Saturday, July 2, 2011

Life Extinguisher.

Another FilmInk column,  this time on the death film genre.

As the exotic thrills of mondo movies became more familiar, and with the increasing availability of hardcore porn thanks to Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano, 1972) and its ilk, the seventies exploitation ‘documentary’ market was looking for new, cheap, cheap thrills. Enter the death film.

Sharing the salacious voyeurism of the mondo genre but focusing only on death (or, more often, gore), these films combined suitably gross-out stomach churning newsreel footage with staged recreations of grisly deaths. These sequences were woven together via a narrator who’s role, like that of his mondo predecessors, was to offer a commentary that would move from crass quasi-psychological insights to pseudo-moral tongue clicking and oblique supposedly existential observations on the nature of mortality.

The genre’s best known, and most successful movie, was Faces of Death (1978), directed by Conan Le Cilaire, the film is narrated by the brilliantly named Dr Francis B. Gross (actually actor Michael Carr). The good ‘doctor’ offers such quasi-homilies as, “Now it is time to witness the final moment, to discover the circle that forever repeats itself. The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? I'll leave that decision to you”. Meanwhile the movie depicts everything from (faked) executions through to stock scenes of seals being culled, a woman jumping from a building and tourists eating monkey brains (faked again).

The film played the grindhouse circuit on 42nd street, but didn’t do much business with the jaded crowd, however international audiences, especially in Asia, flocked to see the movie. In 1980 Faces of Death made the top twenty highest grossing films of the year in Hong Kong, while legend has it that in Japan, where it was released as Junk, the film outgrossed Star Wars on some screens.  Despite being banned in many territories (although its fake gore effects are fairly average and the newsreel footage is often familiar) Faces of Death found its natural home on the emergent home video market. Boasting the tagline “banned in 46 countries” gore hungry snuff fixated adolescents flocked to rent the video, and, when the film was banned, nth generation copies often circulated amongst horror and shock cinema fans.

The movie spawned six direct sequels and inspired various other films including Traces of Death (Brain Damage, 1993) and Faces of Gore (Todd Tjersland, 1999), both of which have also produced numerous sequels. With their simplistic, bluntly descriptive shock titles and we-dare-you style taglines (“banned” appearing to be the stock phrase) these films were ultimately, like most exploitation films, about marketing.

The growth of the Internet has meant that supposedly ‘shocking’ footage is far more readily available and circulated via email almost continually. Moreover, for anybody anxious to watch images of gore or death television offers numerous medical themed shows and the news is as ever filled with scenes of suffering. A somewhat strange subgenre of the mondo movie, the death film probably says more about the vagaries of video marketing in the '80s and salacious audiences than about death.

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