Slaughter / Snuff
In the over forty years since the Tate-LaBianca murders and the successful prosecution of the Charles Manson Family for the crimes, there have been numerous film versions of the shocking events. The 70's alone offered The Other Side Of Madness, The Love-Thrill Murders, The Night God Screamed, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and the two-part TV mini-series Helter Skelter. But first out of the ranch house gate was Slaughter by the married filmmakers Michael and Roberta Findlay (Body Of A Female, Touch Of Her Flesh). An extremely low-budget production shot in Argentina then poorly post-synchronized into English, Slaughter touches on all the primary points of the Manson murders. Charismatic cult leader, unquestioning female followers and wealthy victims including a pregnant movie star actress all appear. The Manson character named Satan commands his girls to get drugs, rob, torture and kill for him. Between crimes he lectures the girls in a booming, dubbed voice with his views on society and the butcher's role in it. A European womanizer who is responsible for the American actress's pregnancy, is played by an actor younger than Roman Polanski was at the time of the crimes but still the reference is clear. As like Manson during the Tate crime scene, Satan is absent when his followers descend on the victim's large home. The pregnant actress is stabbed repeatedly by one of Satan's girls echoing Susan Atkins' assault on Tate and her unborn child.
Slaughter had a limited theatrical release (some reports state it was never released at all) after Joe Solomon of Fanfare Films backed out of distributing it when it was threatened with the box office curse of an "X" rating.
Original theatrical poster courtesy of Anthony N.
So it sat on the shelf until producer Allan Shackleton gave it a new life the Findlays never could have imagined. Shackleton ran Monarch Releasing Corporation a film distribution company in New York specializing in exploitation and adult movies. First he removed all the credits then changed the title to the much more incendiary Snuff, also adding the infamous tagline "The film that could only be made in South America...Where life is CHEAP!".
The term "snuff" was originally coined by Ed Sanders in his 1971 book about Charles Manson The Family (yes, Manson was the inspiration for both Slaughter and Snuff independently). Without anything resembling proof, Sanders states that the Manson Family filmed orgies, animal sacrifices and murders taking place on a beach. From here came the long standing myth of "snuff films", death purposefully committed to video for the enjoyment of small circles of powerful business men jaded with the thrills of regular erotica. Rumours of these underground collectors of death on film gained steam and continues to this day, still without absolutely any first hand evidence. Taking advantage of the rumours, Shakelton hired adult movie director Carter Stevens to film a new ending to Slaughter purportedly of a female crew member actually being killed on set. Near the end of the film, suddenly a jump cut reveals a studio set meant to be behind the scenes footage. Amid the crew and lighting equipment, a man (supposedly the director) coaxes a female production assistant over to a bed on set to "turn each other on". When she protests the filming of their rendezvous, the director with help from other crew members, cut her with a knife, remove a finger using a pair of pliers, amputate a (still twitching!) hand and finally open the girl's stomach to pull out entrails and the heart. Suddenly the films sputters to a stop and a voice is heard, "shit, shit...we ran out of film." Someone else responds, "did you get it, did you get it all?" The exchange continues,"Yeah, we got it all", "Let's get out of here!".
Long after the film's theatrical run was done with, video cassette copies started turning up on store shelves. Perhaps the first home video offering of Snuff was in 1983 as part of the compilation tape Filmgore. This VHS release was from Charles Band's Force Video label and presented severely truncated versions of such notorious films as Bloodfeast, Two Thousand Maniacs, Driller Killer and of course Snuff which here runs a brief fifeteen minutes!
In the UK Astra Video planned to release it on VHS in May of 1982, going so far as to send out promotional copies and take ads out for the forthcoming release. This was cancelled amid sensationalist publicity by the notoriously uninformed British press, which led to the proliferation of bootleg tapes in Britan made from copies of Astra's promo tapes. With the passing of the Video Recordings Act, Snuff was added to the so-called "video nasties" list on July 4 1983. Back in the United States, Snuff had multiple unofficial releases courtesy of "companies" who dealt with unauthorized dubs of hard to find movies. Cult Video may have been the first to present it to American audiences while in December of 1999, Substance Video also brought a VHS edition onto the market.
Even though that extra five minute scene has obviously fake and in fact, poorly done, special effects, the film became a huge if notorious box office hit.
Immediately after opening theatrically, Snuff was surrounded by controversy and public outcry. Women's groups who had never seen it condemned it, reviewers who were disgusted by it continued to publicize it, theatre owners were threatened with indecency charges for daring to show it and The New York City District Attorney's office ordered an investigation into it. The FBI also examined the film.
