Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reel Murder - An essay on snuff films

Introduction: This is an essay I wrote a few years ago, for which I won a couple of awards. I was also contacted by a publisher who proclaimed interest, but as nothing more came of it, I am now posting it here instead. Hope you enjoy it.
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This photo shows Chinese artist Zhu Yu, eating what appears to be a dead fetus. Mr. Zhu claims infant was stolen from a medical school.

Reel Murder

Have you ever heard of snuff movies?

Some of you probably have. For the rest of you, let me explain: A snuff movie is something real. It’s something horrible. Something so sinister and vile, dirty and utterly perverted, you cannot help but cringe, and curl your toes. It’s something that makes you feel. And it’s something, which you can buy.
Not everybody can, of course. The road to snuff is a long trod, paved by dirty pragmatism, smeared with excrement and blood, past blocks of depression and skeletal facades of normality. It coils through a maze of nihilistic shrubbery, where fields of rotting glee taunt and tassel, and distorted images of dread constantly whip you in the face. And then finally, whilst wading through the dirtiest depths of mucus, you meet a guy called Jimmy.

Being an avid horror movie collector, I had been searching for the ultimate scare for a long time. My personal collection numbers more than 6000 titles, and I have pretty much seen the very worst there is of what is legal, and quite a lot of what is not. Yet the snuff movie legend had always tantalized me with its constant reluctance to disprove itself as a myth. So, I started digging.
The term “snuff movie” was first coined by a Manson Family deserter, who falsly claimed Charles Manson to have killed someone on camera. These claims were later disproved however, and the history of “Snuff” starts with a super-low-budget movie filmed in 1971, originally titled “Slaughter”. I won’t go into great details about what it’s about, but suffice to say that it’s very, very bad, and not in a “so-bad-it’s-good” way either. It’s actually terribly boring, and almost difficult to stay awake to. It’s so bad in fact, that no production company would release it. So it lay on a shelf for five years, until a small-time producer named Allan Shackleton stumbled upon it, and came up with an ingenious scheme to make some easy money with minimal effort. He added one final scene to the movie. And what a scene it was.
Just as the movie ended with a young couple making love on a bed, this new scene continued, by pulling the camera back and going through the fourth wall. The fake set is shown as well as the light fixtures, the whole film crew standing next to the bed, and thus the illusion breaks, and reality is ascertained. Only the young couple’s excitement does not end. They continue to caress and to kiss, passionately thrusting and panting as the camera rolls on.
Then it gets violent. The man starts beating up the young woman, abusing and insulting her, ever more intensely; and it goes on. The torture keeps escalating, until finally the protagonist pulls out a knife, opens up his partner’s belly, pulls out her intestines and stands screaming while he hold it up in the air in front of him. One of the camera crew says that they should get out of there, and the screen goes black. The End.
Of course this was all made in a terrible low-fi fashion. The couple on the bed are suddenly different actors and the set looks different. The special gore effects are really lousy, and the whole final scene looks absolutely nothing like the rest of the film. But that didn’t matter, for Mr. Shackleton’s real genius was in the marketing.
He got the finished film set to play at several grindhouse cinemas (remember this was long before the days of video and dvds) and hired small crowds of homeless people to stand outside and protest the movie. Word spread fast and it wasn’t long before the feminist group Women Against Pornography joined in, and thus gave the movie much publicity on various news channels, CBS News being the most prominent. People were outraged. They argued and complained, cried and shouted, as they all flocked to see the controversial feature. It was no longer titled “Slaughter” however, for Shackleton had given it a new name. Now the letters on the theatre billboard spelled “Snuff”.

Back to Jimmy. Before DVDs had become the set standard for all recorded entertainment, and Internet-shops were still few and far between, most horror movie aficionados got hold of rare titles by swapping old and worn VHS tapes. Sometimes however, you could get lucky by rummaging through “treasury chests”, where dirty video shops put all the strange titles that very few people were interested in. It was whilst reading at the back of an oblique cover that I’d picked out of such a chest, that I suddenly noticed this young sap standing just behind me. I jumped of surprise. Jimmy laughed and said: “If you get scared that easily, you better not watch that movie.”

