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 Snuff Movies

 An urban legend



1st June
1999
  

Snuff Movies...

An urban legend
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Snuff Urban legends cover all facets of life, including cinema. And since two major themes underlying urban legends are sex and death, it seems only natural that the genre of the horror film is rife with lore. Being a convenient scapegoat for numerous societal woes since their conception, and being vilified on the same grounds as rock music and comic books, horror films are a perfect breeding ground for such urban legends. Stories abound, ranging from the innocuous (rumors still persist that King Kong Vs. Godzilla was released with two different endings, with Kong winning in the stateside release, whereas Godzilla triumphs in the Japanese version), to the downright macabre. (Many horror fans still think that such films as Le Jorobado de la Morgue , Buio Omega , and Der Todesking   utilize real corpses to supplement the staged effects, despite documentation to the contrary. Due to the inaccessibility of many foreign films-especially low budget productions such as these-it is easy to see how such rumors can persist.) Some of these legends remain fairly obscure, relegated to being spread word of mouth by naive, uninformed fans. Others persist outside the fan following, infiltrating mainstream America.

Of the latter variety, one of the more popular myths involves the film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre . There is a lingering misconception that this low-budget production was indeed based on a real story as it so coyly claims in an opening statement. In truth, it is loosely-if not tenuously-based the exploits of one Edward Gein, a Wisconsin farmer who had a filthy habit of raiding graveyards and making lampshades out of their clientele. Evidence that he practiced cannibalism and necrophilia on occasion cannot be overlooked either, although a chainsaw was not involved. As for similarities between these crimes and Tobe Hooper's unrelenting horror film, they are far and few between.

Despite the inevitable frustration with having to reiterate the facts to those who adhere to these misconceptions, one can find humor in the claims inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre . It is essentially harmless and remains an excellent example of how gullible people can be, how they adapt their reality to suit erroneous information offered to them as fact. It is also a testament to how our culture embellishes reality.

The myth of the snuff film, on the other hand, is a prime example of a cinematic urban legend. Many people who have heard of-but have never seen-the movie Snuff insists that it does contain actual footage of human death and mutilation. Even those individuals who do not recall the controversy have been affected by it, as belief in "snuff" films persist to this day. Many people attest to the existence of snuff films even though no one has ever actually seen one; authorities, it seems, also have nothing more concrete than vague rumors about the alleged production and distribution of snuff films as well. It is not at all surprising that most of the rumors concerning the existence of snuff films did not surface until after this film made headlines.

It is safe to say that anybody who has seen Snuff (which is obscure, but far from unavailable) knows how ludicrous these claims are, at least with respect to this specific production. Not only is the gore obviously fake, but the execution of the special effects is painfully inept. Snuff is nothing more than a grand marketing scheme that made a shameless little splatter film into one of the most profitable-and notorious-films ever conceived. The clever ad campaign was obviously tongue-in-cheek, but somehow millions of theater-goers were snagged by the notion "But what if it is real?" and it seems that their morbid curiosity got the best of them. Were the producers trying to exploit America's obsession with the macabre? Or did they simply view it as a clever dare to attract a few extra ticket sales? As it turns out, the latter seems closer to the truth. Whatever the motives, it worked, to the absolute joy of the promoters-and to the chagrin of those who would inevitably be confronted with the chore of debunking the hoax in the years to come.

The Origin of the Snuff Film

The film's origin dates back several years before its auspicious release in 1975. In 1971, filmmakers Michael and Roberta Findlay helmed a production in Argentina called Slaughter , a modest little film that was made for a little over thirty thousand dollars. Although various sources have cited it as an unfinished production, it did have a brief theatrical run. How this came about is uncertain; with the exception of an abrupt end-quite possibly snipped to accommodate the splashier finale tacked on years later-it is obviously a complete production.

Slaughter did its best to exploit the still-steaming remains of the Manson Family's involvement with the Tate/La Bianca murders, although much artistic license is taken. The film is generally more accessible than the Findlays' other films- The Touch of Her Flesh , A Thousand Pleasures , et al.-but this was not much of a stretch. Fans of their films-especially A Thousand Pleasures -will not only recognize some of the familiar faces but the overwhelmingly awkward dialogue as well. Unlike these other lowbrow productions, though, Slaughter was not destined to languish in the pits of obscurity. Far from it.