Amid all the uproar, Shackleton helped fan the flames of publicity into billowing clouds of profits. Sure, there were legitimate women's groups protesting theatres showing the film. There were also fake protesters hired by Shackleton to create even more of a disturbance. He even had anti-Snuff flyers printed up for his planted protesters to hand out to passing foot traffic. In the August 1976 issue of Swank Magazine, the producer innocently stated, "I have no way of knowing whether the killings in this film were real". The strategy worked and Snuff was a sensational hit playing to capacity crowds in dozens of major North American cities with protesters at every stop. How a supposedly "underground", illegal film was openly advertised in mainstream newspapers and playing theatrically (as opposed to being shown in clandestine pervert dens) was never considered by those so greatly offended. Never mentioned, is that although the film is considered an example of violence against women, not only are all the murders committed by females, but the ratio of male to female victims is 10/5 (or 10/6 if you include the tacked on Snuff ending). Also rarely considered is that for a movie with a porn-like rating of "X", Snuff is lacking any real sex or nudity aside from a few topless shots.
In July of 2003 Blue Underground released Snuff as a limited DVD numbered out of a run of ten thousand (the Canadian pressing was numbered out of five thousand). The DVD artwork resembled a crumpled paper bag hiding the contraband substance within. To further the illicit feel of the product, the disc itself had absolutely no bonus features and in fact, no menus. As soon as the disc was inserted into a DVD player, the film would suddenly start. This DVD version of Snuff is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ration and has an appropriate amount of damage to the print considering the source.
While it was gratifying to finally get a proper home video release of Snuff and the bootleg style aesthetic was quaint, this DVD was a missed opportunity by not providing any supplemental material. Surely the back story of the film was at least as interesting as Snuff itself, if not more so. It would take ten years for this to be corrected.
Blue Underground's release of Snuff on blu-ray disc appeared during the fall of 2013 in an eye catching blood red case and reversible cover art. Incredibly, the notorious movie was remastered from an original print of the film although substantial improvement is not noticeable. Still, the colours are stronger and less washed out while skin tones are much warmer than on the previous DVD release. What is apparent is that the new aspect ratio of 1.66:1, while adding considerable information to the sides of the screen, does actually trim a portion of the top and bottom of the screen losing some picture that is seen on the DVD release. The extensive print damage seen during Angelica's childhood flashback remains however. A nice addition to the blu-ray is the brand new subtitles feature which was not present on the DVD.
Picture quality and aspect ratio comparison between the DVD release (left) and blu-ray version (right)
This release also adds a welcomed fresh batch of excellent bonus features easily surpassing the previous bare-bones DVD edition. "Shooting Snuff" is a ten minute interview with Carter Stevens discussing the making of the controversial ending and the outrage it caused with some of the public. He also credits Simon Nuchtern as the director of the final scene which is odd because for years it was thought that Stevens himself directed the coda. Still pics from the set show Stevens operating a camera but no other information is given as to why he was considered the director for decades since the film the released.
Next up is "Up To Snuff" a seven minute interview with filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) who is proud to be a fan of the movie. That maybe so, but I'm not impressed with him stating that although he loves it, he probably won't ever watch it again. Hell, I've watched it seven times in the last week for this article alone.
"Porn Buster" is a great five minute segment with Bill Kelly a retired FBI agent who worked on the investigation into the veracity of so-called "snuff" films and the underground group of collectors who are thought to pay large sums for viewings. Predictably, he dispels the ongoing rumours of such activities ever taking place at least during his lengthy tenure working for the FBI.
Other extras on the Blue Underground blu-ray include the three minute trailer and the one minute German trailer using the title American Cannibale. Next is an excellant poster & still gallery featuring various lobby cards (some under it's alternate title Big Snuff although one of these lobby cards is clearly not from this film), VHS covers and some behind-the-scenes photos from the infamous added ending.
The "Controversy Gallery" is a selection of newspaper articles reporting on the contention caused by the film. This feature is especially important as it shows how Snuff was really received at the time without any modern filtering.
Finally we has "Snuff: The Seventies And Beyond" a informative text essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas who does a good job of putting Snuff in historical context regarding the women's movement and censorship circles.
One special feature not present but which would have been an exceptional addition would be the original ending to Slaughter. Blue Underground did attempt to track this down, but after a promising lead and months of searching ended without payoff, proceeded with the blu-ray of Snuff as we now know it.
The legacy of Snuff remains.
Still without a single bit of evidence to suggest otherwise, many people still believe in the existence of so-called "snuff" films and the private circles that view them.
In 2014 Toronto's The Black Museum presented Rachel Katz delivering a lecture about the original film Snuff and it's influence on other movies such as Hardcore (another film inspired by the Manson case!),8MM, Tesis, Vacancy 2 and more. She also showed clips from the various films including a very dark, full frame Snuff ending on the big screen.
Judging by some of the questions from the audience during the Q & A portion of the evening, the myth of "snuff films" still lives on after all these years.
Somewhere Allan Shackelton is smiling.