starring Liliana Fernández Blanco, Ana Carro, Enrique Larratelli, Mirtha Massa
written and directed by Michael Findlay (with additional footage directed by Simon Nuchtern)
by Bryant Frazer For the majority of its running time, Snuff is pretty standard grindhouse fare. Shot on the cheap and loosely based on the Manson cult murders, which were still big news when the film was being shot in 1971, it's a potboiler about a serial-killing biker gang of women in thrall to a presumably charismatic, self-styled guru calling himself Satán. Shootings, stabbings, softcore groping, and general toplessness ensue. But it's not your ordinary South American Satanic nudie cult film à clef. Among dime-a-dozen exploitation films, Snuff is special.
I'm not saying it's a good movie, but it has more panache than its reputation would suggest. It opens with a cheerful take on Easy Rider, as two slim brunettes ride a motorcycle down the open road while a guitar chugs out a close-enough approximation of the riff from "Born to Be Wild." (The score, heavy on bluesy rock guitar and percussion freakouts, is pretty groovy throughout. Regrettably, I've had no luck Googling up any information on the composer.) There are even some obvious attempts at symbolism--the sort of stuff that denotes a real movie. In one of the early scenes, two of the women are wearing similar blue kerchiefs. Passive Ana (Ana Carro) wears hers folded flat over her hair, like a housewife, or maybe a refugee from a Doris Day movie, as she gets high on the gang's own supply of coke. But leader of the pack Susanna (Liliana Fernández Blanco) wears hers rolled around her forehead like a bandana, in the fashion befitting a revolutionary. As the gang of women hovers menacingly over strung-out Ana, the film cuts to a phallic smokestack looming overhead in a scene that introduces alpha male Satán (Enrique Larratelli) as the leader of the pack.
Admirers of Mario Bava--or perhaps his lower-rent Spanish cousin, Jess Franco--may appreciate the arrested flamboyance of one scene in which a woman in a fedora and oversized raincoat emerges from a stall in an airport men's room to knife a random dude in the back, then flees, fabulously, into the great outdoors. Then there are the various softcore sex scenes, offering a voyeuristic view of ladies underthings' and more as they appeared in generations past. Sleaze gains a certain sweetness if it sits on the shelf long enough; it becomes almost quaint and charming. That's why The Slaughter still holds some interest as a period piece. And I was a tiny bit impressed when the film introduced a German arms dealer criticized for selling guns to Arabs, who use them, presumably, to kill Jews.
OK, shaming Germans and disparaging Palestine in the same breath doesn't count as a bold political move, but it does demonstrate a modicum of ambition. Unfortunately, the overall level of control displayed by director Michael Findlay over his material isn't very high (Roberta was the cinematographer). The violent content includes a scene of unconvincing toe-cutting seemingly tailored for foot fetishists, a couple of unconvincing stabbings, and several unconvincing deaths-by-squib. The sexual content includes a genuinely vulgar scene where a teenager watches a farmer milk a cow, nudge nudge wink wink, for several long and uncomfortable moments before she's raped. Roberta Findlay's idea of day-for-night photography seems to involve printing the scenes in monochrome, where they take on a drab blue cast (presumably because the black-and-white scenes were printed to colour stock, which tends to shift to blue under those circumstances). The performances are mostly appalling, though they're not helped by resolutely indifferent dubbing (since the actors didn't all speak English, the whole film was shot MOS) that sounds like it was recorded inside that airport men's room. There's a long carnival sequence padded out with obvious (and endless) cutaways to stock footage. The picture becomes truly hilaribad whenever the Findlays juice it up with every tool at their disposal, resorting to cheesy chestnuts like the sudden zoom-in to an extreme close-up in the middle of someone's line reading (in this case, the punchline is "Eichmann!"), or trotting out semi-expressionist editorial techniques in the cutting room.
While I'm not a connoisseur of early-1970s trash cinema, I've seen more than my share, and The Slaughter doesn't strike me as appreciably worse than your typical grindhouse programmer of the era. The Findlays' efforts from the 1960s use many of the same stylistic techniques but play better in the context of no-frills sex films than they do in this marginally more ambitious, ripped-from-today's-headlines narrative, where they come across as pretentious affectations.
