The Executioners (2003)
By: Michael Helms on July 28, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Siren Visual (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 161 minutes
The Movie
Director: John Keeling
Narrator: Jonathan Kydd
Screenplay: John Keeling
Music: Richard Attree
Country: UK
Slick but often sick, The Executioners is a Crime Channel type documentary that contemplates the last three centuries of institutionalised death in Britain, France and the USA. Presented in three parts over three separate TV hours, The Executioners hangs each episode on a country allowing for the comparison of several splintered but intertwined approaches (and reactions) to organised death. Utilising a well-balanced collection of original footage, historical re-enactments, emotional scoring, expert commentators, stentorian narration and many stills and pieces of artwork, The Executioners also produces a thorough outpouring of arcana on the subject.

Part 1: Hangman looks at the English men (female executioners are apparently non-existent…) who made a profession, no matter how brief, of terminating the lives of fellow humans for society. From its origins as one of the first major forms of mass entertainment merchandising was a major death day consideration. Sometimes, due to the government's distance from the act, they didn't actually pay the executioners, who were left to economically fend for themselves. Some became celebrities taking lecture tours to the counties. The most compelling graphics in The Executioners are from the slide collection of former poorly re-numerated executioner James Berry who was forced out on the road to make ends meet early in the 19th century. Berry also brought his work home in the form of the pictures of his victims that he used to fill every free piece of wall space. He was also infamous for beheading one of his charges and failing to properly hang another. Best-selling biographies were on the agenda too. One John Ellis quit to cameo as himself in a play. Public executions in Britain went private in 1868 and ceased altogether in 1964.

Over in France in Part 2: Dynasties of Death, the executioner was generally considered scum and shunned by the world at large. This forced the trade to be kept all in the family. With special government dispensation executioners were allowed to marry their first cousins. Of course, the French-preferred mode of death was the guillotine which brought up it's own raft of freight, maintenance and set-up problems besides the matter of actually snuffing the person centre stage in the red theatre. The most stunning image is a black and white post-death scene. Trust the French to have been working on theories of the decapitated head from 1792. Real execution footage, insulting songs sung during executions and illicit execution post-cards lead to groupies dipping their handkerchiefs in the blood of the executed and the banning of public executions in France after World War 1. You can thank the French for Madame Tussaud's London and wax museums worldwide.

Part 3: States of Death takes Route 66 and other bi-ways to travel across North America and log some hard data on the American approach to execution. An invitation from 1899 requests you to watch a man be swung into eternity before cutting to Nuremberg and a man who was considered a hero when he rigged an execution to commit serious injury to the victims prior to death. That they were Nazis didn't help Master Sergeant Woods though when he died from electric shock accidentally at the age of 41. Meanwhile the corporate battle for the control of electricity led to Edison's famous (and always hard to watch) elephant snuff film, a weapon in his fight with Westinghouse that would eventually see the establishment of Old Sparky and different states embracing various forms of death inducement. We also get commentary from the tattooed ex-stage hypnotist turned executioner Dr. Zog, the difficulties associated with convincing a government to change their death methods even when lethal injection is proved to be the most economic and efficient by a long shot, and tales of prisoners seriously rattled by executions.
Gradually, as the digital era evolves, the presentation of archival footage gets smoother and eminently more viewable yet remains recognisable. It's just opening credit sequences from low-budget horror films post-Seven that are getting scratchier and harder to read. The Executioners keeps things spooky with dramatic recreations darker and more difficult to work out than a lot of the archival footage.
Sound is variable which is understandable with grabs from the audio archives also a feature, but it's entirely adequate.
Extra Features
The Verdict
As usual, it's the archival footage rather than the historical recreations that make it worthwhile. Even though The Executioners keeps oft repeated library material to a minimum it still remains slow-going in patches. It's worst feature however is only the text on the inside of the digi-pack cover. Shrunk to half a point beyond readability before it was slapped underneath the clear plastic disc tray that makes it completely unreadable, it provides a detailed synopsis for each episode. Recommended for research and minor thrills.
Movie Score
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