The Case for (the) Prosecution
Ok, so let’s be perfectly open about this. Assuming it’s all real (a point open to some doubt), ‘Faces of Death’ contains the following ‘highlights’: lots of autopsies, a man being eaten by an alligator, concentration camp footage, car accidents, people committing suicide, seal clubbing, more autopsies and criminals being executed by gas, electric chair and beheading. This is accompanied by a thin veneer of philosophical moralising on the voice-over and a jokey music track that ranges from ‘Peer Gynt’ to ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’ (for the headless chicken sequence). This is all real, folks, and it’s supposed to be entertainment. Stop the human race, I want to get off.
My first grouch is on artistic grounds. IT TAKES ABSOLUTELY NO SKILL AT ALL TO MAKE A MONDO MOVIE. A good documentary can make a dull subject interesting by visual skill and intelligent interpretation but the leaden style of Mondo makes even the most interesting of subjects, life itself, dull. Anyone can make a Mondo – all you do is find something unpleasant and point a camera at it. They’re not judged on plot or characters, because they don’t have any. The only thing that people are interested in is the depiction of the most gruesome, grim and downright sickening sights, no matter how pedestrian the technique or leaden the commentary and that’s what distinguishes the most notorious Mondos from the also rans. They are exploitation at it’s most crude – you don’t have to pay for a script, you don’t pay for any actors, all you need is access to newsreel footage. ‘Faces of Death’ is so crude, it fails to even make it into the so-bad-it’s-good category (and if you want that sort of thing, there’s plenty of examples of schlock cinema out there that don’t find it necessary to torture animals), it just becomes sad.
The crucial thing that distinguishes Mondo from documentary is the sense of purpose possessed by the latter. While Mondo is there primarily to ‘entertain’, a documentary’s first priority is informative or educative, though as mentioned above, the best do so in an interesting manner. Far too many Mondo movies tell us nothing that we didn’t already know or couldn’t work out for ourselves. They have a sense of gratuitousness missing in real documentaries: no doubt a Mondo about child abuse would feature actual footage of a child being abused!!!, albeit with a disapproving commentary.
This doesn’t stop documentaries being graphic. I recently came across a newsreel, dating from the very end of World War II, rejoicing in the title of ‘Nazi War Atrocities’. It simply depicted the conditions in, and inhabitants of, one of the concentration camps. Very Mondo stuff, not least because of the tacky video cover (the company releasing it rejoiced in the name of ‘Waldheim Productions’!) but it had a purpose, to let the rest of the world know what had been going on in Germany. This purpose remains unaltered even now – it certainly brought home to me the reality of what had gone on in Belsen & Auschwitz.
Some people argue that an interest in death is natural, and this is true – you only have to watch people slowing down as they go past a car-crash to see ghoulish tendencies in action. However, mankind has lots of tendencies that we shouldn’t be proud of and mondo movies are the modern equivalent of the Roman circus, throwing Christians to the lions. It’s guilty of encouraging us to believe violent death is normal and it’s this desensitization which is the most worrying thing, and for me the biggest argument for banning Mondos.
It happens in fictional movies as well – listen to the perpetual cries of ‘Bigger! Bigger!’ from Hollywood, or watch effects that seemed incredible at the time elicit stifled yawns when repeated in other movies. However, it poses no moral problems and is a good stimulus to film-makers who must constantly exercise their imaginations seeking new ideas for the FX team to simulate with latex and food colouring. But with Mondo movies, the directors have to sneak ever closer to the boundary, which no documentary should cross, between recording events and arranging them. There’s plenty of evidence certain Mondos contain deliberately set up footage and even if the result isn’t included in the final movie, how would it feel to know that someone was deliberately killed for your viewing pleasure? And what, in the final outcome, is the difference between that and the ultimate Mondo, a snuff movie?