But what might make Snuff the quintessential American exploitation film is what happened to it after the Findlays were done with it. Different sources tell the story in different ways, but The Slaughter either tanked so badly in its first few engagements that it never rolled out across the country, or it was deep-sixed immediately by a distributor who found it unmarketable on any scale. However it got shelved, it remained there for years until the distributor, Allan Shackleton, had the idea to shoot a five-minute coda that advanced the unlikely premise that, at the end of shooting, the filmmakers themselves kept rolling as they (SPOILER ALERT) dismembered and disembowelled a woman for real on camera. No, that doesn't make any sense whatsoever, and of course the scene is far from convincing. The stage blood registers with the same unrealistic Day-Glo colour that's familiar to viewers of such early gore classics as Blood Feast, the tubing pumping the fake stuff onto the bed is painfully evident in at least one shot, and the prosthetics are not exactly up to, er, snuff. Nevertheless, Shackleton mounted a coy campaign that hinted at unsavoury origins for the footage ("Made in South America, where life is cheap!" blared the tagline) and wound up creating a minor sensation as feminists, church groups, and other pillars of the community reliably turned out to protest its engagements.2
The irony is that Shackleton's plan to fix the film may have saved it commercially, but the coda he came up with is so graceless and opportunistic that it ends up making The Slaughter look good by comparison. I'm not saying that The Slaughter was The Magnificent Ambersons, just that it's easy to enjoy a lousy movie that's made by well-meaning people who are only trying to show you a good time, offering up some killer chicks in and out of bikinis, a half-hearted murder plot, and a dash of gunplay. The Slaughter delivers on those fronts. Snuff, on the other hand, is out to trick you; it thinks it's smarter than you. And that's only possible because it thinks that you, dear viewer, are tragically stupid. It's the truest kind of exploitation film because it's utterly pernicious. Snuff doesn't lie to you, exactly, but it believes there's a good chance you'll buy the line of bullshit it's selling anyway.
I'm well aware that movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and others have followed Snuff's marketing lead by failing to, let's say, dissuade viewers of the veracity of the events depicted, found-footage-style, on screen. Yet those tactics were meant to enhance what was already there, underscoring the gimmick and giving the movie a better shot commercially. Though Shackleton's efforts to rescue The Slaughter from the trash heap were undeniably successful, they're an affront to the filmmakers as well as to the audience, both of which Shackleton apparently holds in contempt. (If nothing else, it's a stunning violation of droit d'auteur that earned Shackleton a lawsuit eventually settled out of court.) Snuff's final shot, in which a joker wearing a T-shirt reading "Vida es Muerte" holds a few butcher-shop cast-offs aloft, screaming, as if they were the very entrails of the maiden prone on the bed before him, is worth a laugh not for the hamminess of the performance, the grossness of its execution, or the paucity of its imagination, but for the nakedness of its cynicism. This kind of cinema is enough to put you off the stuff entirely.
Blue Underground said (via its Facebook account) that it searched unsuccessfully for a complete cut of The Slaughter to put on its Blu-ray upgrade of Snuff. Shame they couldn't turn it up--that never-before-seen version would have been a strong contender for cult-movie find of the decade. (An addition to the opening title card indicates that, as of 2013, Blue Underground owns all rights to the film, so there shouldn't be any licensing issues to work out if a complete print ever does turn up.) Well, you master the Blu-ray with the movie you have, not the movie you wish you had, and Blue Underground has done right by Snuff. Some videophiles will sniff at the grainy picture (I'm inclined to believe sources claiming that Slaughter was originally shot in 16mm), while others will wonder why it wasn't subject to more rigorous dust-and-scratch removal. Me, I like it the way it is: This is one of those rare discs that has a truly breathtaking, film-like appearance.
Although the image is far from perfect, it has the texture and feel of a print, including the inevitable flaws. If this pillarboxed 1.67:1, 1080p transfer was as hands-off as it appears, Blue Underground found a pretty solid copy of Snuff to work from, harvesting rich colours and adequately broad dynamic range. The blacks sometimes have a crushed feel, but that's likely to be a product of good old underexposure in the shadows as opposed to any error in the transfer. It's a gorgeous print, occasionally riddled with scratches--but that's entirely appropriate to the mood of the piece, and it certainly beats the application of aggressive noise-reduction techniques. Some shots are softer than others, probably owing to inconsistencies in the source material. The bitrate isn't especially high but probably doesn't need to be. I didn't notice much in the way of artifacting, despite the heavy grain, and the film and bonus features (some in SD) fit comfortably on a BD-25. In all, this movie isn't going to look much better unless someone gets a chance to scan the camera negative.