Different sources disagree slightly on what defines an actual snuff film, but most commonly there are three requirements:
1.     There has to occur real death on camera.
2.     No special effects can be used.
3.     The movie has to be made for the purpose of distribution, sexual pleasure and financial gain.
So, although the original 1976 “Snuff” movie is of course not an actual snuff movie at all, it still gave birth to the legend of real snuff movies existing out there somewhere. Yet, if they do, proof of their existence has never been found. Or, to satisfy the conspiracy theorists out there: if any authorities have ever found a real snuff movie, they have never released their findings to the public. They have come close a few times though.
A now defunct document which was previously available on a real crime archive webpage, featured what was supposedly an interview with a rouge FBI agent. He told several tales of how the agency would shroud all evidence of snuff movies with secrecy. There is basically no way of knowing if these claims are true, but this anonymous renegade alleged that all information regarding snuff would be withheld from the public, for safety reasons. The agency believe that if news about an existing snuff film would spread, people would want to see it and a new market would be sparked. The last thing he said in this supposed interview was “Oh yes, they exist. I wish it wasn’t so, but sadly it is”
           
            Jimmy and I got along immediately. As we both had seen a lot of the same films, we had much to talk about. We started hanging out, swapping movies and hunting down rarities together. Back then it was quite a hassle to acquire a lot of what is now internationally recognized as classic splatter cinema. Often we would have to contact private vendors in strange countries, to obtain completely uncut versions of our favourite films. What’s the point of watching a scary movie, if all the scary parts are cut out?

The most famous case of a real snuff movie existing was actually started by Charlie Sheen. Back in the early nineties, Mr. Sheen, a devoted horror movie buff, got a hold of a Japanese film titled “The Flower of Flesh and Blood”.
The movie is the second film in a series called “Guinea Pig”. In the 42-minute feature, you see a man kidnapping a woman from the street. He takes her to some weird chamber and starts torturing her. First he sedates her, then goes on to chopping her to pieces using various hardware tools. As the high dosage of drugs would actually have killed her by slowing her heartbeat to a stop, the horrible torture he inflicts on her body is so extreme that the pain keeps her from relaxing into death by blood-loss. After hacking off all her limbs, cutting open her stomach and taking out her innards and shaking it in the air in front of her, she finally dies. Watching the film, her death comes as quite a relief. But before the movie ends, the strange man pulls out a spoon and scoops out one of the woman’s eyes. The final shot has him sucking on her eyeball, like it was a lollypop.
It should be noted that this was all before the time of DVD’s, and that the quality was quite murky. Tapes like these used to be copied from one VHS to another, only to make a new copy of the copy again. Thus the term “generation”, when talking about these tapes. With each copy, the quality got worse and worse. When I saw “The Flower and Flesh and Blood” back in the nineties, the tape I got was at least a sixth generation copy. The picture was very obscure, and at some points it was difficult to make out what was going on. This also served to delude the details, and thus making the experience all the scarier.
When Mr. Sheen saw the same film, he sent the tape over to the FBI, convinced that what he had seen was an actual murder on film. The bureau promptly started wasting taxpayers’ money on an investigation.
For it is all fake. The American importer of the film, Charles Balun, knew it was a fake, and could easily have proved it to the authorities, yet nobody asked him about it, and the FBI never even learned his name. In Japan the movie was a smash hit, out-grossing all big budget movies from Hollywood, and giving cause for seven sequels to be made. After all the controversy around this film, the makers finally released a “Making Of” documentary, where you can see how they created it. You can see that it is all done by special effects, and actually looks quite fake by today’s standard. Most of it is extreme close ups of latex dolls, cleverly edited to make it appear like it is the woman’s real limbs. There are shots where you see the victim smiling and laughing as they apply her make-up, and play around with the fake intestines.
            Long after the making-of film was released and a lot of people in the horror community had long since seen it, the FBI finally got a hold of it and immediately dropped all investigations.
            I watched “The Flower of Flesh and Blood” again a few years back, when it was released on DVD. However, seeing it afresh in crystal clear quality was a much softer experience. The fakery was easy to spot within the clear and crispy images, and the fact that it actually had subtitles just made it a bit silly.

I had known Jimmy for more than a year, when he one day came to me with an exited smile on his face. I asked him what was up, and he replied by pulling out a black, unmarked tape from his bag. But he wouldn’t let me have it. First I had to promise that I would not let anyone know where I had gotten it from, if I should happen to get caught with it.

