What is a snuff film, exactly? The phrase has been a part of the American vernacular since 1971, when Ed Sanders used it in his book on the Manson Family murders, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. It was alleged that Manson and his “family” had filmed the murders of their victims using stolen television equipment, with that film subsequently buried in the California desert (although to date no film has ever been found of the murders).
Law enforcement does not currently provide a common definition for what a snuff film is. Microsoft’s online encyclopedia Encarta, for instance, defines a snuff film as a “pornographic movie … that allegedly ends with the murder of one of the participants in a sex act.” The Random House dictionary also defines a snuff film in similar terms. While different sources may disagree on what makes for a snuff film, the one thing the sources agree on is the fact that a human being is killed on camera for the purposes of entertainment.
Minneapolis director Paul von Stoetzel tackles the world of snuff films in his provocative film Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera. In interviews with retired law enforcement officers, film historians, writers, directors, and producers, von Stoetzel probes the origins of the snuff film and examines the sub-genre of death cinema (actual deaths of human being captured on film/video, taken from news footage and other sources).
In 1976, film distributor Allan Shackleton took a film that had been on the shelves for five years (called Slaughter, written and directed by the husband and wife team of Michael and Roberta Findlay) and came up with a stroke of marketing genius: he had several minutes of new footage filmed and tacked it onto the end of Slaughter. The new footage is supposed to be the film crew of Slaughter, finishing up their work, and subsequently a woman is killed, presumably for real, on-screen. Shackleton removed the credits from Slaughter and released it as Snuff with the famous tagline, "A film that could only be made in South America, where life is cheap!" The film sparked the usual protests and it was perhaps from this start that people began to believe that snuff films were a reality.
Snuff films are now regarded as an urban legend. But are they? Has anyone actually seen a real snuff film? The interviewees in Snuff, with one exception, say they have never seen an actual snuff film: the law enforcement officers, film historians, and filmmakers von Stoetzel interviews are all familiar with what a snuff film is supposed to be, but are not aware of the existence of such a film.
Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera runs at a brisk 76 minutes, broken down into segments that deal with the history of snuff films, American cinema and snuff films (from the infamous Italian cannibal film Cannibal Holocaust to the popular Faces of Death series) as well as a segment on serial killers, including an examination of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, who police discovered in the mid-1980s had filmed the rape and torture of their victims.
To his credit, for the most part von Stoetzel does not resort to cheap exploitation to explore his subject. Not that there aren't some graphic moments in the film — the police footage confiscated from Lake and Ng is particularly disturbing, for instance — but there are moments where von Stoetzel could have gone for the cheap thrill, and did not.
This is particularly true in the segment dealing with war and how, starting from the Vietnam conflict, images of war were beamed into American televisions. And with so much of the world wired to the Internet, exceedingly graphic and disturbing death footage is available to anyone who can use a search engine. Snuff does feature graphic footage from the conflict in Iraq, from the horrific beheading videos released by terrorist groups (thankfully, not shown in their entirety) to combat footage of troops under fire.
The film's other two segments feature film producer Mark L. Rosen (Rosen served as executive producer on Snuff), who has been active in the movie industry since the 1970s. Rosen is the one person von Stoetzel interviews who does claim to have viewed what he believes is a snuff film. Rosen emotionally recounts being approached by Filipino businessmen in the 1970s to market an "adult" film, which according to Rosen, turned out to be the graphic, on-screen murder of a woman. While I do not doubt that Rosen believes what he viewed was genuine, it's hard to know for certain. Rosen claims that it would have been impossible in the 1970s to create makeup effects that realistic. However, the 1970s were an especially creative period in movie special effects, and special effects makeup artists like Dick Smith and Tom Savini were creating graphic images for films such as Taxi Driver and Dawn of The Dead, and 1967's Bonnie and Clyde shocked audience with its blood-soaked finale, courtesy of special effects artist Danny Lee. The viewer may be left wondering why Rosen didn't report the film to law enforcement, a question the film does not answer.
In the end, Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera is a fascinating and frequently disturbing look into snuff movies and death film. While it does not answer the question definitively whether or not snuff films exist, von Stoetzel leaves that for the viewer to decide, and based upon the interviews presented in the film, I certainly would not rule out that someone, somewhere, has produced a snuff film. In an age of cheap video equipment and desktop film production, the means to do so would be simple. And that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this subject: in a market dictated by supply and demand, there certainly would be a demand for a genuine snuff film, and no lack of individuals ready to supply the material.