Review Date: October 17, 2013
Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: October 22, 2013
Codec: AVC, 1080p
Widescreen 1.66 | 16x9: Yes
It seems odd to afford such praise upon a cheap, silly little picture that the ragtag South American pop culture profiteers Michael and Roberta Findlay were barely even able to sell back in the early 70s, but it’s true. Never has the fourth wall of cinema ever crumbled the way it did when Allan Shackleton tacked on an ending to make it seem as if an actress in the film, after the director called cut, was disembowelled in front of an active filmmaking crew and audience. The execution, entre intended, was unbelievable at best, but the lightning rod it was for politics, be it gender equality, cultural stereotypes or questions of morality, depravity and entertainment was special. Decades before beheadings in Iraq being released on the internet would challenge our national innocence, Snuff
was a picture that made you stop and think about humanity.
’s illusion of reality probably represents one of Earth’s greatest collective suspensions of disbelief, given the quality of the finished film, but it works because as people we want it to be real in order to help us understand the vulnerabilities of our body. Snuff
plays upon the driving motivation of every human, the fear of death, in a way that we only hope could be real so we can better understand ourselves. This is why I applauded Blue Underground back in 2003 for releasing Snuff
on DVD the way they did. The packaging and presentation minimalism of that release, bereft of menus, chapter stops, copyright information or the hubris of even a company logo and packaged in what looks like a tattered paper bag was a stroke of genius nearly on par with Shackleton’s pseudo-snuff ending. We know the film is fake and that this was released by Blue Underground, but again it’s that illusion that’s still so potent today.
As great a gimmick as Blue Underground’s first DVD was, Snuff
is a picture where the very conversation and debate about its existence is more interesting than the film itself. It needed a release to encapsulate all that context that came with the film and its original infamous theatrical issue back in 1976. So here we are today, where Bill Lustig and his team have dug up news clippings, old tapes and essays on the film’s hot button topics and have shot new interviews from filmmakers both inside and outside of the film’s process, to better help us understand one of cinema’s most fascinating of pictures. But is there really enough there in this notoriously terrible film to discuss? Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn thinks so…but what about some dude who reviews horror movies on the internet?
The 75-minute preamble before the snuff scene begins with a harem of women riding on motorcycles looking for some good pot. One of their cult members, Ana (Ana Carro
), has some, but as her peer Susanna (Liliana Fernández Blanco
) so eloquently puts it “she’s a greedy bitch who’s always holding out on us!” When the girls find Ana strung out, they decide to shoot her with her own gun for payback. It doesn’t quite kill her, so they capture her and have her meet with their master, Satan (it’s pronounced Saw-tahn, subtle right?). Because Ana disobeyed her by I guess doing drugs without her friends(?), she must in turn be tortured as punishment. “Each one of you must obey my command, or each one of you must die!” Satan (Enrique Larratelli
) prophetically reminds the ladies. Nice guy.
Meanwhile, popular American actress Terry London (Mirtha Massa
) has just touched down in Buenos Aires to film a new movie for director Maximilian Marsh (Aldo “Hold the” Mayo
). Despite all of Max’s advances, Terry starts to fall for German playboy Horst Frank (Clao Villanueva
). Horst was originally seeing Angelica (Margarita Amuchástegui
), another lady in Satan’s harem, but when Terry starts in on him jealousy is only the beginning. If this is sounding like a Spanish soap opera, it’s because it is. We soon find out why all these love triangles are important – Satan wants a child. No, not in the Omen kind of way, but instead a child to sacrifice. I don’t really know why Angelica would want to endure 9 months of pregnancy for that, but when Terry and Horst become an item Satan shifts the focus to Terry’s fertility and hopes that someday soon he’ll be able to sacrifice her child. You’d think he’d just go into some hospital or just steal a baby from a woman on the street, but I guess being practical comes second to talking in sermons like Rasputin.