In 1972, Allan Shackleton, a research engineer-turned-film producer had bought the world distribution rights for Slaughter through his Monarch Releasing Corporation, a distribution house that specialized in sexploitation fare.  He was still scratching to recoup a shaky investment in a rotten film three years later when it caught the attention of someone who mistook the proceedings in his film as something more sinister than it was. Instead of setting the record straight, Mr. Shackleton played up on the false assumptions. Gambling on the three I's (implication, inference, and innuendo), he implied but did not explicitly assert that the atrocities in the film were authentic.

On December 1, 1975, Allan Shackleton sent out the first of several press releases aimed to pique the public's interest. Unfortunately for him, Michael Findlay caught sight of it and immediately realized that it was his film Slaughter (now retitled under the more succinct, monosyllabic moniker Snuff ) that was behind the escalating furor. Findlay approached the distributor about contract renegotiations (as he was obviously not getting a big enough piece of the pie), but was unsuccessful in his pleas for more money. He did, however, almost succeed in exposing the entire scam during a crushing interview; Shackleton immediately paid him off, and he did not hear from Michael again.

Shackleton took the next step of distributing fake newspaper clippings that detailed the efforts of a fictional "Vincent Sheehan" and the retired attorney's crusade against the film through a newly formed organization called Citizens for Decency. Unbeknownst to him, though, there really was a group called Citizens for Decency, but this did little to deter the real organization from rallying behind Shackleton's fictional do-gooder. If anyone from the group had checked Sheehan's credentials, they evidently did not make it publicly known.

Amidst the national hysteria, critics everywhere were writing articles condemning the unreleased film, endorsing its authenticity sight unseen and giving it whatever credibility it had previously lacked. At this point, no one had actually seen the movie save for a few disgruntled theater-goers who had happened to catch it during its short-term run as Slaughter. Even more ironic, the notorious finale that would give the film the weight it needed to guarantee it a place in the history books had not even been filmed yet.

The scene that punctuates the Findlays' all-but-forgotten film was shot for $10,000 in a Manhattan loft by Simon Nocturn of August films during the course of a single day. This new footage featured a film crew (supposedly the selfsame individuals responsible for Slaughter ) who wrap up their production by mutilating, dismembering, and eventually eviscerating the leading lady (who bears no resemblance to the previous actress). At the pinnacle of her bloody demise, the cameraman conveniently runs out of film, although the audio track continues to record their panicked voices even after everything has faded to black.

It then unofficially became cinematic history.

Hype, Hoax, and Hysteria

Snuff opened January 16, 1976, and was met by as many curiosity seekers as ardent protesters. Theaters were besieged by staunch feminists, egged by angry picketers, and unnerved by bomb threats. Instead of deterring would-be ticket buyers, though, the furor only fanned the flames of public interest. In the first week of its New York run, Snuff grossed $66,000 and outsold such hits as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for three weeks straight.

The controversy finally caught the attention of the legal system, forcing the film to carry a disclaimer that clearly stated that no one was harmed during the production of said film. Reluctantly, Shackleton went along with it but eventually recounted his admittance, reverting to his statement that the public should be left to decide Snuff's authenticity for themselves. Years later, Shackleton finally fessed up (sans coercion), but by that time no one wanted to listen-to him or anyone else it seemed. Not only had the notoriety of the film snowballed to unprecedented proportions, but it had become accepted "fact" that snuff films were a real national scourge and no amount of debunking would change the public's opinion.

The incidental showing of Slaughter that sparked Shackleton's decision to play up the sordid implications of the snuff myth led to Detective Joseph Horman's claims that the New York Police Department had "reliable sources attesting to the circulation of snuff films," which he erroneously referred to as "slasher" films. Apparently, he said, interested individuals were paying $200 apiece-some sources cite a mere $150-for private screenings of an eight-reel, 8mm production which was rumored to have been filmed in Argentina. This unverified account could easily be traced back to Slaughter , although it had been greatly embellished by the time it had reached the authorities. This single rumor became the only evidence on which the entire Snuff hoax-and the snuff movie scare-was rooted.

