Free Film School #83: There’s No Such Thing as a Snuff Film, Right?

This week, CraveOnline's prestigious Free Film School deigns to go dark. This week's lecture will take a brief and disturbing look into the world of on-camera real-life death, and the persistence of notions of Snuff Films.

Aside from sex, cars, and conversation, the most-filmed thing in the history of visual recording is death. We humans are, after all, mortal beings, so it only makes sense that we should be constantly obsessed with our own mortality, and would want to film the odd yet universal phenomenon of passing from this world to the next. Most films that deal with death, however, deal with it in a healthy sort of way. There are hurtful and tearful dramas about the mere everyday emotional mechanics of slow death (the Academy Award-nominated Amour, to cite a recent example, is a masterpiece).

There are action pictures wherein murder is seen as heroic, and the death of a villain or bad guy is presented as a form of catharsis through cinema; see any James Bond film. I would even call callow blood-soaked teen death romps (see Texas Chainsaw 3D) a form of teen catharsis; yes, myriad cheap slashers cheapen the notion of human life – it's what they do – but it does so in a fun way, allowing self-perceived immortal teenagers to, in a small way, exorcize their nascent fears of mortality. Why teenagers tend to like films about being being killed in huge numbers is a topic that has been widely discussed and debated, although I think we all kind of innately sense why most teenagers like ultra-violent on-screen mayhem.

All death on film is, however, fictional. It's fantasy violence. The deaths are staged using actors. Even if someone is horribly mutilated, shrieking to the high heavens that they are indeed dying, we know that what we're looking at special effects and dyed Karo syrup being dribbled onto a game actor or actress. Very occasionally, a film will come along that will make you think that the violence being done to the actor is perhaps a little too real (1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leaps immediately to mind), but we still know somewhere that the on-screen violence is being faked. Right? Right…?

Well, thanks to a few enterprising gorehounds and underground filmmakers, not to mention a small amount of public panic on the topic in the 1970s, there is a rumored class of films in the world referred to as "Snuff Films"; that is, films that deliberately depict scenes of actual death intended for commercial consumption. They are so called because, well, someone gets snuffed out, in real time, on camera, for your darkest entertainment.

I want to state outright that there is actually no such thing as a real snuff film as far as has yet been determined by the law. If we're talking about a murder that was deliberately filmed simply for the purpose of filming it, there has yet to be an actual snuff film to surface anywhere in the world. Sure, there have been some movies that have come close, and real-life death has indeed been filmed in the past, but an actual commercially-produced film to feature a real-life murder? Not a one.

So where does the notion come from? Well, the phrase “Snuff Film” wasn't used until the 1970s, when the Manson cult was infiltrating the news. In addition to all of the actual horrors and deaths that the Manson Family was responsible for, many news outlets, creative editorialists, and other panic-mongers attributed several other horrible crimes to them including cannibalism, animal rape, and, yes, making snuff films. No such films were made by the Mason Family, but the notion had now been introduced. All of a sudden, exploitation filmmakers had a new angle to work.

This was about the same time as the popular trend of "Mondo Movies," a series of documentary films that supposedly captured real-life odd and violent extremes of the world, all sparked by the 1962 cult classic Mondo Cane. Mondo Movies will warrant a Free Film School lecture of their own someday. Mondo Movies were already pretty shocking, and occasionally contained footage of animals being killed (in Mondo New York, a man actually bites the heads off of two live white mice on camera). We had already seen a few Mondo Movies, and rumors of the Mason Family's antics inflamed the public's imagination. It only seemed like a logical progression to the notion of an on-screen murder.

All of a sudden, the ultimate taboo was being broken. Sex? Seen it. Thanks to Deep Throat, porn was being brought into the mainstream. Violence? Heck, go to any neighborhood grindhouse or drive-in, and you'll see plenty of ultra-bloody Herschell Gordon Lewis films. But actual documentary death? That was a new one.

In 1976, a pretty nondescript horror film called Slaughter was renamed Snuff to cash in on the underground craze (can you call a underground movement a “craze?”). The filmmakers staged mock protests as a form of publicity. By then, the notion was roiling around in the public unconsciousness. No commercially produced snuff films had surfaced, but there was now a conspiratorial edge to certain horror films. What if – and it's easy to imagine – there was a secret cadre of underground filmmakers who were kidnapping and murdering young people on camera? What if there is a secret cabal of ultra-rich fetishists who actually commission these sorts of films?

Many films over the years have played into this conspiracy. Paul Schrader's excellent 1979 film Hardcore features George C. Scott as a concerned small-town father who treks to the big city to find his estranged daughter who has been, according to his investigations, a rising star in the ultra-seedy, totally unsafe 1970s freelance porn business. His daughter, not yet 18, he finds may be the intended star of an upcoming snuff film. Hardcore is a scare film to be sure, but mercifully lacks any heavy-handed moralizing.

David Cronenberg's techno-fear-themed cult hit Videodrome featured a central plot element of underground snuff producers sneaking onto Canadian airwaves. More recently, the 1999 Nicolas Cage vehicle 8mm featured a private investigator who looked into the origins of a privately-owned 8mm film reel that may or may not depict a teenage girl being killed. Even the notion of someone being killed or tortured live on the internet has been explored in thrillers like Strangeland, Untraceable, My Little Eye, and the eighth Halloween movie. All these movies can easily lead one to suspect that there is indeed a market for real on-camera death.

