‘Snuff’ and the Film that Started a Scandal

It started out life as Slaughter (or The Slaughter, depending on who you believe), a low budget exploitation attempt to bring some contemporary content to the fading motion picture genre. Two of the legitimate legends of the cinematic category – Roberta and Michael Findlay of The Touch of Her Flesh, The Curse of Her Flesh, and The Kiss of her Flesh fame – took $30,000 and a flight down to Argentina to craft a crappy knock-off of the still making headlines Manson Family. Featuring an enigmatic leader named Satan (with an accent over the second “a” to avoid the obvious name reference) and a drugged out glamor girls, the infamous filmmakers came up with 80 minutes of mind-numbing boredom. Even their simulated softcore sex scenes failed to ‘arouse’ much interest.

Slaughter was still released to little fanfare. A distributor named Allan Shackleton then took over and shelved the movie for four years. He then got what he thought was a genius brainstorm. Having read about a rash of reports of “snuff” films coming out of South America, he decided to reconfigure Slaughter to capitalize on the notoriety of such rumors. Of course, there was no proof of such scandalous films (where real life murders were supposedly captured – or worse, created – onscreen) existing, but Shackleton would not be swayed. Complete with an additional five minute sequence tacked onto the end and retitled Snuff, the rerelease caused a firestorm. Magazines reported that Hollywood – which had nothing to do with the production, by the way – had sunk to a new and quite shocking low while curious film fans lined up to see the latest in taboo busting “art.”

For a while, Shackleton got away with it. Audiences were stunned by the last sequence, supposedly showing one of the actresses from Slaughter (who looked nothing like her Latina counterpart) being carved up like a human hunk of meat. Outrage grew as news outlets legitimized the myth. Naturally, cooler heads eventually prevailed, debunking the production and proving, without question, that the entire “death of film” was actually nothing more than sloppy special effects and carnival barker ballyhoo. Still, Snuff‘s legend continued to grow, ’70s obsessives convinced that, all questionable bloodletting aside, actual snuff films must have and truly did exist. Over the decades, the Findlay’s folly influenced others, including the producers of the equally dubious Faces of Death.

Now, after watching Blue Underground’s new Blu-ray release of Snuff, one is faced with the following question – how naive were we all 40 years ago? How could we buy into what Shackleton and his shady stunt were trying to pull? Sure, there are always some movie goers who take what they see onscreen a tad too seriously, but to believe that a woman is actually being killed on camera here has to be the height of clueless confusion – or perhaps, the ultimate suspension of disbelief. Granted, the prerelease hype could have helped, but watching the movie now, in light of all that has passed as part of the splatter/gore dynamic in post-modern horror, it’s hard to fathom the resulting uproar. At first glance, it’s barely understandable. In hindsight, it’s just laughable – and that’s just the final few minutes. The main movie is much, much worse.

As a fan of the Findlays, something like Slaughter is just subpar. It’s a piece of junk, a heartless and soulless excursion into local color and little else. The actresses, if you want to call them that, have all the appeal of a group of hastily gathered together streetwalkers and the main actors have a mannered machismo that comes across as both silly and stiff. The plot revolves around Satan (Enrique Larratelli) hoping that one of his honeys will hook up with a wealthy German playboy named Horst (Clao Villanueva). With his money and his baby momma, our madman can rule the world…via some manner of human sacrifice…plotted out while he skinny dips with the rest of his harem….whatever. When a famous actress from the US arrives, she instantly becomes the target for the cult (see the Manson references yet?).

Perhaps the best “review” of Snuff comes from famous fan Nicolas Winding Refn who claims to like “the idea” of the movie more than the film itself. He fancies himself a fetish filmmaker, so anything that exemplifies that or expresses something similar is right up his alley. We learn this as part of the Blu-ray’s added content, which also includes an interview with Carter Stevens (who worked on the film) and an retired FBI agent who suggests that there may be some truth to the whole “death capture on film” format. Oddly enough, all of this polished professional “appreciation” makes Snuff out to be more than it is. Without the scandal, without the press coverage and the industry outrage, would we be talking about this movie four decades later? The Exorcist is a more violent and realistic depiction of human depravity that what’s on display here.

And yet, there is something about the overall Snuff experience that warrants reflection. We, as a society, were this sheltered and isolated. Without the Internet to provide a wellspring of information both pro and con, we believed the hype. So what if the initial protesters were paid by the distributors to drum up interest? The real ones came along later. Who cares if the end result, like the live child birth efforts from a decade before, were all dull dramatics and last second sleaze? Even with obvious make-up tricks, there were people who walked out of Snuff believing they had just seen a woman being cut open and disemboweled. Today, we’d have an entire website devoted to debunking the film. Back in the luddite days of the Me Decade, we had to rely on the media, who were just as easily tricked as the targets of Shackleton and the Findlay’s hucksterism.

Refn adds what should be the final word on Snuff. After seeing it, he says, it loses all its luster. In his mind, it’s a film better left discussed and whispered about than actually seen…and who would disagree. Like those old days on the school yard when a double dare meant you might have to do something your common sense would otherwise suggest you don’t, hitting the play button on this particular home video release will only result in disappointment. Unlike modern gorefests which strive for autopsy like realism in all facets of the F/X, Snuff is cheap and cheesy. While it legend lives on, it’s realities end any speculation or scandal for that matter. No one really dies onscreen during the last few minutes of this movie. Your sense of gullibility, on the other hand…

RATING 3 / 10