            There are several “shocumentaries” about killing and death circulating horror movie circuits, like the legendary “Cannibal Holocaust”. In this 1980 film, a group of filmmakers venture out into the Amazonian jungle to hopefully capture footage of a tribe of real cannibals, only to be captured and eaten by said savages themselves. It is all filmed with somewhat shaky handheld cameras, and the full movie was presented as the last hours of the lives of an actual film crew. The same promotional idea was later used for the movie “Blair Witch Project” to equal success.
            Ruggero Deodato, the director of Cannibal Holocaust had made a contract with his actors, stating that they would hide, and not show themselves to the public for at least a year. But his plan worked a little too well. He was arrested not long after the movie’s release, and forced to go to court and prove that the actors were not dead. They were of course still very much alive, yet there were also a numerable amount of animals slaughtered in his movie, all of which were real. So Mr. Deodato had to pay a rather small fine of $10.000 for the animal cruelty depicted in his film, but as the movie went on to make more money than “E.T.”, which came out at approximately the same time, this was just pocket change.

Even holding Jimmy’s tape in my hands sent shivers down my spine. He was, and still is, one of the greatest experts on horror movies I have ever known. Whenever we watched a movie together, we made it a sport to spot the fakery, and first figure out the mechanics behind any blood splattered scene. We watched countless documentaries about special effects and make-up, and dabbled with making a few shorts ourselves. That’s a fake knife. That’s animatronics. That arm is made of latex. There was a cut in the sequence, which would enable the filmmakers to exchange the actor with a doll. The blood is too bright red, runs to fast or doesn’t coagulate. The intestines are in the wrong colors…
We knew all the tricks. Figuring out how anything was made was our way of dealing with it. Nothing is scary, when you understand it’s not real.

            Another famous example is the “Faces of Death” series. These films follow a more conventional form of documentary, where the subject is simply death, in all shapes and sizes. Yet again, as terrible (or amusing) as these movies may be, they are still all forgery. They did however spawn another spin off series called “Traces of Death” where you do in fact get to see a lot of real murder and mayhem. Alas, it’s all stock footage. You will see people get killed, commit suicide, both living and dead bodies get cut open, as well as living animals butchered. Still these are not snuff movies, as the footage you see has not been made specifically for that movie. It is very real stuff, but as it is all old clippings of different surgery tapes, leftovers from news reports and such, it cannot be categorized as snuff.
            It is not difficult to find videos of people getting killed on the Internet. The videos of Iraqi fundamentalists using a machete to cut off heads of coalition force prisoners, have gotten quite well known, and are very easy to find. A Google-search for the words “Solider” and “cut off head with machete” should provide links to videos pretty easily, and it is very real. But it is still not snuff, as it has not been made for sexual pleasure.

I put Jimmy’s tape in the VCR, and pushed play. White snow flimmered onto the screen, but gradually straightened into a black broadcast. Then came a mix of uneasy sound effects. Nails scratching on a blackboard and cats fighting, accompanied by daunting jazz music cranking out of the speakers. The screen went red and a title came onto the screen. “Broken”.

The case of Tsutomu Miyazaki, or the “Guinea Pig copycat killer”, has achieved infamous status on its own appeal to serial killer stardom. I barely strafed the Guinea Pig series already, but suffice to say that they are a bunch of films with very little plot, and very much gore. Now, a Japanese horror film collector named Tsutomu Miyazaki saw these films, and was by then well on his way to insanity. He wanted to make his own films, and started to recreate some of the things he’d seen, without the luxury of special effects. He did it for real.
When he was eventually caught, a massive collection of horror movies was found in his apartment. Amongst them a bunch of private films, where he had filmed himself slaughtering several young women. But again, even though the films he had made were quite real, he had made them only for his own warped pleasure, and never meant to sell them. Thus they were still not snuff. There exist no accounts of eyewitnesses who have actually seen any of these films.

