Lifting the mask from "Faces of Death'

Published Oct. 26, 2000|Updated Sept. 28, 2005

(ran TP edition)

Halloween is the right time for director John Schwartz to haunt audiences with tales of his scary film saga. The good news about the horrifying scenes it offers: They aren't entirely as real as the advertising claims.

Most adolescent slumber parties in the '80s began or ended with a video screening of the cult classic, pseudo-snuff flick Faces of Death. After the movie, no slumber came, only nightmares and debate.

"Did those people really beat that monkey to death and eat its brains?"

"How did they get that footage of the flesh-eating cult?"

"Is that electric chair execution real?"

Is any of Faces of Death real? What does the man who made it say?

"I'll never forget: All of a sudden on the news one night they're talking about Faces of Death!" says John Schwartz, who directed and wrote the movie and its sequels I through IV (there are now eight Faces of Death movies). The flick was intended as a Japanese-only release in 1979, but found its way to the United States, and the national news, a couple of years later.

"I almost fell out of my chair," says Schwartz in a phone interview. "Dan Rather on CBS was talking about these "incredibly horrible videos.' 'Cause everybody thought they were real!"

If anybody thinks Faces of Death is footage of actual deaths, it's because it says so on the video's box, right under the cheesy drawing of the hooded skull with the forked tongue and fangs. Schwartz and company did film real footage of slaughterhouses and autopsy rooms, but any other "real" deaths came from file footage.

"We traveled to all these different film libraries to see what we could find about death and disaster," says Schwartz. "I found this footage of this woman jumping off a building, and it was just incredible footage. But the part of the footage we didn't have was the aftermath. So we (filmed) inserts into the actual footage to match it."

Then how did Schwartz and company acquire the more bizarre footage? "I was the leader of the flesh-eating cult," Schwart admits. "I had scenes in each of these movies. . . . I'm the crazy, drugged-out killer. . . . I play this freaky rapist in the courtroom scene, and they show the rape on video, and it just so happens that the girl (in the rape scene) was this girl I was dating at the time."

You mean, the famous electric chair scene was fake? But the guy was foaming at the mouth and everything!

"We built a cell in a friend's loft, and we lined the guy's mouth with toothpaste," says Schwartz, laughing. "My research material for that: I happened to pick up a Hustler magazine and there was this great article about electrocution that really detailed how a person is executed. . . . And that's what I used as my basis."

Schwartz is listed in Faces of Death credits as "Alan Black." "My middle name is Alan, and schwarz means black in German."

He used the fake name to prevent bias at his other jobs, writing for TV shows such as Night Rider, Street Hawk and The Fall Guy as well as original movies for HBO and Showtime. But to date, the original Faces of Death has grossed over $30-million. It cost $450,000 to make. These days, Schwartz proudly includes Faces of Death on his resume when cashing in on the "reality" entertainment trend which he helped pioneer.

He's currently working for ABC's Totally Out of Control Videos series. "I created Totally Out of Control Love and Totally Out of Control Vacation . . . real stories of people who got married jumping off cliffs and underwater and, you know, weird stuff."

But once a year, at Halloween, Schwartz speaks at college campuses about his adventures creating Faces of Death.

"It can't be denied," he says. "It's my legacy at this point."

Despite the video's cult status, you won't find it in many video stores. Locally, only Unique Video, at Waters and Armenia avenues, carries the Faces of Death series.