Murder on Film? The Story of Snuff

Although they had courted controversy throughout the latter half of the 1960s with a string of sexploitation pictures that became regular attractions around Times Square, little did Michael and Roberta Findlay know that their legacy would be that of a supposed snuff film. Despite the revelation at the end of the movie that fooled audiences into believing the events to be real, the filmmakers themselves played no part in this, nor the shameless marketing that further fuelled the rumours that an actress in the movie had in fact been murdered in front of the camera. But what exactly is a ‘snuff’ film? One dictionary defines it as ‘a pornographic movie of an actual murder.’ By this definition, there is a very thin line between screen sex and violence, something that would later be proven by the term ‘torture porn’, a description reserved for such explicit offerings as Saw and Hostel. Yet whilst viewers were well aware that these films, no matter how unpleasant, were purely fictitious, movies such as Roger Watkins’ The Last House on Dead End Street and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust were so convincing that the filmmakers even faced prosecution for their involvement in such gruesome acts.

The origin of the snuff film can be traced back to August 1969, when devoted followers of Charles Manson broke into the home of filmmaker Roman Polanski in Los Angeles and murdered several innocent people, including his pregnant wife, twenty-six year old actress Sharon Tate. Legend has it that members of the so-called Manson Family had caught their escapades on film and somehow copies of these were in circulation. Whether or not this was true has never been proven, but it was enough to provoke fear in both the public and the authorities. Upon witnessing the controversy that these supposed snuff films were causing, a sleazy distributor called Allan Shackleton, president of Monarch Releasing Company, sensed an opportunity. His previous output had been nothing more than a variety of ‘nudie cuties’, but the very thought of depicting a real life murder on screen was too much of an opportunity for Shackleton to ignore. Purchasing a low budget horror movie that Michael and Roberta Findlay had shot but opted not to unrelease, Shackleton would put his shrewd marketing skills to use and the result would be the aptly-titled Snuff.

A decade earlier, Michael Findlay had grown up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and had become a regular around the various grindhouse cinemas that populated Times Square in New York City. Working as an editor for ABC TV, he soon became friends with John and Lem Amero and the trio began to discuss their love of cinema. When Findlay fell in love with a college student called Roberta, the group decided to form a partnership and, realising that they could make a low budget exploitation film as good as anyone else, decided to shoot their first feature. The result was Body of a Female, which was produced for a little over $6,000 and filmed over a series of weekends around Coney Island with money they had earned from editing. Soon other efforts would follow, the most famous of which was the ‘Flesh‘ trilogy, which consisted of The Touch of Her Flesh, The Curse of Her Flesh and The Kiss of Her Flesh, all produced between 1967 and 1968. Eventually, John and Lem Amero began to produce their own exploitation films, whilst Michael and Roberta Findlay shot The Ultimate Degenerate, a loose remake of their first production.

Always ready to exploit whatever they perceived as marketable, shortly after the murder of Tate and her friends, Michael and Roberta Findley relocated to Argentina to shoot a low budget horror movie about a group of hippies brutally murdering a succession of unsuspecting victims. Slaughter, as it would be dubbed, was shot for very little money and on an extremely tight schedule, although the final result would remain unreleased. Whether or not this was because the filmmakers were unimpressed with the results or due to the controversy of the subject matter and the level of gore is unknown, but once they return to the United States they moved onto their next project; another horror picture entitled Shriek of the Mutilated. Soon afterwards, the relationship between Michael and Roberta began to strain and they eventually separated, which would finally allow Roberta – who had been primarily known as a cinematographer and occasional actress – to launch a filmmaking career in her own right. Little did they know that their discarded film was about to become something of a legend.

Eager to capitalise on the myth of snuff films, Shackleton purchased the rights to Slaughter but, realising that the movie lacked any kind of ‘money shot’, decided to add a show-stopping climax. Renting out the New York studio of adult filmmaker Carter Stevens and hiring director Simon Nuchtern (who would shoot the overlooked sorority slasher Silent Madness several years later), Shackleton created a final sequence in which the camera pans back to reveal a film crew, which was intended to fool audiences into believing they were watching behind-the-scenes of the movie. The film takes an unexpected turn, however, when the director pounces on his lead actress and begins to cut her up; first slicing off a finger before removing her whole hand. Using the kind of technique that Tom Savini would later employ, this was achieved by the actress hiding her arm underneath the bed and holding her hand out through a hole in the bed. A prosthetic arm was then attached to her wrist, with the actor holding his hand over the joint and then slicing into the fake arm. The scene would culminate when he cuts her stomach open and pulls out her intestines, holding them over his head as he screams at the camera.

Whilst Shackleton may have been a dubious figure and Snuff was at best an amateur production, his ingenious knowledge of marketing and distribution would cause the film to become an unexpected hit. Hiring protestors to stand outside cinemas on Broadway, whilst the poster boasted the offensive tagline “The film that could only be made in South America… where life is CHEAP!”, the movie succeeded in outgrossing Milos Forman’s multi Oscar-winning drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for three weeks. Almost a decade later, the movie would find its way onto the ‘video nasties’ list in the United Kingdom, and whilst it would eventually receive a certificate by the BBFC in 2003, it still remains unavailable in Britain. Soon after the release of Snuff, Michael Findlay would tragically be killed in an airplane accident on top of New York’s Pan Am Building in 1977, when a fault with a landing gear resulted in the death of several passengers waiting to board the plane. Roberta would continue to work with Shackleton on several pornographic features, before attempting to break into the mainstream with the low budget thriller Tenement in 1985.

