No, not actually “Faces of Death”. I wouldn’t learn about that franchise until I was in high school. And then it was more fun figuring out which vignettes were fake and which were real (this was before YouTube). No these are the terrifying moments about kindertrauma to someone’s face, usually in the form of it coming off.
The first was in Beetlejuice. I can’t believe my mom took me to see this in the theater. I was seven years old. Did I express some kind of interest in seeing this? I must have. It was the same director as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Maybe she just wanted to get me out of the house for a while. Anyway, I distinctly remember it not being terribly scary EXCEPT for when Geena Davis is hanging in a closet and rips off her own face.
Her eyes fall out of their lidless sockets. Her musculature glistens around her lipless mouth. And then there’s that blood-curdling scream. I think this was the first jumpscare I ever had. And it’s a direct contrast to the… well, not lighter, but at least not grosser tone that preceded it. Nothing promised in the movie so far indicated that we’d be getting gore like this. It didn’t turn me off from the movie – it’s one of my defining works. Nothing afterward made me jump — not the faces stretching or the sandworm business. I never see it on lists of kindertrauma so I wonder if it was just me. Or maybe others had moms with better sense.
But I do see the face-picking scene from Poltergeist on lists. This takes any face trauma you might have had and turns it up to eleven. After seeing a steak wriggling on the counter, one of the ghost hunters goes to wash his face and sees a skin tag. He pulls it off. And then more and more. He can’t stop. It’s like a compulsive’s worst nightmare. As the water runs, the sink fills up with bloody chunks of flesh until his face is just ragged meat. Eyes bulging, teeth grinning.
The funny part is, when you see it as an adult, you can see how fake it is, especially the ending with the torso and head jiggling like a mannequin. I don’t remember where I first saw this scene. I think my Dad must have been watching it on TV and I might have been younger than seven. But it turned me the fuck off so I couldn’t even look at the word “Poltergeist” until I was in high school. The scary clown toy and the kid getting eaten by the tree didn’t help. (I thought he was covered in blood, but my dad told me it was sap. I’m still not sure I buy that.)
And finally, the piece de resistance is Old Man Toht’s face melting like wax after seeing the Ark of the Covenant (don’t forget your eclipse glasses, kids!) For some reason, it’s Toht, not Dietrich (the other guy) that I remember most. Maybe it’s because of the hat and glasses–makes it more human, more real. Maybe the way it was shot, or the colors in the shot–black background, red blood, white skull, orange fire lighting. But, like Poltergeist, I refused to watch this movie until puberty set in. Late-stage puberty.