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The Horrifying, Controversial and Secret History of the Snuff Film

Hang on, folks — this is gonna to be a rough ride. (Warning: graphic images ahead)

You see, from a journalistic standpoint, it’s tricky to approach any story about so-called “snuff” films, for a couple of very important reasons.

First, it’s never been conclusively proven that these films even exist at all — in the history of motion picture media, no one has produced a single piece of conclusive, unrefuted evidence confirming their existence — so anything I write would never be more than well-informed (I hope) conjecture.

Second, on the extremely slim chance that they do exist, any level of serious investigation into the subject is likely to encounter potentially dangerous push-back from any parties who may be involved. I’m not going that deep for this article, of course… but let’s just say some of my sources wish to remain anonymous.

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Image Credit: Toe Tag Pictures

In case you’re wondering what the hell I’m even talking about, the definition of snuff is simply this: any filmed or recorded footage which has been specifically commissioned by a paying client, the content of which depicts an actual, unsimulated, on-screen murder.

To merely record someone’s death on camera doesn’t qualify — otherwise, everything from filmed executions to televised frontline battle footage to the exploitative FACES OF DEATH video compilations would fall under that category… and while many would consider those examples shocking and repulsive, they’re (usually) not illegal. It’s the criminal element behind the recording — that is, a business transaction and/or a network of distribution for clients who want to watch the footage — that makes all the difference.

Arguably the first time the term “snuff” was applied to a film of this kind came about in 1971, in the wake of the trial of Charles Manson and his murderous followers. In his book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Ed Sanders first asserted the notion that the cult group had actually filmed their notorious killing spree in August of 1969. Police never found any such footage, but that lack of evidence did nothing to dispel the rumors, or the urban legend that arose from the idea that these or other murder movies might be out there… somewhere.

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The legend was finally exploited for big box-office bucks in 1976, when film distributor Allan Shackleton bought SLAUGHTER, a Manson Family-inspired exploitation flick by Michael & Roberta Findlay, then re-cut it and added new footage supposedly depicting an actress’s real on-screen disembowelment. All that was left to do before releasing it to theaters was to change the title… to SNUFF, of course. “Filmed in South America… Where Life is Cheap!” the ads screamed.

Sure, SNUFF was cheap exploitation of the lowest order, and the so-called “real” murder looks laughable by modern makeup effects standards (horrible performances don’t help either), but Shackleton’s marketing campaign — which included hiring fake protesters to picket theaters showing the film — got plenty of asses in seats, and became an overnight sensation.

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At the same time, there was a high-profile moral panic brewing around the pornography business, which feminist groups claimed were controlled by organized crime, exploiting women for profit. Those fires were stoked when former DEEP THROAT superstar Linda Lovelace — who had since become an outspoken anti-porn activist — testified before the U.S. Attorney General that she had seen footage from multiple snuff films, which she claimed were the final destination for performers deemed no longer “useful.” Despite this shocking testimony, neither Lovelace nor her fellow ex-porn stars were able to produce any physical evidence to back up their claims.

In the midst of the controversy, legendary porn publisher Al Goldstein asserted that he would pay a cool $1 million to anyone who could produce solid, irrefutible evidence of a genuine snuff film. To date, no one has come forward to collect. Criminologists, forensic experts, and even professors in the field of Human Sexuality have debunked any and all supposed evidence of filmed murder-for-hire, or the existence of black-market snuff distribution networks.

The most pragmatic argument against the existence of snuff films is that such a film or tape would serve as explicit visual evidence of a crime — and no sane criminal would knowingly let such a recording fall into someone else’s hands, regardless of how much the client is willing to pay. That’s not to say not-so-sane criminals haven’t filmed their horrible deeds, because many of them have… but by and large, they do this to satisfy their own personal fetishes, and not to meet the needs of a paying client.

