Snuff (US - BD)
Gabe revisits one of the greatest exploitation hoaxes of all time...
Deep in South America, a Manson-like cult leader named Satan cavorts with his bevy of beautiful biker-chick followers while compelling them to kill in his name. When sexy American actress Terry London arrives with producer Max Marsh to shoot a new movie there, the creepy cult targets her and her friends with plans of murder, mayhem, and the grisly sacrifice of her unborn baby. Is the final bloody massacre only a movie? Or is it the shocking footage of an actual murder committed before the camera? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
I’ve made it my particularly sad life goal to see every one of the films the British Board of Film Certification attempted to prosecute under the Obscene Publications Act of 1983. These 72 genre films (39 successfully prosecuted, 33 unsuccessfully prosecuted), dubbed the ‘video nasties,’ are mostly known for their revolting shocks and gore, but, in more cases than not, the thing that connects them is their dire quality as actual movies. However, a great number of them, especially the terrible ones, have fascinating production/release histories. Few are more fascinating than story of Michael and Roberta Findlay’s Snuff, as best chronicled in David Kerekes & David Slater’s Killing For Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff, an indispensable, highly recommended tome that was updated just last year.
First, I should probably define a snuff movie for those unaware of the intricacies of the term. Quite often, footage of real death captured on film is mistaken for snuff, but, technically speaking, a snuff movie implies that a planned execution has been filmed for the sake of the murder. This means that stuff like the Zapruder Film, where a camera happened to photograph death, does not count as snuff. The term ‘death film’ is usually used in regards to this kind of stuff, especially when it is compiled for the sake of a faux-documentary or Mondo movie, like Faces of Death (which is almost entirely faked, for the record). Apparently, actual snuff films do exist (especially in the digital video era), but the rumours of criminal empires selling such movies on black markets have, to my knowledge, remained unverified legends. These legends have existed for almost as long as motion pictures. Everyone has ‘an uncle’ or a ‘friend of a friend’ that has stumbled across a real snuff film, but the vast majority (if not all) of these stories are usually mixed falsehoods, flat-out lies, or simple misunderstandings. In the case of misunderstandings, someone gets their hands on a convincingly executed work of fiction, like Hideshi Hino’s first two Guinea Pig shorts or Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, and make the wrong assumption (this exact thing happened to Charlie Sheen). In the ‘70s, gore films and pornography were emerging as mainstream entertainment. The controversy surrounding these movies, along with gave rise to further paranoia concerning the snuff myth, controversy exploitation filmmakers were all too happy to, well, exploit.
The Findlays were oldschool grindhouse mainstays that filled 42nd Street theaters with soft-core porn, vicious roughies, and faux-documentaries throughout the late ‘60s. In 1971, they attempted to cash-in on the Manson-sploitation fad with Slaughter. Producer Allan Shackleton was not impressed with what he saw and shelved the film for years…until he read an article claiming that the FBI was looking into rumours of 8mm snuff films leaking into the states from South America. Shackleton realized that Slaughter, the movie that was so bad that he couldn’t stand to release it, was coincidentally shot in Argentina. He then decided to ditch the outdated Manson Family hysteria in exchange for snuff hysteria (which is fun, because snuff hysteria was stoked by rumours that the Manson Family had shot footage of their victims). He took advantage of the Findlays’ sloppy, abrupt ending and hired porn director Simon Nuchtern to throw together a coda that reveals that the film wasn’t finished, because the director murdered the lead actress. New ending in place, Shackleton re-titled Slaughter as Snuff and gave it a shockingly high profile release, complete with a scheme to convince a naïve public that he was selling a genuine illegal snuff film. The release garnered massive protests from women’s groups that, in turn, garnered major media coverage. Some stories insist that Shackleton himself orchestrated the picketing by hiring actors, while others claim that he merely called in anonymous tips to Women Against Pornography. Eventually, there were even official police/FBI investigations, which merely fed the film’s reputation and Snuff went on to be one of the biggest exploitation hits of all time.
The best part was that the film’s tagline – ‘The film that could only be made in South America…where life is cheap!’ – wasn’t even a lie, technically speaking, because Slaughter was truly shot in South America.
Outside of the brilliant advertising and a lasting reputation, it’s pretty hard to find conventional value in Snuff as a ‘real movie,’ but it’s also not quite as bad as I remember it being the first time I saw it (when I literally fell asleep). Shackleton’s disinterest in the original footage probably pertained mostly to its lethargic pace and general lack of content. By ‘real movie’ standards, it’s certainly boring, but, in comparison to most of Jesus Franco’s horror quickies, for example (some of which also found their way onto the DPP’s list), Snuff is downright breezy. The screenplay, assuming there was one, amusingly attempts to shoehorn the Tate/LaBianca murders into about three other plotlines that intersect so many times that I completely loss track of who was on what side of the conflict. I suspect the original Slaughter footage ended where it did because the Findlays were just as confused as I was and gave up. The terrible acting and stifled, overly-expositional dialogue are so laughable that it’s hard to believe any of the protests would’ve occurred if someone would’ve bothered to actually see the movie. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen someone say ‘Pig! Filthiest of all animals! I will cut out your heart and feed it to the dogs!’ in a more dispassionate manner. Things get especially hilarious around the center of the story, when characters start barking at each other about Israeli/Palestinian hostility, complete with dramatic crash zooms into angry faces.