But on the other hand…
When I told Jim I’d like to write something on mondo movies for TC, he wrote “Mondo movies have no appeal for me whatsoever. I don’t believe them to be entertaining or informative and it takes no artistic skill to generate disgust by pointing the camera at firing squads”. I disagree, I find mondo movies often entertaining, occasionally informative and generally well-directed. To deal with each point individually;
a) Entertainment I do not enjoy watching people suffer. I do not condone animal slaughter in the name of entertainment. I’m rather disturbed that it is in the sphere of human nature to want to watch people dying. But I like mondo films. I don’t really see this as an anomaly – all you d’Amato and Deodato fans watch the same stuff (what makes ‘Buried Alive’ famous – it’s autopsy scenes. And, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ fans, here’s one mondo fan who thinks you’re a lot sicker than me). The simple fact is that either through morbid curiosity or a desire for bizarre entertainment, most mondo films are fascinating. I’m able to watch ‘Faces of Death’ again long after I’ve given up on even trying to watch a Freddy film, and I’ll certainly not forget it in a hurry. Mondo films are the ultimate in horrific entertainment. Moreover, if you don’t watch mondo films then you’re missing out on some of the funniest scenes ever committed to celluloid. No, I’m not going into an aren’t-road-accidents-amusing routine; there genuinely is humour in these films. ‘Fear’ takes us into the magical world of the placenta-eater, as grainy footage of a birth cuts to a man holding a frying-pan. “We’re vegetarians, but this is OK because it’s so natural”. Apparently you have to take off all your clothes to fully appreciate the placenta; an interview with the dining party afterwards reveals that the meal ended in an orgy. “Vive la placenta” says his good lady wife.
‘Let me Die a Woman’ features Dr Leo Wolfman, a trainee Francis Gross, who introduces grainy black-and-white stock footage from old porno movies. Several (genuine) transsexuals attend Dr Wolfman’s group therapy classes as he sits in front of an ever-expanding array of certificates. We’re given dramatic reconstructions of men performing their own sex-change operations and diagrams showing the difference between men and women. I could go on (the ever-so-convincing seance in ‘Faces of Death’ that involves a superimposed blue ring, an echo chamber and much lip quivering springs to mind), but the point is made. When they’re not being stupid, however, mondo movies are being shocking, and that, when there is so much safe and reassuring rubbish being peddled as entertainment about, can only be a good thing.
b) Informative. Well, we all know (or can guess) what a dead turtle looks like, and I’ll be the first to admit that the mondo movie uses the shield of “information” as an excuse to show shocking material, but these films are often genuinely informative. ‘The Killing of America’ gives us a potted history of American assassins, with facts and figures that I’ve checked out and are accurate. ‘Mondo Magic’ has incredible scenes of psychic surgery, something I’d read about and had previously assumed was some kind of hoax. Even the ridiculous ‘Fear’ takes a look at people’s hangups that is an eye-opener.
c) Artistic Skill Now, we’re not talking about artistic merit here – even most mainstream horror films fall down there – but surely artistic skill is the ability to deliver what is promised by the type of film that is being made: ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is grainy, roughly made and all-too-obviously budget-less, but it succeeds in it’s intention, which is scaring you stupid. Mondo movies have a higher hit-rate than conventional horror films – they almost always succeed in their intention of grossing out the viewer. Therefore the maker’s skill is evident. It is indeed easier to get a “cheap” shock by filming a firing-squad than by faking something up, but that is the point of the genre – the viewer knows (or is supposed to believe) that it is real.
My own objection to mondo movies is not concerned with their quality, but their presence. I don’t think they are intrinsically harmful, but I do think that it’s a shame that they need to exist. I enjoy them, and don’t mind defending them, but I think I’d be happier if everything had stopped with, or preferably before, Mondo Cane. I’ve seen a man reduced to tears watching Mondo Magic and a woman vomiting watching ‘Faces of Death’ and I think that is too far to go in the name of entertainment. If censorship is necessary then mondo films are (were) the first to go. You may not have the option of watching ‘Mondo Magic’, but at least this time you’re missing something you really shouldn’t need to see.