To make sure that all is clear for Terry to be impregnated by Horst, Satan has Angelica murder Max during the big Argentina street festival (“This is so much better than Mardi Gras!” Terry notes). After that, it’s orgies for Satan and his women in the water, flashbacks to Angelina’s past with her pet turtle, a debate about war ethics and the Jews, a continuous loop of the start of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and a bunch of black and white scenes where Satan demands subjugation from his groupies. There’s also a very elaborate investigation after Max’s murder consisting of the film’s director, Michael Findlay, sitting behind a desk in some field acting like a detective. Really convincing plot here. Nine months pass and the ladies stage a siege on Antonio’s house, where Horst is currently wife swapping while Terry has a nap. The ladies get in and start to kill off the houseguests one by one, including Terry stabbing the knife into her—
The camera pulls back to reveal a small film set (that’s supposed to be the scene we just saw, but in actuality looks little like it) with 10 crew members calling it a night. The gaffer goes to wrap one of the 650’s before he says probably one of the worst pickup lines ever on film: “That was a gory scene, it really turned me on.” The funny thing is that it actually works, as the blonde actress (who, again, is supposed to be someone from the film we just watched but looks nothing like any of the other actresses) shockingly admits that it turned her on, too. Think about that for a second – a pregnant woman being stabbed in the stomach on a dull film set for a shitty movie just turned on two crew members who probably just put in a 12-hour day of filming. I’ve suspended my disbelief for a lot of weird shit in this genre, but this might just be the toughest. The two then immediately start making out on the bed before the actress opens her eyes to realize she’s being filmed (those old Arri 16mm mags are LOUD, so if we didn’t just see she had a conversation with the gaffer I’d assume she was deaf). The actress is startled, but the gaffer, who we should note is wearing a shirt that says “Vida Es Muerte”, which means “Life is Death” in Spanish, pins her down. The filming persists (and from multiple angles, despite the fact that one camera is only ever established on this set) and things escalate quickly. First her shoulder is stabbed, then her finger crimped, her hand sawed off and then finally her insides pulled from her stomach as the balding gaffer raises her entrails up and screams. She’s muerte. The film runs out as the director asks “Didya get it? Did you get all of it?”
I’ve watched this movie a handful of times now, and still I’m not even sure I’ve got all of it. Before we get to the snuff sequence that everyone was duped into seeing, the vast majority of the footage, which was sold as The Slaughter
in 1971, is a quilt of poorly sewn sequences and sources. The Findlays try to combine festival stock footage, black and white soft-core pornography and low budget run-and-gun handheld filming together in a narrative that while never in the least bit cohesive remains always interesting in a kind of fever dream fashion. Watching this film today, you certainly see how later films, particularly Tarantino’s Kill Bill
and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers
would co-opt a number of the ideas that the Findlay’s kind of barfed up on camera. The idea of group of female assassins killing for their patriarchal leader and the mix of different film stocks certainly seems similar to Tarantino’s kung fu opus, and similarly the group of bikini clad babes descending into madness during a weeklong party is something Korine would use for Spring Breakers
, right down to the elliptical, repetitive editing structure, with looping music and a man spouting nonsensical idioms like “But I, for one, do not like jackals.”
All told, the Findlay flick is actually pretty crazy and a fun time capsule if you can get by the cheap production value and cobbled together construction. If you’re willing to look deeper, I think there’s a pretty interesting theme of patriarchy that runs through this, and it’s something that works even better when paired with the tacked-on New York ending directed by Simon Nuchtern (whom slasher fans might recognize as the guy behind the 3D picture Silent Madness
in 1984). Considering this was a film made in response to the Charles Manson murders in 1969, it offers a telling compound of “what-ifs” that could have stood to motivate the killings. Sort of like Gus Van Sant’s elephant
, where many possible influences are shown that could have motivated the killings, Slaughter
shows a number of examples of how women have been subjugated here by men and why that might lead to their blind devotion. With the harem we see Ana as being drug dependent, Angelica as being a victim of rape and child molestation, as well as having abandonment issues from her own father, and Susanna as temperamental because of her feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. Even outside Satan’s lady followers, we see the actress Terry as one who is a pawn for her director as well as the aristocracy of the Frank family. That Frank is another name for penis seems not the coincidence considering the first time we are introduced to Satan in the film it’s from a lengthy tilt down from the most phallic building in all of Argentina. “Respect the cock”, as Frank Mackie would say in magnolia
And what’s interesting about all these themes is that I think the Findlay’s are saying that the women really do respect this male dominated world, rather than fear it like we the viewer would think. One of the women notes later in the film: “Being your servant is in a way freedom.” She’s talking about being in Satan’s cult, but she may as well be articulating the life of the suburban housewife of the time. We see even the hugely successful Terry give up her career as an actress in favor of loafing around big houses, comfortable with being just the mother of Horst’s child. It’s a cruel world the Findlay’s have envisioned, and it’s an even crueler one when you see the way the actress is then murdered in front of a crowd (of admittedly both men and women) in the extra Snuff
footage. The metaphors and the story and all semblances of “film form” are all over the place, but it’s still a pretty heavily mounted look at gender politics.
