Please Do Disturb: Faces of Death

(I thought I’d take a break from monster-reminiscing and book-pimping to unearth this Please Do Disturb review from June 2009. This should tell you a little about my current mood today.)

In addition to being one of filmdom’s most notorious entries, 1978’s FACES OF DEATH is among the most indelible titles of contemporary cinema—even if you’ve never seen it, you know all about it (or, in some cases, only think you do). Surprisingly influential, it’s often considered essential viewing for the serious horror buff–usually as a rite of passage, a graduation from the kid’s stuff of myriad slasher sequels to the real deal.

Originally commissioned by a group of Japanese investors wanting a visually graphic depiction of death, documentary filmmaker Conan Le Cilaire went out to various news organizations and acquired several reels of accident and disaster footage. When the parade of slaughtered animals, suicides, and autopsied corpses failed to be sufficient, Le Cilaire’s money men pressed him for “more death,” wanting to be taken through every stage of the featured demise. The solution lied in a similar tactic used by the infamous Italian “documentary” directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prospero—namely, manipulating the found footage and inserting new material specifically shot for the project. It was a decision that, to say the least, proved to be very successful.

(Though it’s often amusing to hear people discuss which aspects of the film are “real,” virtually every memorable set-piece presented is bogus—the bear attack, the stand-off with a crazed gunman, and of course the legendary monkey-brain sequence. A close eye and some healthy scrutiny will reveal the filmmakers’ tricks, not to mention Le Cilaire discloses his methods on the FACES OF DEATH 30th Anniversary Blu-Ray disc—a phrase I’d never imagined I’d use—commentary track. What I find most interesting is that this is essentially the same technique Ruggero Deodato employed for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, utilizing actual death footage to create a sense of verisimilitude over the whole film—except FACES still continues to fool people.)

FACES OF DEATH gives the impression that it wants to be a genuine exploration in the nature of death, but allows itself to get caught up in cataloging the numerous ways a person can horribly die. Victims of crime, animal attacks, war, disease, accidents involving every mode of transportation—it’s all here, trotted out for our examination like a macabre checklist. We’re shuffled through one gruesome sight after another without really getting a chance to analyze its meaning; it’s all about eliciting a string of “Ew, gross!” from the audience. Certain directorial flourishes—such as the “spooky” lighting of the Guanajuato mummies or the dramatic music during the culling of seals—further help in making this more of a ghoulish funhouse ride than any serious meditation of the subject matter. And while the juxtaposition of authentic scenes and reenactments is a curious blend of nonfiction and exploitation, it ultimately ends up cheapening the deaths and lessening their gravity.

But no one goes into a movie that boasts being “Banned in 47 countries!” wanting a somber look at the nature of death. (However, if you do, I urge you to track down the 1972 documentary OF THE DEAD, which honestly and unflinchingly examines death without the exploitive baggage.) FACES OF DEATH is presented as entertainment, and as such still fails at what it attempts to do.

The film’s biggest flaw isn’t its explicitness, but its pacing. Despite the succession of hard-to-stomach sequences, FACES too often borders on the tedious, with serious problems with its pacing and rhythm. The faked scenes run much too long, especially when you know they’re not real, giving them a dull, inert feel. And much of the genuine footage, while awful, is still morbidly fascinating, but the slideshow manner in which they’re presented prevents it from being more than a curio.

Some critics have pointed out Le Cilaire’s use of black humor (like playing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” before a rooster gets its head chopped off) as being insensitive, but these touches often give the film a much-needed levity, even if it comes at the expense of its seriousness. To hear Le Cilaire and editor Glenn Turner describe the lengthy post-production process, they were most likely added to preserve the filmmakers’ sanity, and I can’t begrudge them that. In fact, some may find the ending of FACES, with its optimistic, if bullshit, exploration of the afterlife and the renewal of life in the form of childbirth corny and a soft-pedaled cop-out, but the beautiful nature montage that closes the film suggests it’s Le Cilaire finding closure with the project.

Though it’s practically quaint by today’s standards—thanks to the dozens of knock-offs and “If it leads, it bleeds” newscasts it helped usher in—FACES OF DEATH still retains plenty of disturbing imagery: the living skeletons of the Third World, forensic technicians scraping bits of brain from an accident scene, the grim realities of slaughterhouse procedures, and of course the fact that all of us has a mortuary slab with our name on it (if we’re lucky). The ballad that plays over the final credits is pretty frightening, too.

A cult classic with, by now, a rather creepy nostalgia factor (how many of you saw this when you were ten?), FACES OF DEATH remains the unchallenged king of the shockumentary genre. And let’s not forget, in Japan it supposedly outgrossed STAR WARS.

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