Snuff (1976)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Mute Witness

The Monster



Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

Headbands never go out of style.
There are some movies where the story behind the film is more interesting that the story in the film. Snuff is one of those movies, and the story behind the film had repercussions that are with us to this day. Though shoddily made and not nearly as controversial as its reputation, Snuff has been at the center of maelstrom of sex, death and politics ever since it was first released in 1976.

The story really starts in 1971. Charles Manson and three of his followers had just been convicted for the 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders, and the first major book on the murders was published. That book, The Family by Ed Sanders, had interviews with former Charlie Manson followers who said the cult had produced homemade "brutality" movies, or as they were termed later in the book, snuffs films. In fact none of the informants had seen the films in question or had any real first hand knowledge about them, and there is absolutely no physical evidence that any such films were ever shot. The lack of evidence was not much of a hurdle to the belief that snuff films might actually exist, however. When it came to Manson, people would believe almost anything.

At about the same time Sander's book came out sleaze-mongers Roberta and Michael Findlay were in Argentina filming cheap movies for the grind house circuit. They were in Argentina presumably because it was cheaper to get attractive women to take their clothes off for the camera there than in the States. One of the movies they shot was a nearly plotless thriller called Slaughter about a Charles Manson type who inspires his female followers to commit a series of murders in Buenos Aries, including that of a pregnant actress. The movie was purchased by Al Shackleton's Monarch Film Distribution and was apparently given some sort of small release in 1971, probably only in New York City. The movie did no business and disappeared into obscurity for the next five years.

In 1972 the seminal porn film Deep Throat was released. Over the next few years there was a furious debate over the legality and ultimate social impact of increasingly graphic pornography. One of the most extreme arguments against pornography was that the tolerance of porn made it easier for the snuff industry to survive on its fringes. Keep in mind, there was still no evidence that snuff films even existed!

At some point in 1975 Al Shackleton had a brainwave. If everyone was talking about snuff films, why not give them what they expected to see? Shackleton dusted off Slaughter and contracted a local director (probably Simon Nuchtern) to film a new ending for the Findlay movie that purports to be actual snuff footage. Shackleton then retitled the resulting chimera Snuff, removed all the credits, and came up with a great poster featuring the tagline "The film that could only be made in South America… Where life is cheap!" A press release was sent out announcing the "new" movie.

Other than attracting Michael Findlay out of the woodwork to ask for money because his movie was getting released again, the press release didn't have much of an effect. Not wanting to lose his investment, Shackleton tried another tack. Writing as "Vincent Sheehan" and purporting to represent a group called "Citizens for Decency," Shackleton made up press clippings decrying the release of his own movie. This did the trick. A huge controversy erupted, the movie eventually opened at the prestigious National Theater on Broadway. Protestors picketed the theater (apparently Shackleton didn't know there was a real group with the name Citizens for Decency, and the protestors didn't realize the clippings were fake!), and Snuff went on to make a tidy profit.

So that's the history of Snuff. Now let's talk about what you'll see if you watch the damn movie.

"Maybe I could be a shock rocker..."
The title card is clumsily spliced into footage of two women on a motorcycle rolling along a road in Argentina while music that could have been stolen from Easy Rider (1969) plays in the background. This goes on for longer than you think. In fact nearly every scene in Snuff goes on longer than it needs to, probably because the Findlays were desperate to pad the thin narrative out to feature length. Finally the women arrive in their destination, the middle of nowhere, and meet another woman. They talk about the fact that "the stuff" hasn't arrived, because even if you're out in the middle of nowhere Argentina you talk about drugs in vague code words like "the stuff" just in case someone overhears you. The three women look around a bit and find a fourth woman they were supposed to meet, Anna, stoned out of her mind. They chase and capture Anna, and hold her until the boss shows up. That boss is the Manson-esque Saatan.

Please note, the spelling "Saatan" is entirely our creation. Everyone who watches Snuff has their own idea of how the cult leader spells his name, which is basically Satan with short 'a'. (Oooh, so clever!) Because the credits to Slaughter were removed from Snuff and apparently lost, the character names and exactly who played them will probably remain an eternal mystery, like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop or why Michael Bay movies make more money the worse they are.

Saatan orders Anna to be tortured for bogarting all "the stuff." Later one of the other girls explains to Anna that normally the punishment for disobeying Saatan would be death, but she's too important to kill because of her unexplained role in acquiring "the stuff."

Banana phone to the rescue!
Cut to an airport in Chile. A woman in a trench coat is skulking around. She goes into a bathroom and stabs a man in the back. Confused? Get used to it, there are many odd scenes like this that have no explained link to the main story. Meanwhile elsewhere in the airport Terri London, an actress, deplanes with her producer Maximillian Marsh. They're in South America to make a movie, and the entire local press corps (two people) is hounding them relentlessly as they cross the tarmac. "And in this new film will Miss London be following current trends? Will she be doing an nude scenes?" asks one of the reporters. "Miss London is an actress. She'll do anything necessary to give a good performance, in this film or any other," replies Maximillian.