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Still, there are some who claim, despite a complete lack of evidence, that this has indeed taken place. For example, there is the case of mass-murdering duo Leonard Lake & Charles Ng, who videotaped themselves torturing some of their victims. Brief, edited footage from these tapes — the originals of which were confiscated by police — was copied and circulated via VHS bootlegs (and later on the Internet, where just about anything can be found via sadistic “Shock Sites” exploiting gory crime and accident photos), and rumors remain that the killers actually recorded the victims’ deaths and sold them to a client in Hong Kong.

As makeup effects technology improved, more horror and exploitation filmmakers tried their hand at depicting the most realistic on-screen deaths possible — even combining them with allegedly real footage (I refer again to the FACES OF DEATH video series), but by the 1980s, with the arrival of genre magazines like Fangoria and TV specials showing makeup FX artists in their shops, horror fans had become more attuned to the stagecraft and technical trickery behind the gore.

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One of the more controversial products of this decade was Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, in which the film within the film, THE GREEN INFERNO, was purported to contain actual footage of a documentary crew being killed and devoured by cannibals. Deodato even had his actors sign contracts to remain in hiding until after the film had left theaters… but this strategy came back to bite him (pardon the pun) when police brought him up on murder charges, and his actors were finally summoned, unharmed, to prove his innocence in court.

As fans’ tastes leaned even further toward the extreme end of the spectrum, they became expert at debunking most of the “false alarm” reports that still occasionally surfaced in the media about the alleged existence of genuine snuff films; most of these disproven instances involved hyper-realistic makeup effects or camera tricks — which simply fooled less-jaded viewers.

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Image Credit: Unearthed Films

The most famous example of this occurred in 1991, beginning with a 911 call placed by celebrity Charlie Sheen, who reported to police that he had received a Japanese VHS tape depicting a woman being dismembered alive. As you’ve no doubt heard by now, that tape was actually a bootleg copy of “Flower of Flesh and Blood” — an episode of the controversial Japanese series GUINEA PIG, infamous around the world for its outrageously grisly makeup effects.

Another well-known instance occurred that same year, when a camera loaded with 8mm film was discovered in a farmer’s field in Michigan. When the reel was developed, the film depicted a man lying in the street in a pool of blood. The FBI were called in to investigate, but soon discovered the footage had been intended for use in a music video… and the “corpse” was none other than Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor, whose director had tried to shoot aerial footage for the “Down In It” video by tying the camera to hellium balloons, which accidentally drifted hundreds of miles away from their shooting location in Chicago. Reznor would later capitalize on snuff imagery to create a long-form promo movie for the band’s EP Broken, which depicts a serial killer recording the torture, dismemberment and murder of a young victim.

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Today, at least within the United States, there is virtually no limit to what a director can depict on camera, without fear of censorship, and digital technology has made it even easier for low-budget filmmakers to simulate realistic screen violence… so, setting aside the obvious moral considerations regarding the value of human life (that’s another article altogether), even if there were some shadowy group out there making genuine murder movies for profit, what would be the point in taking such a risk when the same thing can be faked for very little money?

Say, for example, if you were to view Fred Vogel’s gonzo-gore epic AUGUST UNDERGROUND without any foreknowledge that it was created by a team of actors and filmmakers proficient in makeup effects, would you be 100% sure you weren’t watching people being hacked up for real?

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Image Credit: Toe Tag Pictures

Even so, there are recent cases like that of Luka Magnotta — a Canadian man who, in 2012, allegedly filmed himself killing and eating 21-year-old exchange student Lin Jun; that footage was uploaded and circulated online under the filename “1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick” (a riff on viral gross-out clip “2 Girls 1 Cup”), which sparked an international manhunt that ultimately led to his arrest. Magnotta was previously a cult figure on several gore & shock sites, thanks in part to horrifying videos of himself torturing small animals. A copycat upload from Ukraine, under the title “3 Guys 1 Hammer,” depicted cell-phone footage of two teenagers attacking and killing a 48-year-old man with the title weapon, and gained worldwide notoriety through many of the same shock sites.

So it would seem, despite all odds, that snuff cinema, and all the horrors it reveals about the very real extremes of the human mind, is continually trying to insinuate itself, like a persistent, ever-mutating virus, into our world of instant media gratification…

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