As for the DTS-HD MA 1.0 soundtrack, well, it is what it is. The audio is quite thin, and when a lot is going on--shouting or screaming over the high-decibel rock soundtrack, for example--the different sound elements dissolve into a cold porridge of noise. It's unremarkable, though it's obviously limited by the elements. It sounds way better than it would have had someone decided to try spreading it out across six channels.
Supplements new to this Blu-ray are anchored by "Shooting Snuff", a 10-minute interview (by extras maven Michael Felsher) with filmmaker Carter Stevens (Wicked Schoolgirls, The Love Couch), whose insert stage was used for the tacked-on ending of Snuff, overseen by one Simon Nuchtern of the New York-based outfit August Films. He recalls the shoot ("Quite frankly, the special effects sucked") and the ensuing controversy around the picture's opening in Times Square ("I'm sure he made back his money in less than a week"), although he waffles when it comes to the question of whether Shackleton hired protesters to stand in front of the theatre. It's still a terrific bit of scholarship on behalf of the project.
Next is "Up to Snuff," a seven-minute monologue by director Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Drive, Only God Forgives), who offers an engaging critique of Snuff/The Slaughter (and the hysteria over what was imagined to be an epidemic of actual snuff films)--a tiny, mischievous smile occasionally dancing across his face as he looks at the camera just a little bit sideways. My favourite comment comes during his separate 44-second optional intro to the film, when he says, "To me, this was the New Wave version of horror films," and compares Snuff, cheekily, to Jean-Luc Godard. I thought he was having a laugh until I realized the obvious comparison would be Week End, with its violent, bandana-wearing revolutionaries pontificating in the jungle.
"Bill Kelly: Porn Buster" is a standard-def interview, prepared circa 2000, with a retired FBI agent who specialized in obscenity investigations and spent much time looking into the urban legend of snuff films but came up empty, having sent an informant around the country to try to procure a commercially-produced snuff movie with no luck. Kelly does mention Charles Ng and Leonard Lake, whom he describes as "a couple of yahoos out in California" he claims did indeed kill women on camera, but dismisses them as amateurs. "That was a personal escapade. It was not for commercial development." It's grim material, but Blue Underground's faux hard-boiled music bed sets precisely the right tone. I just wish there had been a way to cover the infamous Guinea Pig case that saw Charlie Sheen contacting the FBI after watching the particularly sadistic Japanese horror film Flower of Flesh and Blood, given to him by the late writer and noted gorehound Chas Balun.
It's a shame that Blue Underground wasn't able to round out the special features with a contribution by someone involved in the making of The Slaughter itself. A three-minute U.S. trailer is presented in SD, as is a two-minute German trailer under the colourful title of American Cannibale (it's set in Argentina, mein Freunde, but don't let that stop you). Also on board is a "controversy gallery" with press clippings from the time of Snuff's original release that yield some interesting tidbits. I was amused to learn that screenings of Snuff were apparently picketed by the Adult Film Association of America (now the Free Speech Coalition), who claimed it gave X-rated movies a bad name. Finally, you can step through "Snuff: The Seventies and Beyond," an essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who literally wrote the book on rape-revenge films. It might be nicer to have this as part of the accompanying booklet, but Snuff doesn't come with a booklet. (It's not that kind of film.) There is, however, reversible jacket art, allowing you to choose your particular poison. For what it's worth, you may as well buy it now, while it's available in a blood-red plastic case that delightfully complements the three-colour key art. You may not pull it off the shelf that often, but it could have real value as a conversation piece.
1. Many sources, including one Blue Underground interviewed for this Blu-ray release, refer to the film as Slaughter, others (such as IMDb and the MPAA's filmratings.com) as The Slaughter. Roberta Findlay, a primary source in this affair (Michael Findlay and Allan Shackleton are both long dead) if perhaps not entirely a reliable one, is quoted using the latter in an interview that appeared in THE NEW YORK PRESS. return
2. According to the 1993 tome Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff by David Kerekes and David Slater, Shackleton laid the groundwork for the Snuff ad campaign in 1975 by anonymously spreading the false story that some nefarious filmmakers had smuggled a real snuff film into the U.S. from South America. If this version of the story is true, Shackleton's achievement seems all the more audacious. return
No seemed offended when the Coen Brothers claimed at the beginning of "Fargo" that it was a true story, but I don't see how that's any less slimy a trick than "Snuff."
Posted by: Richard | November 11, 2013 at 07:47 PM