Although its primary reason for existing—i.e., serving as a horrible series of sounds and images to force on your nearest and dearest friends to emotionally fuck them up, the same way someone else so kindly did for you—has now largely been replicated and replaced by the internet, Faces Of Death is still an unpleasantly sticky touchstone for a whole generation of uncomfortable VHS viewers. A grisly collage of faked reenactments, artificial monkey brains, and some actual, genuine depictions of human beings being killed (mostly culled from the “NEVER USE” drawers of local news stations), the 1978 film was America’s big contribution to the mondo video craze, complete with a lurid cover (including a false claim of being “banned in 40+ countries!”) perfectly designed to both repel, and lure in, young and curious minds.
Because the people making it had actual day jobs in the entertainment industry—mostly in the world of nature documentaries—FoD was made largely under a series of pseudonyms. The film’s director, for instance, was credited as “Conan LeCilaire.” (As in, “What someone who doesn’t know French might sounded like French for ‘the killer’”.) LeCilaire has popped up on a handful of documentaries on VHS horror over the years, but rarely for any kind of in-depth conversation. Which is what makes this recent episode of WNYC Studio’s Snap Judgment podcast such a grimy little treat, as producer John Fecile sits down for a long talk with “Conan,” about his motivations and methods for making the films, and also how he pivoted from making movies about people dying, to cheerfully selling them assault rifles.
The former director—who eventually made something like six Faces Of Death, plus some “Worst Of” compilations—recounts the project’s origins, when a Japanese distributor approached his dad’s documentary company, looking for shock footage of animals being killed. “Conan,” a budding auteur, countered with a pragmatic, “Why not show human corpses, instead?” And so a franchise was born—even if he and his team had to make up a bunch of fake bits and interstitials to pad out the running time. (The monkey brains were apparently just gelatin and cauliflower, FYI.)
But while “Conan” expresses a certain degree of dismay at the ways his film has sometimes been displayed over the years (including outright anger at a high school teacher who reportedly forced some students to view the movie), he’s also clearly unapologetic about accomplishing what he set out to do: Shock people, and make money while doing it. He brings a similarly blithe attitude to his latest gig, selling tactical assault rifles to fellow gun enthusiasts in Colorado. “AR-15s are kind of like adult Legos” he cheerfully notes at one point, showing off the extremely on-brand skulls he’s applied to his own weaponry. He’s also very happy to lay out a sort of grand unified theory of all his various death-related endeavors, just in case you were worried that that a guy who happily profited off of videos of people committing suicide might have mellowed a little in his advancing age: “A lot of people don’t want to think about death, there’s also a lot of people who don’t want to think about bad things… This world is a fucked up place, and there’s a lot of bad guys out there. I’ve seen the dark side of humanity. I’ve made films about the dark side of humanity. And I’m going to be prepared.”