Guinea Pig, an underground film from Japan, features a lurid dice-and-slash scene of a woman being killed by a man wearing a samurai hat. It looked quite real to some people, including Charlie Sheen, who contacted the FBI. The feds confiscated his copy and began an investigation, starting with Charles Balun, one of the distributors of the film. Balun claimed the scene relied on special effects. His claim was vindicated when the producers in Japan released Guinea Pig Two: The Making of Guinea Pig One, revealing the blood curdling technical tricks used to make the first film. The FBI dropped the investigation.
The film Sheen saw was produced to garner.an audience looking for snuff films; movies or videos intended for commercial release, depicting an unsuspecting actress getting fucked and then murdered.
The origin of the snuff film dates back to 1973 when Raymond Gauer, the president of the Citizens for Decency through Law, an anti-pornography organization, claimed porno films which climaxed with a woman being murdered were in circulation. Ive never seen one, Gauer told Adam magazine, but my undercover guy, though hes never seen one, has talked to enough people to be convinced they exist. Another source is convinced that they exist in quantity, and that theyve been screened in the very 'In circles in Hollywood.
Gauers remarks illustrate the greatest problem surrounding snuff films: nobody seems to have ever seen one, but many know of somebody else who claims they have. Despite this kind of hearsay evidence, Gauers allegations played well. In 1975, New York cops and the FBI investigated rumors of snuff films. Tabloid newspapers, the Post and the Daily News, ran stories of the ongoing investigation with banner headlines like Snuff PornThe Actress Is Actually Killed.
According to the tabloids, numerous snuff films were in circulation and could be purchased for private viewing at prices ranging from $100 to $500. One story in the Post quoted a police detective who said, I am convinced that these films actually exist and that a person is actually murdered. I suppose you could say they are the ultimate obscenity.
As snuff rumors spread across the country, an enterprising film producer, Allen Shackleton, decided the time was ripe to lay it on thick. He acquired the rights to a low-budget film, The Slaughter, made by Michael and Roberta Findlay, who were renowned for their sexploitation films. The Slaughter, made in 1970, was so bad it was never released, yet perfect for Shackletons purpose since it was filmed in Argentina. The stories in the tabloids noted snuff films were imports from South America.
The Findlays film opens with two biker chicks in hot pursuit of another woman who has ripped off their drugs. They catch her and place her in stocks, where she is confronted by a bearded guru, Satan, who is in charge of the biker chicks and gives the film its socially redeeming value by ranting on about the decadence of the rich in Montevideo. Satan and the girls in his cult lay out a plan for a ritual slaughter to avenge the sufferings of the poor. The parallel between Satans girl followers and Charles Mansons family is painfully obvious. "Their prime target is a beautiful, blonde, pregnant woman made up to look like Sharon Tate. She is married to a film director. Satan and the biker chicks shoot the film director, then surround the bed where the pregnant woman cowers in fear. In the final scene they plunge a dagger into her belly.
This lame sexploitation film about the making of a sexploitation film got an extra shot in the groin when Shackleton gave it a new twist. He retitled the film Snuff! and tacked on an additional grisly 10 minutes of reality-based footage.
After the dagger comes down the camera pulls back and the audience sees the film crew and the director talking about the final scene. A young woman on the crew tells the director the stabbing scene turned her on. The director asks her if she would like to act out her fantasies. She complies and gets into bed with him. When she realizes the crew is still filming, she protests. She tries to pull away from the director. He picks up the blood-spattered dagger, looks into the camera and says: You want to get a good scene? then proceeds to slice off the womans fingers, cut off her legs with a saw, rip open her abdomen, pull out her intestines and hold them over his head with an air of victory.
The film appears to run out as the screen goes black and a voice over says, Did you get it all? Yeah, we got it. Lets get out of here. End of Snuff! No credits roll.
Shackleton released Snuff! in 1976 in the wake of heated publicity surrounding the possible existence of such movies. Employing a classic advertising technique, Shackleton promoted the film with provocatively snappy tag lines: The picture they said could NEVER be shown, The bloodiest thing that ever happened in front of a camera, and The film that could only be made in South America where Life is CHEAP! A poster promoting the film showed a womans neck between the sharp blades of a clapper board.
Shackleton never claimed authentic snuff, but allowed the viewer to speculate the on-camera murder was real. His ad campaign worked. The New York City District Attorney investigated the circumstances surrounding the making of the film and interviewed the actress who was supposedly offed in the final segment. Quick to spot the hoax, Variety interviewed Shackleton. Its an interesting bind, he told the Hollywood trade paper. If it was a real murder Id be in jail in two minutes... Id be a damn fool to admit it. If it isnt real, Id be a damn fool to admit it.
The wily producer created enough controversy and generated enough publicity to make money on the film, though not a fortune. It had a short run and few people remember it. Yet it has had an amazing power few films ever achieve; to this day the idea that snuff films are in circulation haunts the public imagination.
During the 80's movies like Videodrome, 52 Pick-up and Last House on a Dead End Street capitalized on the snuff mania theme. Several cop and crime television shows featured snuff themes, including a memorable over-the-top Miami Vice episode featuring Don Johnson beating the crap out of a pathological flartist who views his murder on film as a sublime aesthetic statement. Films and TV shows like this have kept alive the belief that snuff films exist.