That’s not to say the Findlay’s were all just about biting social commentary, because they certainly weren’t. The couple were game to criticize themselves and their pictures, namely when Horst lambasts Terry’s director by saying “This Maximilian Marsh…all he does is sex pictures, all he’s interested in is big bosoms!” For a film where pretty much every woman walks around at some point without a top, you know the Findlay’s were giving back a little wink. When the actress Terry responds “but that’s what the public pays to see”, the Findlay’s modus operandi is scrawled right out there in case it wasn’t already obvious. Who knows, in a perfectly socialist society, maybe they would have been making hard-hitting family dramas?
film proper, before the Snuff
tack-on, is from a technical perspective pretty terrible. The matte box can be seen on the edges of frame in pretty much every shot, the acting is atrocious and the dubbing (some by Roberta Findlay herself) is even worse. The recycled few notes from “Born to Be Wild” is hilariously shameless, and the narrative has bigger holes combined than the Snuff
killer’s bald spot. Yet, there’s just something about the patchwork assembly of the film and the hypnotic quality of Satan and his story that sort of just washes over you. It’s so all-over-the-place that the Snuff
ending is actually kind of a piss off since we never actually get to see how this thing was meant to end. For most, this movie is one long bit of foreplay before the advertised snuff, but for me it’s caviar and the lobster before a gooey slice of cherry pie. I love the ragtag Slaughter
But now, Snuff
. We’d never be talking about the Findlay’s or their shoddy little picture if it weren’t for the lightning rod ending thought up by Allan Shackleton. Like the Findlay flick, its production values are certainly sub-par and the “real” gore effects pretty laughable. But like with the Findlay flick, they give it the old college try. It’s clear there is a hole in the bed and that the woman’s real body is underneath the body of entrails. The finger bends like the rubber that it is when it is crimped off. The blood looks like a condiment for a hot dog. Hands falsely twitch when they are severed, and the heart (although I will give credit for the beating palpitations) is easily pulled out of the woman’s stomach area. It’s all very bad, but if you go with it, it’s an entertaining enough little piece of vaudeville. The best part of the entire sequence is the off-putting man they hired for the lead. His eyes seem stretched and his face almost alien and coupled with a broad physique and working man attire he just seeps out the sleaze required to sell such an activity. The feral intensity of his scream as he pulls up her entrails and the film runs out is an iconic moment of horror cinema. That it’s so effective proceeding the low rent 80-odd minutes before is a testament to the performance there (by an actor that’s never been identified on any credits).
When tacked on to Findlay’s film, the inherent misogyny puts a bow tie on The Slaughter
’s themes of male domination. While the women in Findlay’s film are comfortable with their subjugation, remember they call it “freedom”, Snuff
is a cruel reminder that especially in a post-Manson world trust is something that should never be blindly bequeathed. The indifference of the filmmakers speaks I guess about our capitalistic world and how work would take precedence over inherent traits of empathy or compassion. This two-pronged attack on a male dominated world is not a rosy one, but a cautionary tale for women and how important it is to reach self-actualization. Made during the heyday of women’s lib, you can see how such ideas were just fuel for the fire.
Separated from the hubbub (some paid for, some genuine) Snuff
may have caused back in 1976, viewing of the film(s) today will certainly be divisive. This isn’t some gross gore epic like Anthropophagus
or The New York Ripper
. It’s not sadistic realism to the degree of Guinea Pig
or Faces of Death
. It’s some shitty little South American film that never has a conclusion, and then a half-baked attempt at sleazy snuff. Yet, for me, Shackleton’s aspirations for shock and the cheap, foreign feel of it all somehow register as mildly hypnotic. It’s just this bizarre reel of culture and crap that I really just can’t get enough of. I’d say there’s merit in the debate about the film’s themes about women, but moreover, it’s just this sleazy, loopy ride that you can pop in at any time and marvel at the fact that it was ever even made. For viewers today, it’s both an example of the listless low budget filmmaking of the post-Easy Rider
era and a precursor to the torture porn era that’s come to define modern porn. Snuff
’s a little of everything, and that’s probably why its spark for controversy still burns on today. May it never be snuffed out.
