Friday, March 13, 2009

The Snuff Film: Urban Legend or Fact ? How this “Legend” Has Influenced Film Makers

The 70's were turning point in many ways. "Graphic" would be the word to describe the events taking place in the film world. With the film “The Wild Bunch”, violence became more prevalent in mainstream films. Of course horror and exploitation film makers took the violence to another level. Even in the world of porn, films became more explicit, and a tad rougher than they had been.

The “roughie” had always been around, but in the 70's, Avon Films, took sexual violence to a whole new level. Films like Taming of Rebecca, Kneel Before Me, Forced Entry, and others pushed the limit of psycho sexual behavior. These films were so vile and repellant that they became a target of the dreaded Meece Commission as examples of violent, "mob controlled pornography".

But these were just movies, right? They weren’t real. But there was a new kind of animal lurking in the murky shadows of the porn world. In the early 70's, rumors persisted about films in which one of the participants was murdered on screen during sex. They were called “snuff films”. People in positions of power and members of law enforcement, particularly the FBI, denied their existence.

Other people had something to say about this. Hollywood maverick, Robert Blake, mentioned something about these films in a Playboy interview. Some people in law enforcement let things slip out, like a mutilation murder where a couple of empty film rolls were found on the scene and yeah, they were 8mm.

In the 70's NYC was a scary place. The nation was in the throes of a recession, crime was at an all time high, and seedy porn joints flourished in this environment. It was one of those drunken Saturday nights on the Deuce. One of the guys I was with wanted to see a peep show for his birthday. We wound up in one of the most depraved sinkholes in Manhattan, Crossroads Books.

Located on the island between Broadway and 42nd Street, Crossroads Books was a dirt streaked, off white building. It was loaded with peep booths featuring every perversion known to man. One of the booths had a big sign over it that said “Snuff, The bloodiest thing on 42nd Street”. Money being tight as it was back then, three of us squeezed into the booth.

The loop started out with a woman being whipped, normal stuff for that era, except the blood wasn’t fake. About three quarters later, a steak knife was shoved into an orifice that was never meant to receive that kind of treatment. One of my companions started to get sick and left. We quickly followed. There was no doubt in my mind that this was real. This was way before anyone was doing special effects make up. I had been apprenticing as a meat cutter for the A & P Supermarket chain. I knew real raw meat when I saw it. This stuff was real. A couple of weeks later, a mysterious fire burnt the place to the ground. Urban Legend? No way, what I saw was real.

Leave it to the exploitation guys to jump on this sicko band wagon. Exploitation duo, Mike and Roberta Findlay had shot a film in South America about a Manson like gang, it may have been originally called Slaughter. Sleaze ball distributor, Allen Shackelton, quick to cash in on the snuff rumors, re titled the film Snuff. He had a phoney ending shot that had a blonde girl, who had nothing to do with any of the South American footage, being dismembered and disemboweled.

Snuff played at The National Theater on Broadway. People were hired to picket the theater to drum up some box office ballyhoo. The ticket price was raised to a least two dollars above the standard price then. Soon hired picketers were no longer needed as the film drew the ire of that group of manatees know as the Women Against Pornography who started picketing that theater.

This drew national attention. Shackelton admitted in print that he would be a fool to admit that the film was a hoax. What the WAP didn’t get was that their protests only drew more attention to the film. They tripped over their tits again when they did the same thing with Blood Sucking Freaks. The phoney ending on Snuff was shot by resident NY pornographer, Carter Stevens, who, of course, had done some Avon films.

Snuff actually out grossed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for three weeks straight. Cannibal Holocaust, another snuff oriented film, out grossed ET in Japan. Holocaust was one grim and nasty movie. Filmed in a documentary style, Cannibal Holocaust led the viewer to expect the worst, then gave it to them. Actually filmed in the jungles of Columbia, it’s jerky, hand held camera, and realistic SPFX, gave question to whether it was real or not.

Director, Ruggerio Deodato was put on trial in Italy for filming murders. He had told cast members to “lay low” for a year as sort of ballyhoo promotion for the film. He had to produce one of the actors, it may have been Gabriel York, to clear himself. The film was outright banned in Italy & Great Britain. It got a brief release here, then disappeared. Grainy bootlegs made the rounds of horror conventions. Rumors still persisted that it was real. Finally it was legitimately released by Grindhouse on DVD. The DVD extras cleared up the controversies surrounding the film.

Snuff had gotten the attention of the exploitation guys, but it had also gotten Hollywood’ attention as well as international attention. Joe D’Amato, a guy that had dabbled in just about every film genre, made a film called Emmanuelle in America. It was the continuing adventures of reporter Emmanuelle, who stumbles across a snuff film. D’Amato had heard the persistent rumors about a porn film where the actress is killed during sex and made a movie within a movie.


Emmanuelle in America(1976) may have been the first ‘mainstream” film that features hardcore sex scenes. The lovely Laura Gemser got naked and sexy, but wasn’t in the hardcore stuff. While investigating a stud farm, she stumbles across a couple running a film. We get about 30 seconds of some real grim footage of women being tortured and raped. Emmanuelle sees a story here and pursues it. She goes to a cop friend who tells her to go to Washington because that’s were the answers are.

She seduces a well heeled congressman. She asks him to put on a film to “get her in the mood”. He puts on a lame S &M film. She asks if he has something harder. He throws on a grainy loop. A longer and grimmer version of what we saw before. She asks who would make such a film. He flies her to a place in South America, obviously a prison. The are led to a window and a peepshow from hell. Women are beaten, tortured, raped, impaled, burned and then killed. It’s sickeningly realistic. Emmanuelle had been slipped some acid before they flew there. She is told that it was a hallucination. She believes that until she develops the photos she took.

