A snuff film is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "a movie in a purported genre of movies in which an actor is actually murdered or commits suicide". It may include a motion picture genre that depicts the actual murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of financial exploitation, but that detail is extraneous, so long as it is "circulated amongst a jaded few for the purpose of entertainment". Some filmed records of executions and murders exist but have not been released for commercial purposes.
The first recorded use of the term "snuff film" is in a 1971 book by Ed Sanders, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. He alleges that The Manson Family was involved in making such a film in California to record their murders.
The metaphorical use of the term "snuff" to denote killing appears to be derived from a verb for extinguishing a candle. The word has been used as such in English slang for hundreds of years. John Camden Hotten lists the term in the fifth edition of his Slang Dictionary in 1874 as a "term very common among the lower orders of London, meaning to die from disease or accident". The word is descended (via the Middle English "snuffen" or "snuppen") from the Old English "snithan", meaning to slaughter and dismember, from "snide", meaning to kill by cutting or stabbing, from "snid", to cut.
Use as plot device in fiction
The Michael Powell film Peeping Tom (1960) featured a filmmaker who committed murders and used the acts as the content of his documentary films, although no real murders are seen in the film. The concept of "snuff films" being made for profit became more widely known in 1976 with the commercial film Snuff. A low-budget exploitation horror film entitled Slaughter was directed by Michael and Roberta Findlay. In an interview decades later, Roberta Findlay said that the film's distributor Allan Shackleton had read about snuff films being imported from South America and retitled the film to Snuff to exploit the idea; he also added a new ending that depicted an actress being murdered on a film set. The promotion of Snuff on its second release suggested it featured the murder of an actress: "The film that could only be made in South America... where life is CHEAP.", but that was false advertising. Shackleton put out false newspaper clippings that reported a citizens group's crusading against the film and hired people to act as protesters to picket screenings.
In the wake of Snuff, numerous films explored the idea of snuff films, or used them as a plot device. They include Last House on Dead End Street (1977), Paul Schrader's Hardcore (1979), Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline (1979), the Ruggero Deodato film Cannibal Holocaust (1980), David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), the Nine Inch Nails film The Broken Movie (1993), the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (although the films are not sold) (1986), the Alejandro Amenábar film Tesis (1996), the film Strange Days (1995), the Anthony Waller film Mute Witness (1994), the Johnny Depp film The Brave (1997), the Joel Schumacher film 8mm (1999), the John Ottman film Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000), the Fred Vogel film August Underground (2001) and its sequels, the Brad Jones (better known as The Cinema Snob) film Cheap (2005), Indian film Teesri Aankh (2006), the Mariano Peralta film Snuff 102 (2007), the Nimród Antal film Vacancy (2007), the Srđan Spasojević film A Serbian Film (2010), the Wes Craven film Scream 4, (2011) the Scott Derrickson film Sinister (2012) and the Ridley Scott film The Counselor (2013).
Internet snuff films are alluded to in the Marc Evans film My Little Eye (2002), and the film Halloween: Resurrection. The Showtime TV series Dexter features an internet snuff scene and the shooting of a snuff film. The subject has been addressed in British film director Bernard Rose's film Snuff-Movie (2005), the Nimród Antal film Vacancy (2007) and also in the WWE film The Condemned (2007) and the Gregory Hoblit film Untraceable. Rockstar Games, the controversial game publisher, released the snuff-themed Manhunt in 2003.. Most recently, a snuff movie shooting has been shown in American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014), which is the fourth season of the FX horror anthology television series American Horror Story.
False snuff films
The Guinea Pig films
The first two films in the Japanese Guinea Pig series are designed to look like snuff films; the video is grainy and unsteady, as if recorded by amateurs. The sixth film in the series, Mermaid in a Manhole, allegedly served as an inspiration for Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who murdered several preschool girls in the late 1980s.
In 1991, actor Charlie Sheen became convinced that Flower of Flesh and Blood, the second film in the series, depicted an actual homicide and contacted the FBI. The Bureau initiated an investigation, but closed it after the series' producers released a "making of" film demonstrating the special effects used to simulate the murders.
The Italian director Ruggero Deodato was charged after rumors that the depictions of the killing of the main actors in his 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust were real. He was able to clear himself of the charges after the actors made an appearance in court.
Other than graphic gore, the film contains several scenes of sexual violence and the genuine deaths of 6 animals onscreen and one off screen, issues which find Cannibal Holocaust in the midst of controversy to this day. It has also been claimed that Cannibal Holocaust is banned in over 50 countries, although this has never been verified. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Cannibal Holocaust as the 20th most controversial film of all-time.
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- David Kerekes and David Slater. Killing for Culture: Death Film from Mondo to Snuff (Creation Cinema Collection). London: Creation Books, 1996.