and stripping out the usual genre safeguards of comic relief and merciful edits during the most brutal moments, effectively fortifying the graphic images onscreen. Viewers go into a film expecting that film to depict its atrocities as disparate from reality, occupying a different realm. When it fails to do so (a Mondo film hallmark), the line between spectator and co-conspirator is blurred. Director and screenwriter John Alan Schwartz (credited as “Conan LeCilaire” and as “Alan Black,” respectively) successfully reconfigures the cinematic narrative for the audience, and prioritizes death over everything else shown. Within this new context, death is all that matters.
The most audacious moment of FACES OF DEATH is extracted from actual newsreels; a fatal accident complete with the scattered remains of a cyclist spread under a semi-tractor trailer. With a sterile matter-of-factness, the narrator contextualizes the grisly carnage as a first responder scoops up chunks of brain matter and hair off the asphalt. Animal lovers may want to avoid this film as it contains multiple scenes of animal slaughter, from a real chicken beheading to a real seal clubbing to a monkey being beaten to death and its brains eaten. It should be noted, however, that the latter scene is clearly staged and edited so as to not actually show the mallet’s contact with the monkey’s head. While a good portion of these sequences are fake and their effects dated, they are displayed alongside authentic collision footage and Holocaust newsreels. This in itself is a bold move, as it has the effect of blurring the line between entertainment and real life. Modern audiences would have no problem discerning the fictional scenes from the factual ones, but the intrepid vision of “Conan LeCilaire” still stands.
While it’s unknown whether or not the film was actually “banned in 40 countries” as promoters suggest, John Alan Schwartz’s celluloid shocker was salacious enough to earn a ban in the UK under the Obscene Publications Act. FACES OF DEATH presents itself as reality, which turned out to be its biggest source of controversy. Audiences mistakenly believed the veracity of the filmmaker’s claims, and as such it gained notoriety in the tabloids and beyond. To be fair, there are plenty of films on the Video Nasties list that are far more violent than FACES OF DEATH. But the power in the film lies not in its graphic footage, but the presentation of that footage as authentic.
The film got its DVD release in 2008 with Gorgon Video, followed by a Region-2 DVD from Spinal Cord Filmz in 2014.
Despite some obviously staged footage and wonky effects, FACES OF DEATH remains a nasty curiosity among the grindhouse masses. Structurally groundbreaking and audacious in its refusal to placate its audience, Schwartz/LeCilaire’s montage of the macabre is worth a tip of the cap and a visit (or re-visit) from exploitation enthusiasts.
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