In an odd coincidence, it turns out that a few months before Terri had an affair with Horst, an Argentine playboy who was visiting New York City. Terri resolves to renew her acquaintance with Horst, so she gives him a call, unbeknownst to Max. The two lovebirds arrange to meet, and share a long date montage. Things go so well then when Horst gets back to his mansion he decides that Terri will move in with him. That's bad news for Angelica, Horst's current live in girlfriend. He tells her to hit the road.

As it turns out, all Argentine
playboys can distend their jaws
to eat small animals whole.
We find out that Angelica is a member of Saatan's cult, and her relationship with Horst was part of the cult leader's plans. Saatan has for determined that he needs to sacrifice Horst's child in a ritual to take over the world, or something. Unlike most people prophesying sacrificial children, Saatan decides that the exact mother doesn't really matter, and seeing as how Angelica was apparently not really cutting it when it came to being an egg factory anyway, Terri will make a fine substitute. Is Saatan a crazed cult leader or just a frustrated fertility doctor?

We hoped the next scenes would be Saatan and followers sneaking around Horst's mansion, poking holes in condoms, stocking the refrigerators with raw oysters, and leaving the Victoria Secret's catalog in the living room. But no, they actually decide to take care of the possessive Maximillian. Maximillian takes Terri to Carnival (this year's theme: stock footage), but she sneaks away to be with Horst. Meanwhile Angelica dresses up in the same costume Terri is wearing and lures Max into an alley, then stabs him.

"The embarrasing part is that
our station house was stolen
last night."
The next day the police talk to Terri about her producer’s murder. In this scene we see the difference between Roger Corman and the Findlays. If Roger Corman needed to do a scene in a police station but couldn’t afford one he’d get whatever office he could, slap a picture of the current President on the wall, and call it a police station. The Findlays can’t even afford the office. Instead, the police detective (Michael Findlay himself) has a desk set up in the middle of what appears to be a scrap yard.

With Terri and Horst now securely together there isn’t much left to happen. The movie skips forward weeks and months without notice and there’s a bunch of filler scenes, including a long and unpleasant flashback into Angelica’s past that the audience couldn’t care about less. One fun little scene does deserve mention.

Horst’s father, a rich German businessman, visits to meet Terri for the first time. During the conversation it comes up that Dad just completed a large sale of arms to an unnamed Middle Eastern government. This puts Terri out. When Dad presses her on why, she explains that a German selling guns to Arabs to kill Jews makes her uneasy. Dad laughs this off, and thanks her for her honesty. Then Saatan and Angelica show up unannounced, and Saatan spins a complicated parable about how butchers are more moral than knife retailers if equally necessary, which enrages Dad. So call Dad a Nazi and he takes it in stride, call him a salesman and he gets pissed.

After an hour and ten minutes of preliminaries we finally get to Saatan ordering his gaggle of gullible gals to retrieve the baby from the pregnant Terri. The cultists raid Horst’s estate, killing everybody in sight, including Horst’s Dad and a swinging couple Horst was playing sex games with while Terri sleeps upstairs. Lastly Angelica finds Terri, and after asking her repeatedly if the child is Horst’s (shouldn’t she have checked that before the killed Horst?), the knife plunges towards Terri’s belly…

"Don't tell the union about this."
… And the camera jumps back behind the camera crew filming the scene, the filming lights are shut down, and the director approaches the actress with the knife. The "stabbed" actress remains motionless beneath a blanket – are we to assume that she is the first snuff victim, or is this an acknowledgment of the “fake body” special effects you might use for this kind of scene? If the former, it makes the apparent surprise of the second snuffee ridiculous in the extreme, if the latter it only makes the artifice more obvious. After a perfunctory and clearly ad-libbed scene in which the "director" clumsily seduces a blonde woman on set by asking her if the murder scene “turned her on” while the film crew disperses (or so she thinks), the gore begins. The blonde notices that the camera is still rolling and the director abandons his initial thoughts of fornication in favor of bloody murder, while the "crew" looks on in what was probably supposed to be vicious and demonic delight.

It pains us to debunk this scene because the actors and special effects team are clearly not even trying to disguise the phoniness of it all. The fact that the bedroom is clearly a different location indicates the level of artlessness with which the new material was created. Who exactly is filming the film crew? Would a crew of snuff filmmakers really keep their victim alive long enough to film cutaway shots? Is that opaque, vivid crimson stuff supposed to be anything other than tempura paint? And need we mention that this little bit of post-modernism means there's no proper ending to the Sataan plot?

What's scarier -- The severed hand
or the bedspread?
Our poor peroxide-haired victim half-heartedly wails and fusses her way through the scene, further underscoring the fact that she is in no real pain. A spirited performance might have convinced us that those looking to capitalize on the snuff film urban legend were at least trying to pull off a convincing hoax, but evidence of such gumption never materializes. It is rather less ghoulish than it could have been but also disappointing that anyone could be taken in by such inept chicanery. Not that the film's detractors ever saw Snuff, of course -- as with supposedly controversial films today, there are simply people who enjoy making a fuss with only a whiff of innuendo as their evidence. Snuff remained an infamous movie for years, even gaining an early spot on the British Board of Film Censors' “video nasties” list.

The entrails-bearing director who closes the film sports a t-shirt that proclaims "La Vida Es Muerte." We're pretty sure he just got lost on the linguistic road to "El Video Es Mierda."

This review is part of:

Review date: 01/24/2006

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