A ‘snuff’ movie is supposedly where a person is killed on screen purely for the entertainment of the viewer and although no actual cases exist, it is a story that continues to be told. So what is it? Are they the hideous reality of a video age or fireside urban legend?
Before we decide which it is, for the purposes of this article we shall not be including any movies that serial killers have been speculated to have made, of which the most well known of these would be David ‘Son of Sam’ Berkowitz and Charles Manson, but this again has never been proved. No, here we will look at the horror movies that have either been wrongly accused of being snuff, or feature the subject in its storyline.
In 1991, actor Charlie Sheen deposited a tape with the MPAA which he believed to feature the real murder of a woman. Upon investigation of the movie, which featured a man dressed as a Samurai mutilating a drugged woman after snatching her from the street, they deducted that it was fake – in other words – staged. The movie in question was the infamous Flower of Flesh and Blood entry into the Japanese Guinea Pig series.
In what is admittedly a sickening movie, Flower depicts a situation just as described above. No other plot, characters or motivation is featured. The effects even today look frighteningly realistic, especially if it is viewed on an often reproduced bootleg VHS copy, and it is simple to understand why Charlie suspected it was real. Unreleased in the UK, the Guinea Pig series is available as a Region 1 DVD box set.
Staying in Asia, the 1988 Hong Kong production Men Behind the Sun also came under fire for a certain grimly realistic scene. This stark, depressing movie deals with the Japanese Unit 731 of WW2 who experimented with biological and chemical weapons, using Chinese prisoners of war as subjects. Without going into detail of the other atrocities featured in the film, the scene in question deals with a small boy who plays outside the camp for the first half of the film, before disappearing and ending up on a slab in the morgue.
The point was that the child on the slab looked exactly the same as the living boy and further scenes left little doubt that what we were seeing was a real human cadaver. Of course, the boy was alive and well but the crew had indeed used a real corpse that just happened to bear more than a passing resemblance to the actual actor used. Men Behind the Sun was promoted as a propaganda film in the East and is everything you would expect it to be.
Time for some light relief on the subject I think! In 1976, a movie named Snuff was released in the USA. Baring the tagline ‘Made in South America, where life is cheap!’ its marketing campaign suggested that what you were about to see was what the title not-so-subtly hinted at. What thrill seekers actually saw was a South American movie called Slaughter (which is very, very poor indeed) with a supposed piece of snuff footage tacked on the end. This section is so unconvincing and the film so unutterably rubbish the only reason anyone remembers it is because of that marketing!
Staying in the light relief zone, the feeble Faces of Death series was also wrongly accused of featuring real deaths on film and although some of the sections of this risible ‘documentary’ show accidents and suicides that really do end in tragedy, they don’t count, as these poor people certainly didn’t do it for anyone’s entertainment! The rest of the sequences are fakes; staged to add some spice to the tedious proceedings. When a ‘shockumentary’ like this is narrated by someone known as Doctor Gross, you really shouldn’t be expecting much!
Returning to all things grim, Italian director Ruggero Deodato was arrested on the release of his seminal exploitation opus Cannibal Holocaust on the suspicion that his actors and actress had died as a result of the movie! Only when it was proved that they were alive and kicking and had not been working due to a contract that the director had made them sign to make themselves scarce for a year, did the court relent! Holocaust’s ultra-realistic effects and cinematography makes it easy to believe what you are watching is for real.
The slightly under-rated Last House on Dead End Street (not to be confused with Wes Craven’s revenge flick Last House on the Left) featured an unhinged ex-con who decided the best way to punish society was by making snuff movies. Dead End Street is cheap and ineptly made, which actually adds to the atmosphere of films like this! As with Guinea Pig, this should be seen on a 10th generation bootleg for the proper effect.
On the fringes of horror cinema, the subject of snuff movies was dealt with in Joel Schumacher’s 8MM, where P.I. Nicholas Cage weaves his way through the erotica underground on the trail of the killers of a girl murdered in a privately purchased snuff movie. For the most part, this is an intriguing thriller with a gritty, dirty feel. It’s let down by a generic, predictable final third. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome uses underground snuff bondage movies to transmit mind controlling signals to shady TV boss James Woods. Videodrome is a scary, surreal and downright brilliant movie from the Canadian auteur.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of snuff-style cinema, but it does feature most of the often snuff linked productions. For anyone interested in the myth I would recommend picking up Creation Press’s excellent book Killing for Culture, which contains exhaustive research on the subject and is a fascinating read.
To close, I shall state that I sit in the ‘urban legend’ camp. If there were such things as the snuff movie, then one would have turned up by now, simple as that. For those who think they have seen one, check out the tape again and see if there is any editing (for example a cut to a close up, then to a long shot), or any evidence of lighting, or a fade in/out. If there is, would someone who committed such a crime take his footage to be cut together into a movie?