The Los Angeles Police Department did an investigation into the phenomenon and admitted that they could not find even the slightest evidence that snuff films actually existed. They later denied this statement, saying that no investigation was ever initiated by them, possibly in an attempt to defend themselves against the harassment of a public who believed otherwise. Reporters who actually followed up on the rumors came up empty handed as well. Still, the majority of the population was convinced that snuff films were a multi-million dollar black market racket. It was only after Snuff had run its course and the lack of evidence of snuff films became apparent that the hysteria died down and some people began doubting their convictions. Unfortunately, the notion had become so ingrained in our culture that, for future generations and those too young to understand its significance, snuff films would transgress the line from hoax to urban legend.

Twenty-four years later, the myth remains.

To this day, anti-pornography campaigners use Snuff and snuff films in general as artillery to defend their moralistic crusades. Many hardline feminists use snuff films as an example of patriarchal suppression. Such books as The Age of Sex Crime by Jane Caputi, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem, and Take Back the Night-Women on Pornography by Laura Lederer make the assumption that snuff films are a given in this day and age; some even go so far as to suppose that snuff films are the logical conclusion for those individuals jaded by more traditional forms of pornography. Even Linda Lovelace, star of the groundbreaking adult film Deep Throat , testified to the U.S. Attorney General's Commission on Organized Crime that women acting in porn films were being murdered on camera or after filming when they were deemed of no further use .

The snuff film controversy is suspiciously similar to the current trend to blame many of our societal woes on satanic cults and their sexual and psychological abuse of children; one cannot discount the possibility that there may be isolated incidents of both real snuff films and satanic ritual abuse, but-so far-there is no substantial proof as to the existence of either.

Even today , there are rumors of "snuff" sightings, sometimes instigated by the filmmakers themselves. The most recent example involves a Japanese series of gory shot-on-video productions released under the collective title of Za Ginipiggu ( Guinea Pig ), several of the installments having been directed by the infamous manga artist/writer Hideshi Hino. The first film in the series was even accompanied by the disclaimer The producers received this video. There was no accompanying information. We are researching name, age, and other information about the girl and her three killers. Sound familiar? Apparently, someone was showing a copy of the third installment, Chiniku No Hana (1990), at a Hollywood party circa 1991 where it caught the eye of actor Charlie Sheen. Convinced he had seen an actual snuff film, he immediately contacted the MPAA and-before they could substantiate the claims-he got involved in a subsequent movement to stop any kind of import distribution for the films. The film was traced back to Chas Balun, a film reviewer who also moonlighted as a video bootlegger; of course, the atrocities in the film were proven to be fake. The incident made headlines, though, and was even spotlighted on ABC's newsmagazine 20/20. Instead of the film being confined to the pits of obscurity as-we can assume-Mr. Sheen had hoped, the furor only fueled the fire of interest in this no-budget splatter film, giving it a cult status it did not deserve. This same film sparked similar controversy in Great Britain in 1992, the owner of the confiscated "video nasty" fined for nothing more than mild obscenity charges when it proved to be the low-rent hoax that it was.

Yet it is not only the claims of deceived individuals that help to perpetuate the myth; every time that snuff films are even mentioned in modern fiction and cinema, they are giving credence to the rumors, playing on the reader's or viewer's assumptions that they are real to begin with. Not only have snuff films become a common staple in many sordid crime novels written in the last twenty years,  they have become popular subjects for innumerable exploitation and horror films. The Last House on Dead End Street , Effects , Holocausto Canibal , Video Violence . . . When Renting Is Not Enough , The Art of Dying , Midnight 2-Death , Sex and Videotape , and even the exemplary productions C'est arrivé près de chez vous , Mute Witness , and 8mm are just a few of the countless titles that milk the urban legend for all it's worth. Even if the existence of actual snuff films should be validated at a later date, it is safe to say that there are more films about snuff films than there are actual snuff films in existence.

Of course, this issue begs the question: Should novelists and screenwriters avoid the subject altogether because it helps to perpetuate the myth? No, and why should they? Writers deal with fiction, and the suspension of disbelief is an integral part of any good novel or film. Putting any sort of disclaimer on each and every piece of entertainment that chooses to exploit this and other myths is a ludicrous notion; people should not have to be told that what they are reading or viewing has no basis in fact, as the label of "fiction" already establishes this.

The media, on the other hand, have a responsibility to the public, not so much with the dissemination of information, but with the dissemination of facts. Unfortunately, fanciful stories and hearsay are usually more interesting than cold reality and facts, as urban legends have shown beyond any shadow of a doubt.