And, as it turns out, there kind of is. Certain films and video collections have catered to a particularly dark segment of the film-viewing public. One of the most disgusting films ever made is easily Ruggero Deodato's 1980 mockumentary Cannibal Holocaust, supposedly about a team of filmmakers who, in an attempt to find real cannibals, end up being preyed upon. The film is so shoddy, crass, and raw that the filmmakers were taken to court on suspicion of actually making a snuff film.

The actors who supposedly died were produced in court and the charges were dropped, but – dang – it sure looks like it. The film does, however, feature the killing of animals live on camera, including a large turtle and a little monkey. I think, all told, there were six animal deaths in the film. Only watch Cannibal Holocaust if you have a strong stomach. Others employed similar shock tactics or real-life death to add an element of shock to an audience often considered unshockable. Even the lauded Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni featured a real-life firing squad in his oddball odyssey The Passenger from 1975.

The history of actual death on camera is, sadly, a long one, and the tradition of marketing these “death videos” begins to blur the line of our definition of a snuff film. Sure, we may not have any actual fictional movies with real murders in them, but plenty of people have died in front of cameras accidentally, or in a documentary context. There are very early silent reels, for instance, scientifically documenting the effect of electricity on large animals (which can be seen in the Errol Morris documentary Mr. Death).

In 1934, a Yugoslavian prince was assassinated on camera. Lee Harvey Oswald was shot live on TV. Anytime there's a violent NASCAR death. I don't think I need to mention the name of Abraham Zapruder or his infamous film reel of JFK’s assassination, probably the most famous death film ever shot. And, yes, the World Trade Center towers collapsed on film. One of the most shocking on-screen deaths was probably the suicide of the Pennsylvania Senator Budd Dwyer who called a press conference in 1987 only to kill himself, on live TV, in front of thousands. Yes, you can find that clip online. No, I'm not going to link to it.

In addition to these accidental death reels, there are science reels showing people being killed in experiments. Yes, World War II was a nasty time. I also know that there are criminals who filmed their kidnap victims being tortured, but I know little about these.

There's even a whole sub-class of death films often called "Scare Films" or "Scared Straight Films," which are shown to young people in driver's ed courses, showing them the real-life results of fatal car accidents. The idea being that they will become safer drives if they know the real-life consequences. There's an excellent 2002 documentary film called Hell's Highway which I recommend. Scare Films will also be covered in a future Free Film School lecture.

With this abundance of disturbing material, it was only a matter of time before an enterprising death-head assemblde a reel of all of the “good parts” from the above-mentioned death reels. In the tradition of the Mondo Movies we soon saw the illicit 1978 straight-to-video-store video Faces of Death, conceived and produced by one John Alan Schwartz, once a guest on CraveOnline's B-Movies Podcast, and now co-host of the wonderful online film review program Two Jews on Film.

I have to admit I haven't had the courage to belly up to Faces of Death yet, but it does have the most widely-celebrated reputation amongst the world's unhappy mutants. It was such a notorious hit that it spawned several sequels and many, many imitators. And while much of the footage in Face of Death is real, a good deal of it is also staged. Faces of Death, not a proper snuff film, occupies a weird middle ground between documentary and sleazy exploitation. It's a curio, really.

As I said above, I can understand why humanity has a need to constantly look at its own mortality in its art; our mortality is the great truth of our existence. But I have to admit I'm a little lost when it comes to the fans of real-life death scenes. There is a sad, deliberately hard edge to this level of film, a reeking desperation and depression that attempts to make death harmless by depicting it in a string of messy, sloppily-filmed accidents. Actual depictions of the depth of human brutality are being presented as entertainment. I can see the philosophy behind it, which, from a filmmaking perspective, sounds almost profound: by filming anything, no matter how real, how horrible, or how violent, you are kind of making it into an entertainment. By virtue of being on camera, even real-life death can be made into a twisted form of hackle-raising underground pop art. I have many friends who have seen Faces of Death as a sort of academic exercise. This is all academic, though. Actually watching death reels seeking genuine straightforward entertainment seems to me to be an act of extreme depression.

Will a snuff film ever be made? I'm willing to bet the answer is no. But as our lives are being increasingly lived in public, on camera, for online consumption, it seems like it's only a matter of time before our deaths also make it into that ethos. Heck, if people are willing to sit through the shock coprophagy videos with girls and cups, can the shock of death reels be far behind? If a proper snuff film does ever get made, I'm certain we'll hear all about it. It will be on the news, and it will be discussed, decried, mulled over… and sought after. Some people will add bootleg copies to their collections. The philosophical debates will continue. And I'll hole up with some Chuck Jones cartoon shorts and try to avoid seeing it.

Homework for the Week:

What are the philosophical implications of filming real-life death? What function, do you think, death reel videos serve? Have you ever sought out a death video? Was it morbid curiosity? What is the purpose of shock value? When does shock value go too far?  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.