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26 Responses to “ Murder on Film? The Story of Snuff ”

  1. Great blog! Very interesting stuff. It always amazed me that anyone would believe that ridiculous scene at the end of SNUFF was actually authentic. With the wooden performances by the “actors,” it’s more amateur than a student film.

    If I may offer a slight bit of writing criticism, you might want to ease up on the word “whilst.” You tend to use it quite a bit in your articles, especially in the one you did regarding the original ELM STREET 3 script. It’s a little distracting. :-)

    Keep up the great work, my friend!

  2. ‘Whilst’ is a little distracting. Erm, okay.

  3. Great stuff on Snuff.
    Over the years I’ve had countless people who know I’m into horror movies tell me they’ve seen a real snuff film and then describe the end of Snuff. It just goes to show that a powerful myth can override the reality of shonky FX.

  4. The FX are very poor but I guess people were less cynical then as there weren’t really magazines and documentaries that spoilt the mystery by showing you how the make-up was done. Maybe back then we’d all have been convinced, The marketing definitely helped.

  5. Christian,

    I meant no harm. Was just trying to help.

  6. People believed that it was a real snuff film because they WANT to believe that such things really exist. The idea that the world is so mundane that people aren’t murdered for a movie bums them out. Also, “whilst” is a horrible word reserved for community college dropout would-be intellectuals.

  7. What? ‘Whilst’ is predominantly British, and as Americans don’t change their spelling for the rest of the world then why should I? And we have moved on from that and are discussing the actual article so stop trying to cause trouble and stick to the point.

  8. Christian is right, whilst is used in a lot of British writing.
    Personally, I also use gadzooks and zounds.

  9. “Trying to cause trouble…?” Okey dokey, guess *someone* can’t take criticism, even when that criticism is something as innocent as “you overuse a particular word.”

    And you *do* overuse said word. Otherwise, I thought your articles were great. I even said so. I thought that my bringing this to your attention would help strengthen your writing, but that was obviously an excercise in futility. So, carry on. Don’t mind me. Overuse as many words as you’d like.

  10. Jesus Christ, Christian. Pretty thin-skinned, are we? I saw absolutely no harm in Jimmy Lane’s post. The guy was complimenting you left and right. You came off pretty arrogant and elitist in your replies to him as well. I will make sure to avoid your writings in the future.

  11. I think it was the post by Brad, rather than Jimmy Lane that has caused this uproar…

  12. Thank you, Lorri. :)

  13. The assumption that we as writers are supposed to have think skins and take whatever you dish out is… well, insulting.

    What’s even more insulting is to nitpick a writer’s cultural identity.

    LorriLives – we’ll avoid your writings in the future too.
    Jimmy Lane – anyone who makes a comment just to thank the one person who agreed with them is a troll.

  14. Elitist? Sorry but this seems to be getting out of hand, all because I used the word ‘whilst’ three times in an article. Surely there are bigger things in the world to stress over.

  15. Christian, mate. It’s a good article. People, British English is not exactly the same as American English. We use “whilst” a lot in our formal writing, It’s common practice, built in into our education. Just like we say Racing car not Race Car and a rubber is an eraser and color is spelt colour.

  16. There are differences between UK and US spelling but they’re only minor and easy to understand so can’t see a problem. And thanks Glenn, glad you liked it.

  17. Just as always… great article Christian. Glad to see you posting here more frequently again.

  18. Thank you train wrecked, appreciated!

  19. I think I’m going to start using more Australian slang in my writing. I’ve been Americanizing my writing without even being aware of it. Thanks for being an inspiration, Christian, and for continuing to write for us.

  20. Christian, I just want to post one last time and retract the statements I made earlier. I did NOT see Brad’s posting. I can totally see where that would cause offense. I do apologize. Retroslashers is a great site with great info. You guys keep up the good work.

  21. No problem Lorri, let’s get back to ripping apart the FX in Snuff and forget about this silly little drama.

  22. Christian, keep on using “whilst”. YOU are the writer. I see no reason in you changing it to “while” just because an American isn’t happy that you “overuse” it.

    By the way, great article as usual! Can’t wait to read the next one!

  23. Alan Shackleton licensed SLAUGHTER, not purchased from Jack Bravman. Jack is currently looking for his negatives he lend out to Alan with the original ending. Jack even has a funny part as a victim at the restroom. lol.

  24. Well Anyways, good article Christian as always.

  25. The other thing that may have led people to believe that Snuff was real is that a lot of people watching it (especially in the UK) were watching 2nd or 3rd generation copies (if not even more) so the graininess of the picture gives a griminess to it, and also covers a lot of bad FX.

  26. hi!,I really like your writing so so much! proportion we communicate more about your post on AOL? I need a specialist on this space to unravel my problem. Maybe that’s you! Looking ahead to see you. agdbkefgbe

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