He magazine refuses to print the story, keeping the cover up covered up. This film had D’Amato’s passport revoked for 5 years due to one of the actresses claiming that she was traumatized when she saw the footage of her getting a machete mastectomy. She sued D’Amato and the crew. SPFX man, Giannetto De Rossi did the snuff make up. D’ Amato had shot the footage in 35mm, but scratched the film up to give it tha 8mm look. This is the most disturbing and realistic pseudo snuff footage ever shot.

Director Paul Schader took on the subject in 1979's Hardcore. George C. Scott plays a father from a mid western town. His daughter has run away and is seen in a porn film. He goes to the city and poses as a money man for an impending porn film. He finds out that his daughter may be slated to star in a snuff film. You don’t see much ,if any, snuff footage in this one. But it’s pretty grim as it takes us on a ride through what Hollywood tells us is the porn biz.


Effects (1980) was directed by Dusty Nelson and had some early Tom Savini make up effects work. He starred in the film as well as creating the snuff effects that are briefly seen. The film never got any kind of release and was just out on DVD a couple of years ago.

Star Chamber (1983) was another major film with a snuff theme. A group of judges dispense their own brand of justice when the courts fail. One of the cases involved little boys being abducted, tortured, raped, and killed for snuff films. A scene in which a bloody sneaker is found in a stolen van is pretty grim.


8mm (1999) was a big budget, major Hollywood film about a snuff ring. Investigator, Nicholas Cage, is called to a woman’s house after the death of her husband. She found a film in his safe and it’s a snuff film. She wants to know if it’s real and why he had it. Cage drifts into a twisted netherworld of porn’s underbelly. He finds out that these film are contracted to a certain director, who films them at the request of well heeled clients.

During an intense scene, Cage asks why the man wanted this film made. He is told because the man had that kind of money, he could do anything he wanted. “He did it because he can” Cage is told. This sort of echos something Robert Blake said in his interview about when people have too much money and power that they can just about get away with anything. The cast in this film is excellent and look for Sopranos star, James Gandofini as a sleazy pornographer. 8mm is nothing more than a high quality and better acted exploitation film.

Japan has always embraced the splatter film. The Japanese created a series of shocking murder & mutilation films know as the Guinea Pig series. Young women are dismembered, disemboweled, and murdered by deranged samurai’s and other demented characters. None of these were ever distributed in this country until recently. A coked out Charlie Sheen contacted the FBI after watching a bootleg of this stuff. The grainy bootleg was a little too real for him. The Japanese picked up the pace with more shockers like Entrails of the Virgin. Ever think that two bombs weren’t enough?

Pseudo snuff crept into the new decade wit Eli Roth’s Hostel. Not really high on my list of things I would want to watch, this is pseudo snuff at its worst. To me, watching people getting tortured and murdered for just the sake of killing, isn’t a horror film. Hostel, and films like it, are just part of a twisted, nihilistic, sub genre aimed at misanthropes who just revel in the suffering of others because their lives are so fucked up. You know the type, they live at home until they are 40 or until they kill their parents. They collect serial killer memorabilia, work at the same dead end job for years and blame the rest of the world because they can’t get their act together. Whew, got heavy there for a minute, didn’t I ?

Hostel was a big hit, but it’s sequel, which I actually thought was better, died quickly at the box office. Perhaps it wasn’t nihilistic enough or maybe people are getting tired of this shit. If 8mm wasn’t a true exploitation film, leave it to sleazemeister general, Bruno Mattei, to remake it as one. Snuff Trap (2003) is a scene by scene remake of 8mm. Thoroughly encrusted in sleaze, Mattei pull out all the stops here. This is one nasty movie and, of course, Mattei takes it a lot further than the original.

Vacancy (2007) has a run down hotel, with filthy rooms with video cameras. It’s like a roach motel, you check in and never check out. The place is run by three degenerates, who leave tapes of previous victims in the rooms. Genuinely creepy, you are left with the feeling that shit like this happens. In one scene a truck pulls into the lot. The couple tries to warn him, but he is there to pick up a box of films. He just smirks at the trapped duo.

So, is it an urban legend? Is it something that just was made up? “Fraid not. In his chilling expose’, Gods of Death, Yaron Svoray gives us the answers that we don’t want to know. He describes a viewing scenario were men pay to see this stuff. The film is delivered, but it never leaves the delivery man’s hand. He collects the money, then runs the tape for a group of well heeled business men. When they are done, he takes the tape and leaves. The price for this was $1500 per man.

Svoray just about got himself killed during his investigation. Run ins with the mob, the Russian Mafia, Thailand gangsters and a lot other unsavory characters. Bottom line is yes, they do exist as death squads in Serbia and Bosnia film their atrocities and sell it for a profit. With the availability of home video equipment, these bastards film their rapes, murders, and mutilation for a profit. With all of the civil wars, ethnic cleansing, etc, someone is profiting by it. When it come to money, life is a very disposable indeed.

The veneer of civilization that we wear ,is very thin . Think of it, the “civilized” Romans watched life and death bloodbaths in the Coliseums. Are we any different today? Bloody movies, wrestlers rolling around in broken glass and barbed wire, reality shows, extreme fighting etc. Have we evolved? No we haven’t. Look how traffic slows to a halt by a terrible accident. 90% of the drivers will slow down to take a look. People can’t seem to avert their eyes from the blood. An old saying in the world of pro wrestling can sum this up: Red turns to green. As long as someone can profit by it, there will be blood.
42nd Street Pete

1 comment:

thebonebreaker said...

Superb write-up Pete!