On a stylistic level, The Findlays and their uncredited crew (technically, everyone is uncredited here) try very hard to emulate the Hollywood New Wave. Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider appears to be the key influence, especially its roaming, handheld camera work and montage editing. This effort is commendable, but the accidental artistry is more charming than the occasional grasps at ‘real’ filmmaking, like the reasonably successful subliminal editing techniques during the more hallucinatory scenes. Nuchtern’s coda doesn’t even kind of match the Slaughter footage (the room looks different, the actors look different, the costumes look different, etc.), but is similarly hard to judge on a technical level. The vérité look is effectively disturbing as is the violence on a conceptual level (the victim is held down, choked, stabbed, has her finger clipped off with wire cutters, has her hand removed with a portable band saw, and is then gutted, culminating in the ‘director’ holding her intestines over his head and shouting). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), the effects work is shoddy, even by 1976 standards, and there are far too many cuts and alternate angles for anyone to ever buy into the idea that this was a real murder. The Slaughter footage is relatively violent too, especially if it would have been released in 1971. The violence is messily executed and the blood entirely unrealistic, but the brutality of the torture sequences in particular press the boundaries into near Last House on the Left territory (minus all of Craven’s film’s sense of danger). The sex is pretty chaste, though, leaving even more to our imaginations than the average softcore film from the era (mostly bare breast groping and moaning noises).
In the tradition of many late ‘60s/early ‘70s grindhouse ‘classics,’ Snuff (and, seemingly, Slaughter) was shot on 16mm, then blown-up to 35mm for theatrical presentation. This is, obviously, not the ideal format for a beautiful Blu-ray restoration, but this new 1080p transfer looks pretty great for what the film is. The HD transfer is presented in 1.66:1, splitting the difference between the OAR of 1.33:1 and the ‘intended’ theatrical exhibition ratio of 1.85:1 (BU’s original DVD release was 1.33:1). The image is, naturally, littered with artefacts and uneven grain levels from scene-to-scene. The whole print is kind of washed-out, something Blue Underground has tried to counteract by pressing the contrast levels, leading to some blooming whites and harsh blacks. This crushes out some of the finer details, but also makes for a generally more dynamic image. Colours are limited, but the acrylic reds, greens, and blues pop nicely against the generally yellowed palette. More inconsistencies crop up later, due to composite nature of the film. Things like vibrancy and clarity change when worn-out archive footage of Carnival parades is inserted. Acouple of that scenes are tinted to appear monochromatically blue (the same footage is tinted much warmer in the trailer). The image quality improves the most during the tacked-on snuff sequence, which was shot four years after the Slaughter had been sitting on a shelf somewhere. This gives us an idea of how good things might have looked, had Blue Underground found an impeccable print of Slaughter somewhere to integrate with the Snuff coda. As is, they did the best anyone could.
Snuff is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono. Like Grindhouse Releasing’s recent An American Hippie in Israel[I] Blu-ray, the lossless track is appreciated, but it’s mostly an unnecessary effort, considering the quality of the original mix. The tracks have been effectively cleaned of major distortion and I seriously doubt the material could ever sound any better than it does here. Because the majority of the cast were Argentines and couldn’t speak their English lines without a thick accent, every line of the [I]Slaughter section of the film has been dubbed. The dubbing doesn’t match the tonality of the effects at all, but, again, this is not Blue Underground’s fault and they do their best to clear things up until they sound kind of consistent. The ‘score’ is credited to Rick Howard, but most of it was likely copyright-free library stuff. Like a Jesus Franco movie, the music babbles incessantly throughout almost every scene, rarely fitting the on-screen action, and sometimes even stopping briefly when the song runs out – only to be cycled through again, as if nothing ever happened. The music is a prominent element and is surprisingly crisp and warm at times.
The extras begin with a brief introduction from Drive and Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn (00:40, HD) and include:
- Shooting Snuff (10:30, HD) – An interview with Carter Stevens, who helped produce the additional footage. Stevens discusses the process of turning Slaughter into Snuff, including some behind-the-scenes photographs.
- Up to Snuff (7:30, HD) – An interview with Refn, who elaborates on his affection for the film. He also does a great job running down the production history.
- Porn Buster (5:00, SD) – An interview with retired FBI agent Bill Kelly, who worked on many obscenity investigations, including Deep Throat and Snuff.
- U.S. Trailer (3:00, HD)
- German Trailer (2:00, HD)
- Poster and still gallery
- Gallery of Snuff controversy news clippings
- Snuff: The Seventies and Beyond – a text-based essay by author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Can you believe that it has been over a year since Blue Underground released a Blu-ray? Let’s never be apart this long again. Snuff is not exactly a triumphant return to form for Bill Lustig’s studio, but that’s just because it isn’t a very good movie. It is, however, an important footnote in grindhouse history and not as dull as you probably remember it being. This disc looks and sounds about as good as we could expect from the material and includes a small collection of special features (ideally, there’d be a feature-length documentary about the production).
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD Special Edition resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 22nd October 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Shooting Snuff, Up to Snuff, Porn Buster, US Trailer, German Trailer, Poster & Still Gallery, Controversy Gallery, Text Essay, Reversible Cover Art
Easter Egg: No
Director: Michael and Roberta Findlay, Horacio Fredriksson, Simon Nuchtern
Cast: Margarita Amuchástegui, Ana Carro, Liliana Fernández Blanco, Roberta Findlay, Alfredo Iglesias, Enrique Larratelli
Genre: Crime, Horror and Thriller
Length: 80 minutes
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