Originally released in 1978, Faces of Death became a cult sensation with gruesome depictions of actual deaths, and sensational staged scenes where real footage couldn't be found. Brooke Gladstone talks to Faces of Death creator John Alan Schwartz about the movie's lasting effect and how "real" a film can be when nearly half of it was faked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now, a look back on another case of truth redefined by the artist, a tale from the crypt, so to speak, 1978’s stomach-churning cult film, Faces of Death. Faces of Death combined genuine images of blood and guts with faked footage, when the real stuff wasn’t available. It’s schlocky, gruesome, spasmodically compelling and anchored by the film’s supposed creator, the fictional pathologist, Dr. Francis Gross.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
DR. FRANCIS GROSS: Prepare yourself for a journey into a world where each new step may give you a better understanding of your own reality. For I am sure you will gain a new perspective from the many faces of death.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Made on a modest budget of around 450,000, the film went on to make upwards of 35 million dollars, spawned several sequels and became enshrined in the pantheon of American cult film. This month a piece in Deadspin offered a guide to what was real and what wasn’t in Faces of Death, which brought back the primal experience of watching it to OTM producer Alex Goldman who suggested this segment.
ALEX GOLDMAN: My first experience of Faces of Death was a sadistic older brother –
-who decided to put me in front of the TV and show me the movie, which burned some pretty specific images indelibly into my mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like what?
ALEX GOLDMAN: The scene where a group of people eat the brains of a monkey and a scene in which a man is executed in the electric chair. It was only after we’d watched the movie that my brother told me that all the footage was real.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, you may go, Alex!
ALEX GOLDMAN: All right, I’m outta here. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now I’m going to bring in the creator of Faces of Death, John Alan Schwartz. You just heard Alex. Does that sound like a familiar scenario? [LAUGHS]
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: Yeah, because each new generation discovers it, and even though things look hokey now, there are still segments that people actually believe are real that aren’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the two that Alex happened to mention, the eating of the monkey brains after clubbing the monkey to death at a restaurant, and the man in the electric chair, those were both faked scenes, right?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: Yeah, they are. And the thing that made the monkey so incredible is that we found a monkey trainer, and so all we did is we built this special table and rented a Moroccan restaurant and put some friends of ours around a table.
[LOUD MONKEY SOUNDS]
NARRATION: As the monkey was brought down the hall and a toast to prosperity was made, the waiter presented the men with their tools of destruction.
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: When we put the monkey into the table and he began to get struck by the mallets which, of course, were made of foam, the monkey went crazy. In the interim, our makeup department had cast the head of the monkey weeks earlier, so that as the camera’s cutting away and they’re supposedly killing this monkey, we switched the real monkey with the prosthetic monkey. The monkey brains was cauliflower and theater blood.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Now, we know the “who, what, where and how” but we still don’t know – why?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: Why not?
The – basically the Japanese came to this small family film company and said to us, we want to make a movie about death. It was a - it was a chance to have complete creative control. And what young aspiring filmmaker wouldn’t want to do that? They gave us the money and we put it all together and never had anybody to answer to but ourselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does this low budget blood fest bound for Japan become an American cult classic?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: There were some various independent distributors that saw the film and then brought it to America. And one night I was working in my typist’s house and Dan Rather was the anchor for CBS News, and Dan Rather said, there’s a movie out called Faces of Death that should never have seen the light of day. And I figured I’d never work in Hollywood again.
But it actually had the opposite effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You played a character in the film, another made-up scene of the satanic flesh-eating cult.
[FACES OF DEATH CLIP]:
SCHWARTZ AS CULT LEADER: On the outskirts of San Francisco a cult existed that promised its members immortality. I had heard rumors about their ceremony. They believe that the power of everlasting life was found in the internal organs of the dead.
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: I actually appeared in, in the, the first three. In the first one I was the head of the satanic cult, where we eat the body. In Faces of Death II, I was a drug addict, and then for my third thing I was a rapist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Contrary to predictions, the movie didn’t kill your work in Hollywood, right? And the people who hire you know about Faces of Death, presumably.
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you ever worked with anybody who said it directly affected their work?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: Yeah, it’s a director who was doing a television show, and we had a thing about a camera moving back and forth in real time that showed a guy trying to break into a car repair shop. And the dogs wind up attacking him.
[SOUND OF DOGS]
And the camera goes from the dogs attacking him, ‘cause the camera’s moving back and forth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is your dog attacking you right now?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: No, my dog’s protecting me. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Go ahead.
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: But anyway, he – he utilized that, that whole concept of the moving camera and did a reality series, which I can’t remember the name of now, but he came and thanked me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you feel about it when you see it? I mean, it’s – it’s really gross!
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: I have to tell you, seeing it was nothing comparing to filming it and being there, you know? When you enter the County Morgue you walk down the hallway, as anybody who dies an unnatural death is sent to the morgue, so you see people who have hung themselves, who are twisted from a car accident, suicide, gunshots.
And then finally as we’re walking down the hall and there are all these dead people on this gurney waiting to get processed, the doors open like you enter a supermarket, but instead we entered a room where seven autopsies were going on simultaneously. And it smelled like a bad deli, and the lunchroom was right around the corner. And then one of the guys says, “I hope you’re gonna stay for lunch.”
And that was like truly one of the t - only times in my life that I really lost my appetite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that this movie still has the power to shock when anyone can find similar images with just a Google search?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: Well, you know the old saying, “Often imitated but never duplicated?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You can get gore, but you’re not gonna get this gore.
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: The thing is, is that the, the film can be seen on so many different emotional levels. I’ll never forget, when we finished the cut of the movie we rented the little theater on the Fox lot and we had like 500 people come see the movie.
And at the end of the movie, there was like silence in the theater. And at the time I was dating a woman whose father was an anesthesiologist. And he came up to me and said it was the most comprehensive film he’d ever seen on death in his life and that he thought it was great that the public are finally gonna get informed about an area that’s so taboo in our society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it didn’t bother him that so much of it was fake?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: I don’t think that even came on his registration scale, that it was or wasn’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you didn’t have any particular problem with it?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: Particular problem with what?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re presenting it as a documentary. You used fake footage of cruelty and inhuman practices like killing people in an electric chair. Did you ever feel like you were just being exploitative, that you were being prurient?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: I don’t think we were looking at ourselves with that kind of magnifying glass. I think in – instead, we have the magnifying glass on the subject matter at hand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, and when you’re dealing with real life subjects, even the electric chair, I could see that, but things like flesh-eating cults or eating monkey brains, haven’t you gone maybe a bridge too far?
[SOUND OF DOGS IN BACKGROUND]
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: No, because they’re plausible realities.
[BROOKE LAUGHS/DOGS BARK]
[LAUGHS] This is true. Who’s to say there’s not a flesh-eating cult out there right now? I mean, anything’s possible. And as far as the monkey brains is concerned there are people that have bizarre tastes and will eat anything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why not monkey brains?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: That’s exactly right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [PAUSE] That’s a very interesting way to look at it.
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: By taking it seriously by saying, okay, I’m gonna convince you that people eat monkey brains, yes, it’s our scenario, but it’s just a copy of a scenario that actually exists somewhere around the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe, right?
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: Maybe not, maybe. I think we’re closer to possibly more than maybe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, John. Thank you very much.
JOHN ALAN SCHWARTZ: You’re very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Alan Schwartz is a filmmaker and creator of Faces of Death. He and his wife Joan have an online series of movie reviews called “Two Jews on Film” which can be found at twojewsonfilm.com.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Liyna Anwar and Hannah Sheehan, and edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC's senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.