In 1994 a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, Rider McDowell, spent six months trying to find a snuff film. During his investigation he interviewed FBI agents, cops, underground film makers, porno directors, proprietors of adult stores and owners of mail order houses. Results: nothing. Ive endured watching a myriad of horrible fake snuff films -- some ridiculously fake, the others deemed unauthentic by experts -- with titles such as Cannibal Holocaust and Man Behind the Sun 731. Ive poured over dozens of unsolved murders around the country, searching, always searching. To no avail, writes McDowell.
Despite McDowells investigative efforts, despite disavowals from the FBI, despite continued searches by collectors of weird films, despite a long-standing $25,000 reward offered by Al Goldsteins Screw magazine to anyone who could turn up a snuff film, the ultimate orgasmic murder could be sitting around in a film can or smuggled from hand to hand by sickos in search of a kinky thrill. It is impossible to state categorically that no snuff film has ever been produced. But the proof is in the pudding, and no such film has ever surfaced.
One exception, of sorts. Given that anyone can produce a film with the advent of camcorders, it is quite possible some killer has recorded his deed, though strictly speaking, this is not a snuff film since the intent is not to distribute the film for an audience. In Canada, a widely publicized case last year included home-made video tapes of double-murderer Paul Bernado having sex with his victims, 14- and 15-year-old girls. However, he did not film the girls being killed.
In Albuquerque, Johnny Zinn was given a life sentence for the 1986 rape and murder of a 20-year-old University of New Mexico student, Linda Daniels. Zinn talked three other young men into kidnapping Daniels. One of the men, James Scaracini, testified that Zinn ordered the kidnapping so he could make a snuff film. A flurry of publicity followed Daniels' abduction. Scaracini said Zinn ordered Daniels killed before the snuff film could be made because of the publicity surrounding the kidnapping.
In 1979, a school teacher in Marion, Pennsylvania, Susan Reinert, was allegedly killed by her principal, J. C. Smith. He was convicted, then released from prison in 1992 when the charge against him was thrown out. Joseph Wambaughs Echoes in the Darkness gives a blow-by-blow account of the story. Rumors circulated that Smith videotaped the killing, but no such tape ever turned up and the authorities said no such tape was made.
A snuff rumor that persists to this day concerns the notorious Son of Sam serial killer, David Berkowitz. Many stories circulated claiming Berkowitz filmed some of his killings with the intent of distributing them within the Church of Satan. In 1977, on the night he killed 20-year-old Stacey Moskowitz in Brooklyn, an alleged accomplice of Berkowitzs supposedly filmed the crime from inside a VW van parked across the street from the murder site. But again, no film of this, or any other Berkowitz killing, was ever found.
McDowell pointed out in his San Francisco Chronicle piece that the stuffy and very skeptical Times of London took the bait in 1990. The Times recalled a 1975 investigation in the United States where police allegedly confiscated evidence of Mexican immigrants killed in snuff films and a 1985 case of a man in California who filmed 25 murders to satisfy the insatiable demands of the pornography industry. The Times story was more suitable for a London tabloid. McDowell checked the story out and found both snuff cases to be bogus.
The latest wave of so-called snuff showed up in cyberspace. The information highway, filled with all sorts of sex related material, came under fire early in 1995 when a student at the University of Michigan, Jake Baker, shared his creative writing with like-minded geeks on alt.sex.stories. Time Magazines report, headlined Snuff Porn on the Net, noted that the girls in Bakers stories were raped, mutilated and left to die by men who exhibit no remorse. Torture is foreplay, wrote Baker, rape is romance and snuff is climax. Baker almost got expelled for his literary efforts.
When Allen Shackleton premiered Snuff! in 1976 he hired some women to stand in front of the theater and rant at customers." Pickets sell tickets, said Shackleton. He neednt have bothered. Women from a feminist organization calling itself Women Against Violence Against Women, brought out their own troops in force.
In Monticello, NY, the feminists complained to the District Attorney, who charged the owner of the Rialto Theater with second degree obscenity, though the charges were eventually dropped. Shackleton was delighted. The genuine protests did far more to publicize the film than his put-up job. At the same time, the feminists claimed a great victory: the ketchup-drenched fake film, as one of the demonstrators said, was the powder keg that moved women seriously to confront the issue of pornography.
The snuff film myth remains strong among feminists, helped along by two of its leading practitioners on the radical side of the spectrum: Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. In these films, women actually were maimed, sliced to pieces, fucked, and killed, wrote Dworkin.
MacKinnon, in her popular 1993 book, Only Words, speaks of men who masturbate while watching women mutilated, dismembered, bound, gagged, tortured and killed and snuff as sexual murder in the process of being committed. Doing the murder is sex for those who do it. The climax is the moment of death.
Neither Dworkin nor MacKinnon cite any examples of known snuff films; they buy into the legend to buttress their arguments of the murderous penis. For MacKinnon, who is a law professor, this is especially grievous. She seems to have forgotten that a lawyer needs evidence before making a charge. When pinned down on this point in an interview, she claimed to have researched the subject. My opinion is completely contrary to the FBIs. I know snuff films exist. Asked to back up her claim, she replied: To divulge anything would jeopardize my own investigation. But believe me, theyre out there.
When high profile feminists like MacKinnon make these claims, many believe them. She may be right. But to date, her words are only a lot of wind.