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.