At first I was disappointed. Everybody knows snuff movies don’t have titles, and of course, “Broken” was not even pseudo-snuff. I would have heard about it if it was. Instead an obnoxious mix of bad taste and pornography blasted across the screen. Luckily it was quite short, and after about ten minutes came another short: “The Big Shave”. This one I had heard about, and although it was the legendary first short from famed director Martin Scorsese, and quite a good little film, it was still not in the right genre, and continued to whimper my enthusiasm.

Mr. Miyazaki’s example is not unique. There have been several cases of this happening, all over the world. In England there was the infamous West family, where Fred, the man of the house, would torture, kill and bury young girls under their patio, with the help of his loving wife. He filmed some of it, but never sold the tapes. A woman who worked in a local video shop once said in a BBC interview that Fred West had approached her and asked if they had any snuff movies. She had replied that yes, in fact they had the 1976 movie titled “Snuff”. Fred was not satisfied with this and told her that he meant the real thing. He had it back home. Real snuff movies where people got killed. Would she perhaps like to buy some?
As he made an attempt to gain commercially from this, it might be the only official record of snuff movies ever existing. But yet again, no one has ever admitted to seeing these films, and the police will show no records of finding them when the house was finally raided. They did however find several corpses buried all around their yard.
There was also the case of the “St. Louis Killer” in America, where a maniac filmed several of his victims as he killed them. When he was caught and his apartment was to be knocked down (as is the custom when serial killers are finally caught) they found several videos hidden inside a wall. ABCNews used to have some of this footage available for online viewing on their webpage, but it has now been removed.

After a few more really weird and bizarre short films on Jimmy’s tape, the show got rolling. The screen suddenly got all red and a blurry text came up saying “Sexual Perversion tape 1: Rip and Pierce”.

            Well known horror movie affectionate Al Goldstein (publisher of the pornographic magazine Screw) has had a standing one million dollar offer since the seventies, to anyone who will provide an actual snuff movie. Some people argue that the fact that no one has ever made claim to this money is proof enough that they do not exist. But then again, several police officers investigating alleged snuff movies, has said that if they ever came over an actual snuff film, they would confiscate it right away.

What followed was a video of someone walking along the street, stalking a woman. The girl was assaulted and struck down, making her fall unconscious. In the next scene she was seen tied up and screaming in some dirty basement. A guy with a henchman’s mask entered the screen and started torturing her. He did just what the title of the movie said. Ripped and pierced. After about 10 minutes of torture, she was bleeding all over, and stood balancing on her toes to stay alive. A line had been tied around her neck, so tight that if she would relax just a bit, she would die of strangulation. Then, just as he was about to take her life, the film ended.
I could feel my pulse pounding all over my body. Feeling sick and dizzy, I pushed the stop button and sat in silence for a while. Then I pushed play again.

A lot of sick stuff can be found on the Asian black market. There are rumours of a tape circulating, where you can see a small group of men rape, torture and kill infants. They supposedly drill holes in the carcasses, and stick their erect penises into the holes. Still, eyewitness accounts of these tapes are always told on behalf of a friend’s friend’s cousin, or something to that effect.
            Snuff movies are made by order. They do not have any titles, and you will not find any info on specific films on the internet. There is a huge interest in snuff movies, and if word gets spread around too much, it would generate attention from unwanted channels. A Russian webpage called Candyland advertised their services of genuine snuff films, if you paid a sizable price and got a password to log in. The site was run by thirty year old, retired car mechanic Dmitri Vladimirovich Kuznetsov. He had several kids locked up, and did every horrible thing imaginable to them, in order to make money off the videos.
The site had many customers, and Italian police seized more than three thousand films on their way to Italian clients. One policeman even admitted to seeing children dying after repeated abuse on one of the videos, yet his statement was withdrawn shortly thereafter. The official report still claims that none of the more than a hundred children kept in captivity were killed on tape. The recent publication of a transcript from Kuznestov’s email in an Italian newspaper, claim otherwise:
            Promise me you're not ripping me off,' says the Italian.
'Relax, I can assure you this one really dies,' the Russian responds.
'The last time I paid and I didn't get what I wanted.'
'What do you want?'
'To see them die.'

Then came another short. This time the title was “Sexual Perversion tape 2: Burn and Cut”. A dildo with protruding nails, like a flanged mace from the middle ages, was used on some bound up woman. It looked most real. If any of the usual tricks were used, they were at least not visible. It was all done in one continuous shot, giving no room to swap the victim’s body with fake prosthetics.

