MANGLED limbs scattered across the blood-stained road after a car crash. The skin of a dead man’s face pulled back like a mask. A monkey clubbed over the head by diners at a fancy restaurant.
These are just some of the unsettling scenes which were spliced together to create Faces Of Death – a 1978 horror flick often described as the most shocking film ever made. And perhaps the most shocking thing about it is that many of the most violent scenes are totally real.
Documentary-style horror film Faces Of Death takes its viewers on a disturbing journey of human and animal suffering, depicting torture, murder and violence in graphic detail.
Unlike most horror films, there’s no real plot. Instead, the film just consists of a series of clips showing creatures or people in their anguished final moments, narrated by a pathologist character called Dr Gross.
When it was released, the film caused enormous controversy, and was banned in 46 countries including the UK. Viewers were often left upset and confused about what footage was real and what was portrayed by actors.
And it was even blamed for a murder – after a 14-year-old boy beat his classmate to death with a baseball bat and said it was the film which made him want to kill.
The film has also been the subject of a lawsuit, after a teacher in another American school showed his class its graphic, violent scenes.
But now, 40 years after Faces Of Death was released, its director, who goes by the name Conan LeCilaire, has revealed why he still doesn’t regret making the film which scarred a generation.
‘After watching it I felt dirty’
Even today’s teenagers, who grew up with an endless library of gory online content in their pocket, will be shocked by the depravity in Faces Of Death.
Viewers see blood trickling from a man’s eyes as he’s electrocuted, scalpel-wielding doctors cutting into live patients, and the infamous scene where a monkey’s brains are eaten at a swanky dinner table.
Another scene shows a group of cultists having sex in a puddle of slick human blood, smearing it all over themselves and each other.
There’s also video footage of planes crashing, cars driving off cliffs, shootings, torture, screaming women, emaciated children, animal abuse and almost every other horrible thing you can possibly imagine.
And to add to the horror, it’s all presented as if you’re watching real footage in a serious documentary, with stony straight-faced narration throughout.
This is a common feature of the “shockumentary” genre, and it meant that many viewers back in 1978 believed they were watching real footage.
Even today, YouTube comments on the film’s trailer reveal how it still has the power to terrify and disturb viewers four decades later.
“I saw this when I was little,” one viewer says. “I knew I shouldn’t be watching but I couldn’t resist, after watching I felt dirty, like I needed a shower, and had nightmares of course.”
“I was a kid when I saw this movie, another adds. “I was scared for weeks… can you believe this is real?”
But the truth is that the violence and horror of Faces Of Death is not entirely real… although it’s not entirely made-up either.
Instead, it blends real footage (making up just over half of the film) with professionally acted scenes, mixing newsreel videos of crimes and accidents with faked clips designed to look like the real thing.
It meant that the film was surrounded by mystery right from the off, creating an enormous – and often uneasy – buzz around its scenes of intense violence.
Reflecting on that hype, the film’s director, Conan LeCilaire, tells The Guardian: “It’s kind of cool to think that, you know, I actually created a cult film.”
A documentary about death
Born in California, LeCilaire worked for his dad’s nature film company from the age of 14, eventually becoming a documentary producer.
But the idea to make his own horror film only came after he saw a reel of footage showing animals all over the world being hunted and slaughtered, a documentary concept pitched to him by a Japanese studio.
At this time, graphic factual films made from grisly real footage were becoming popular among morbid film fans, but LeCilaire wanted to do something even more outrageous.
“Why not do something about humans getting killed?” he asked, and quickly put together a sample reel.
He persuaded a doctor friend to let him film in a morgue, and he cut together the resulting autopsy footage with graphic clips he found elsewhere, showing things like seals being clubbed to death.
When his Japanese clients from the studio saw what he was doing, they went “bats**t crazy,” LeCilaire says. “They were so excited”.
Blamed for murder and psychological harm
Faces Of Death had been given the green light, but now it had to be put together.
LeCilaire started approaching news agencies to buy video footage which was too graphic to air on TV – shots of people jumping from buildings and the bloody aftermath of car accidents and plane crashes.
However, with a feature-length film to fill, LeCilaire needed more – more footage, more violence and more shock factor.
So he hired actors and writers and came up with a series of grisly scenarios which they could film themselves, including a beheading, electrocution, bear attack and the infamous monkey scene.
The end result was an instant hit in Japan, and soon gained cult status in America, at a time when gory horror films were increasingly popular.
According to its VHS packaging, Faces Of Death was banned in 46 countries, with Britain among the places where it was illegal to distribute it.
A backlash soon followed in America, with psychologists claiming the film’s explicit scenes could “interfere with the development of children and their attitude toward death”.
Two families did sue California school for $100,000 (£76,000) after a rogue maths teacher showed the film to a class full of students.
It was put on as a time-killer after the kids had finished their end-of-year exams, but students Diane Feese and Sherry Forget say they were traumatised by the graphic scenes.
Teacher Bart Schwartz was suspended for 15 days after it emerged that he had forced the class to stay and watch even when they asked to leave.
And in 1986 the film was even blamed for a murder after 14-year-old Rod Matthews lured a classmate to a secluded wood and beat him to death.
Mathews, from Massachusetts, claimed he only did it after watching the horror film.
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But even today, director Conan LeCilaire, who now owns a gun store, remains unfazed by the morbid connection.
“I don’t believe it’s my fault,” he says. “Evil people are going to commit their crimes no matter what.”
When asked about his reasons for making the film, which has spawned numerous spin-offs, imitations and sequels, LeCilaire says it was simply to shock people. It’s clear that he’s succeeded.