Prior to this release, Snuff
has always been displayed in a full frame, open matte format. Here now for the first time it is displayed in 1.66:1, although I’m not entirely sure on that decision. The US widescreen format has always been roughly 1.85:1, so it’s doubtful the end sequence ever would have been shot for the European 1.66:1 ratio. Very little is written about South American theaters of the time (or ever, really), so it’s tough to discern what aspect ratio they were using. I’m of the mind that if a movie is cropped to 1.66:1 these days, like it was for Black Christmas at one time, it’s more a compromise between the commonly viewed open matte and the aspect ratios of televisions today. Compromises are never good in this situation, and in this case I’d rather see the film full frame. Not that the compositions here are anything close to resembling cinematic or even displaying an iota of mise en scene, but I find the lower half of the frame is often very cramped, with much of the framing edging on the joints, which is a cardinal sin for traditional image composition. Granted, Roberta Findlay was the cinematographer and likely had little formal training on composition, so I’m sure to her framing wasn’t of primary importance. However, if you look at close-ups of heads that cut uncomfortably on the chin and the top of the head during the Slaughter
footage, or the way the actress’s bloody arm during the Snuff
footage is now completely out of frame in the 1.66:1 crop, I think a strong case can be made that the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is the proper framing for this picture.
Aspect ratio aside, what’s not up for debate is the quality improvement of this transfer over Blue Underground’s previous DVD. Color reproduction is hugely improved. On the past DVD, frequencies in the higher IRE range would simply blow out, but here they are preserved with strong detail. Everything before was washed out, and now here the summery greens of one of the southern-most countries really pop. The film print used (one of the last surviving, according to Blue Underground) does seem a little worse for wear than the tape master used for the DVD, but there’s no question the overall quality has been improved the length of one’s intestine. There are specs and scratches throughout, and some scenes are worse than others with a lot of vertical lines from being projected all these years. This kind of natural film damage adds a degree of charm to the film, that even if projected on a pristine print for the first time would still look like a tattered cloak. Transfer-wise, one thing I do hold objection to is the color timing of the black and white sequences. They now exhibit a blue tinge – not sure why they didn’t just suck out all the color. I suppose it’s a moderate improvement over the violet high end on the DVD, but it’s still not ideal. Furthermore, for a film that was filmed with different standards in different countries with different crews, I guess no presentation is ever going to be perfect. I think Blue Underground did a great job restoring the film back to a filmic presentation, although I ultimately think they made the wrong decision with their choice of framing.
EDIT: I spoke with Blue Underground about the composition choice, and this is what they had to say:
The transfer was done from one of the only surviving 35mm theatrical prints, which was in 1:66:1 aspect ratio. We didn’t change or crop anything on the master we were given. The original DVD was made from an old 1” video master found in the UK. We don’t have any information on who did that transfer or what materials they used for it.
The debate rages on!
It’s kind of awesome to take in the fact that a film that was once released in a brown paper bag now has a DTS-HD certified sound mix. It’s only 1.0, but the Master Audio track is in much better condition than the film elements used for the video transfer. Sound is alarmingly clear, with a very low noise floor and no crackling or damage to note. It sounds very direct, probably the by-product of being almost completely dubbed. Even the Snuff
scene, with the live dialogue, still sounds clear and full. Of course this track does nothing to disguise the atrocious dialogue or the laughable echo that’s added every time Satan speaks, but that’s all part of the fun. The audio quality on this release will be the least of anyone’s complaints – it’s actually quite good.
Finally, the special edition we always wanted for a film where the controversy around it was always more interesting than the film itself. Like the movie proper, we get a weird mix of extras from different formats (some originated from a tape master, the rest HD) and different people. What could be more fitting?
Probably the most surprising extra of all is the interview and introduction from celebrated foreign filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, who admits to loving the “underground” aspects of the film and its kind of rock star status. He talks about how it has inspired him as a festish filmmaker himself, and also helps give the film context by speaking about the history of the film’s creation and how it affects how we appreciate it today. I think he does a good job encapsulating the essence of the picture, although he doesn’t seem to like the film as much as he does like the mystique around it. I think both of those are great. Refn’s interview, “Up to Snuff
” runs 7:29, and he also provides a short intro that can optionally be played before the picture. Refn boldly asserts in the intro that had Godard made a film in America, this would have been his first movie. Sounds silly, but Breathless does have that same cobbled quality.
The next extra is “Shooting Snuff
” (10:27) that contains a revealing interview with filmmaker Carter Stevens, who was the man who rented out his studio space to Shackleton for the infamous ending. He explains his relationship with Shackleton and describes what he remembers of the actual production. The best story to come from this is how the actress was actually convinced that she was going to be killed on camera and how Stevens had to calm her by pointing out that if this were a real snuff film his kids wouldn’t just be hanging around the loft during filming. It was a different time, wasn’t it? It’s great to finally hear someone involved with the film discuss it, even if Stevens was only really on the periphery. With both Michael Findlay and Allan Shackleton dearly departed, you’d think that would be the end of the line, but Roberta Findlay is still alive, as is the director of the snuff scene, Simon Nuchtern. Would be great to one day hear from them.
