Snuff Blue Underground Blu-ray review (originally published 2013)
Among the essays, articles, and reviews I’ll be sharing on this podcasting site, I also plan on publishing re-edited versions of some of my DVDActive.com Blu-ray reviews more or less as they originally appeared. These will not always coincide with the theme of the month.
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 (1996 Creation Books; republished by Headpress as Killing for Culture: From Edison to ISIS: A New History of Death on Film in 2016)
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 thing, especially when it is compiled for the sake of a faux-documentary or Mondo movie, like Faces of Death (which was almost entirely faked, for the record). Apparently, actual snuff films do exist, especially in the digital video era, but the legends of criminal empires selling such movies on black markets have remained unverified for decades. Of course, that hasn’t stopped rumors about them from circulating around campfires, knitting circles, and monkey bars for almost as long as motion pictures have existed. Everyone has heard tales of an uncle or friend of a friend stumbling across an actual, honest to god snuff movie, 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 (The Devil's Experiment and Flower of Flesh & Blood, both 1985) or Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and make the wrong assumption (this exact thing happened to Charlie Sheen). In the 1970s, gore films and pornography were emerging as mainstream entertainment and the controversy surrounding both forms gave rise to further paranoia concerning the snuff myth – a controversy exploitation filmmakers were all too happy to exploit.
The Findlays were old-school grindhouse mainstays that filled 42nd Street theaters with softcore 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. Eyes ablaze, 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 originally 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 would reveal that the film was never finished, because the director had murdered the lead actress. New ending in place, Shackleton re-titled the film 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, all of which 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 its shrewd advertising and a lasting reputation, it’s pretty hard to find conventional value in Snuff as a ‘real movie.’ That said, it’s also not quite as bad as I remember it being. Shackleton’s disinterest in the original footage probably pertained mostly to its lethargic pace and lack of content. By real movie standards it is certainly boring, but, in comparison to a shocking number of films that 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 plot lines that intersect so many times that it’s impossible to keep track of who is 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 not sure it’s possible to shout “Pig! Filthiest of all animals! I will cut out your heart and feed it to the dogs!” in a more dispassionate manner, for example. 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 listless tone, roaming, handheld camera work, and montage editing of Hollywood New Wave movies. This effort is commendable, but the accidental artistry is more charming than the occasional grasps at real artistry, like the reasonably successful subliminal imagery used during the hallucinatory sequences. Nuchtern’s coda doesn’t even sort of match the Slaughter footage (the room looks different, the actors look different, the costumes look different, etc.), but is similarly difficult to judge on a technical level. The vérité look is somewhat effective in disguising the amateurism on display and the violence is at least disturbing 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 to sell the final few minutes as a real recorded murder. The Slaughter footage is relatively violent too, especially had it been released as planned in 1971. The bloodshed 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 potent 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 a Brazilian Carnival parade 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 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 who couldn’t speak their English lines without a thick accent, every line of the 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. 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.
Snuff isn’t a very good movie, but it is an important footnote in exploitation movies history and probably not as dull as you remember it being when you first caught it on bootleg VHS. 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).
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.