Once you set out to watch a genuine snuff movie, your life changes. The paths you have to go to get hold of it, the people you have to seek out, the locations all server to dim the borders between illusion and realism, till you get to the point where it’s difficult to discern between the two. An American series called “Masters of Horror” beautifully illustrated this in the episode directed by John Carpenter, called “Cigarette Burns”. It tells the story of a movie that will make people go crazy by watching it. It is meant to be just another piece of fiction, yet there’s a lot to be learnt from it.
I have come to know where I can order somebody’s death. The prices vary, but you can usually get a clean hit for less than ten thousand NOK. A few of the people who will do these jobs, work as bouncers to have a legitimate source of income. Most of them also work as debt collectors, and in that business they learn a good many ways to inflict insufferable pain.

Several of these “Sexual Perversion tapes” followed. All of them had different sub titles, and different women as victims. All of them were terribly realistic, yet made in an obviously cheap fashion. I doubt that the makers could afford the rather tedious job of making fake gore look that realistic. Yet all of them ended at the same note, just seconds before you’d have thought the woman to finally die.

There are many excuses as to why anyone would want to watch a snuff film, the most common being twisted curiosity. The traffic-accident-metaphor is quite cliché: you don’t want to watch, but you can’t look away.
The reason to why we watch horror movies is that we want to be scared. How far can you go? Is there anything even more horrifying? Like the tantalizing twists of a rollercoaster ride, you will stand in line for ages to experience true terror. Then, once buckled up in the relative safety of your chair, you will scream and regret ever going on the ride, only to run to the end of the line and do it all over again once it’s finally finished.
But after watching a lot of really twisted stuff, or riding a theme park ride too many times, anyone will go numb. You want something more. Something so horrible that even you can’t handle it. You yearn to experience dread once again. To feel something real.
Chuck Palahniuk described it best in his novel “Diary”, when he wrote: “Sometimes the worst is the best, if you get far enough down.”

After five or six of these short films, the tape came to an end. The show was over, and I could still not boast to have seen a real snuff movie. But I had had enough.
I gave the tape back to Jimmy a few days later, and we stopped hanging out after that. I stopped obsessing about horror movies, and these days I much rather enjoy a good drama, or comedy.
Still, I must admit I can’t stand a happy ending.


It has later been speculated that the baby was in fact assembled by the body of a duck, and the head of a doll, although this has never been proven.
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Some sources:

Other good feature films to check out are:
-       “Tesis” a great gem of a movie, concerning a fictional snuff movie production crew.
-       “Cure” by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. A hypnotic film, which will make you afraid of your own willingness to watch it to the end.
-       “Mute Witness” actually a poor movie, but still deals with the topic of snuff.
-       “August Underground” series. I did not like these films. They were quite annoying, in my opinion. But if you want a rough idea of how all these authentic video tapes made by serial killers might look like, you can take a look at these. There are loads more movies like this, especially from Asia.
-       “The Hostel” by Eli Roth. A movie about a place where one can go and pay a large amount of money to be able to butcher innocent backpackers. I didn’t like the film very much, but it suggests a possible way these things might go down.


Copyright Tiger Blam

3 comments:

  1. If you have facebook you can contact a guy called Natan Solans sr, he's an argentinian master of visual fx, but he also knows something you may like to know, it's a real experience with snuff, in Brazil.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey, Tiger Blam! First of all of thanks for following my blog Written in Blood. I am now following you via Google FC.
    Secondly, great blog you have here.Your article on snuff films is a pretty damn good one. It seems like you believe they exist even the Eff Bee Eye says no way. I believe in them too. People will pay money to see anything. Thirdly, thanks for commenting at my blog.
    Keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey John. Thanks

    Sure they exist. Actually, with all the weird things in this world, I believe it's somewhat ignorant to think that nobody out there has ever made a snuff film.

    But, after all my own searching, I also found myself wondering why the heck I wanted to see one, when a snuff film is simply a person being killed. Turning on the news, you will see multiple people killed every day. So what if they're not "filmed being killed for the purpose of being sold as snuff movies". These are still real people dying on your screen. And the whole obsession with snuff movies, becomes just that: an obsession.

    ReplyDelete