“Bill Kelly: Porn Buster” (4:57) is a short shot-on-video interview with the FBI agent from what looks to be the early-90s or somewhere around there. Kelly talks about his job investigating allegations of snuff pictures and his intent to protect human decency. He admits his search for actual snuff films has never led to anything to substantiate the claims, but it’s pretty interesting the way he went about it soliciting the work of criminals to try to infiltrate a non-existent dirty picture ring. He talks about the Shackleton film and then just snuff films in general, and it’s nice to have yet another angle on this film. You’ve got Refn as an accomplished admirer, Stevens as someone who made the picture, and Kelly someone who tried to take it down. Good stuff.
There is also a sizeable essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Snuff
and its legend, although its primarily focused on how females are portrayed in the picture and how accusations labelling the film as misogynistic are largely false. It’s nothing too illuminating, but a good read nonetheless.
The better read is the Controversy Gallery, which includes scans of a number of news clippings from newspapers of the time that covered the film and its controversy that are advanced with the remote’s chapter buttons. Beyond just talks of the film’s merits or the truth behind the snuff footage, the film ends up sparking debate about censorship and even state laws regarding motion picture distribution. Snuff
is called everything from “poison” to “anti-matter” to even a “cretin’s delight” (I’m guilty as charged, then!) and what a great time capsule this whole gallery proves to be. It would be nice to see more films preserve the climate wherein it was released. Imagine how interesting such an extra would be for a film like The Thing, whose critical consensus then is completely different than the one it appreciates today.
There is also a promotional gallery, and I must say, every poster or cover art made for this movie rules. The German “American cannibale” poster, with a big titted blonde tied to a post (must have missed that in the movie) is downright awesome. It was also apparently called “Big Snuff” in Germany as well, and there are a number of lobby cards included with that title affixed. There’s also interestingly a French cover that features stills from a completely different movie. There are a few good behind the scenes shots of the New York shoot, including one with the effects guy pumping blood (just in case there was any doubt that this wasn’t real).
Lastly with the promo stuff we have trailers for both the US and German releases of the film. And that’s that.
While fans of the film should be very happy with this careful collection of context and opinion, it is a real shame that the crown jewel for Snuff
fans was not included. For years, fans of the film have always asked one question: HOW THE FUCK DOES THE REAL MOVIE END? We’re pretty sure that Findlay’s The Slaughter
was originally screened in 1971 and that it was its own complete film (it was at least sold as such to Allan Shackleton), but it’s unknown whether a print of that original cut has survived. It certainly would be great to see how that crazy story of Satan and his cooze corps actually wrapped up, but I suppose in some way that would destroy part of the mystique about this picture. Is there anyone out there who has seen it? Drop me a line.
EDIT: Here’s what Blue Underground said about The Slaughter
Our original intention was to include both cuts of the film on the Blu-ray. It was supposed to come out months ago, but we delayed the release while we searched for the original Slaughter materials. Despite a couple leads, nothing was ever located. Given its very brief theatrical release (if any), we suspect that only one or two prints of Slaughter ever existed and were lost or destroyed over the years. We also searched for the original Snuff negative, but that proved unsuccessful too. The original ending to Slaughter remains a mystery…
“Bring in the camera, I’ll give you a show!”
sure is a show. There’s really nothing out there like it. On one hand you have this freewheeling, psychedelic ransom note of an Argentinian soap opera, and on the other you have this sleazy grindhouse murder sequence that would set the stage for Blue Underground owner Bill Lustig’s own Maniac
a few years later (it’s the circle of life). The two parts work together as a whole about patriarchy and panic in a post-Manson world, and at the very least it’s a fascinating window into a different era in cinema. Blue Underground preserves this film’s history with a solid spate of supplements that cover the film from all angles, be it critical, historical or anecdotal. They also ensure the film will be preserved for years to come with a much improved video and sound remaster, although the debate regarding the aspect ratio may be as controversial as the film itself (not really). Some love this movie, many more hate it, but one thing is for certain: when you see this movie, you will never forget it. That’s how you make history.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - B+
Sound - A-
Supplements - B+
- Colour & Black and White
- Running time - 1 hour and 20 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0
- English SDH subtitles
- Interview with Filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn
- Interview with Filmmaker Carter Stevens
- Interview with FBI Agent Bill Kelly
- Nicolas Winding Refn intro
- US & German trailers
- Controversy gallery
- Poster & Still gallery
- "Snuff: The Seventies and Beyond" essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas