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A snuff movie (known as hei in Japanese) is a motion picture genre that depicts the actual death or murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of distribution and entertainment or financial exploitation. For-profit snuff films are generally regarded as an urban legend, whose persistence demonstrates more about our anxieties than the reality of such films being made. Some filmed records of executions and murders exist but have not been made or 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 the extinguishing of a candle flame. The word has been used as such in English slang for hundreds of years. J.C. 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.
The Michael Powell film Peeping Tom (1960) featured a filmmaker who committed murders and used the acts as the content of his documentary films. The concept of "snuff movies" being made for profit became more widely known in 1976 with the commercial film Snuff. A low budget exploitation horror film entitled Slaughter, the film 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 added a new ending that depicted an actress being murdered on a film set and retitled the film Snuff. 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), the Paul Schrader film Hardcore (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 (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), and Fred Vogel's film August Underground (2001) and its sequels.
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. Most recently 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.
Some murderers have recorded their acts on video. Documentary film makers have also captured footage of executions or accidental deaths. The resultant footage is not usually considered to constitute a snuff film because the deaths were not enacted in a for-profit film.
The American public was gripped by the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Professione: reporter, a film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, includes film footage of a firing squad execution. The stabbing death of Meredith Hunter by a Hell's Angel at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway was captured and shown in Albert and David Maysles' documentary film Gimme Shelter. The 1995 documentary film Executions showed several executions of people condemned to death.
On September 11th, 2001, millions of people saw television news coverage after the attacks that included footage of people jumping to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center in New York City. News footage or intentional political records that captured murders, executions or suicides, including those of Benito Mussolini, Nick Berg, Saddam Hussein, Paul Johnson, Kim Sun-il, Eugene Armstrong, JFK, Daniel Pearl, Inejiro Asanuma and Yitzhak Rabin, and the suicides of Ricardo Cerna, and Budd Dwyer have been posted on the Internet. Such footage was either of a real event and shot for documentary purposes, or the assassins filmed a murder to use the record for political purposes. The resulting footage cannot be called a snuff film according to its definition.
Video recordings of assault
In several cases murderers and serial killers have recorded aspects of their crimes, although they filmed their victims while still alive. These include:
- Between 1983-85, Charles Ng and Leonard Lake videotaped their torturing some of the women whom they would later kill.
- In the early 1990s, serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka separately videotaped some of their sexual assaults of victims. They did not film their murders.
- In 1997 the German murderers Ernst Dieter Korzen and Stefan Michael Mahn recorded their torture of two prostitutes whom they had kidnapped. They killed one and the other woman escaped, leading to the mens' arrests. They were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Prosecutors claimed there was an international market for such videos, and that Korzen and Mahn intended to sell their film. Korzen and Mahn were the first persons convicted for making a snuff movie, although their video was never distributed.
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. In the late 1980s, the Guinea Pig films were allegedly one of the inspirations for Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki's murders of preschool girls. The Guinea Pig film he owned was "Mermaid in a Manhole".
After viewing a portion of Flower of Flesh and Blood, the actor Charlie Sheen thought that the murder depicted was genuine and contacted the MPAA, which contacted the FBI. FBI agent Dan Codling informed Sheen and the MPAA that the FBI and the Japanese authorities were already investigating the film makers, who were forced to prove that the murders were fake. While the Guinea Pig movies are not snuff films, two were purported to be based on snuff films. The Devil's Experiment was supposedly based on a film sent to the Tokyo police showing a group dismember a young woman. Although Flower of Flesh and Blood was supposedly made after manga artist, Hideshi Hino, received snuff materials, it was based on his own manga.
Other alleged snuff films
In 2000 a British investigation led to an international effort to seize materials and break up a gang of child pornographers based in Russia. They were reportedly offering pornographic films of child abuse, in which some died from torture, for sale to clients in Italy, Germany, the U.S. and U.K. Italian police investigators were also involved. The British paper The Observer reported, "The Italian investigators say the material includes footage of children dying during abuse. Prosecutors in Naples are considering charging those who bought the videos with complicity in murder."'
In popular culture
Snuff films have been a topic or device in fictional works of film, literature, games, and other storytelling genres. These include David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983). An adaptation as a TV movie was made of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe mystery novel A Pinch of Snuff (1978), which involved a case with a purported British snuff film.
Since the mid-to-late 1990s, several films have been released that drew on the urban legend of snuff films. These included The Great American Snuff Film, Mute Witness (1994), and Strange Days (1995). The Spanish horror movie Tesis (1996) is in this category, as are 8mm (1999), My Little Eye (2002), Halloween: Resurrection, FeardotCom, and most recently Untraceable. A post-modern take on illusion, reality and sexploitation in this genre is shown in the British film director Bernard Rose's Snuff-Movie (2005). Snuff.mov (2010) is presented as an Internet depiction of a serial killer's work.
- "Snuff films false". 2006-10-31. http://www.snopes.com/horrors/madmen/snuff.asp. Retrieved December 2010.
- [http://www.snopes.com/horrors/madmen/snuff.htm Barbara Mikkelson, "A Pinch of Snuff", Snopes.com, 31 Oct 2006, accessed 8 April 2007
- Bible in Wyclif tr. (i.e. 1384) Exodus xxv.38 "where the snoffes ben quenchid"; cf. xxxvii.23
- Scott Aaron Stine, "The Snuff Film: The Making of an Urban Legend", Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 23.3, May / June 1999, accessed 13 Dec 2010
- "Do snuff movies exist ?", Documentary, part 1, YouTube
- "The Curse of Her Filmography : Roberta Findlay's grindhouse legacy", New York Press, July 27, 2005
- Martina Lees, "Death robe of secrecy hangs around snuff films", reprinted from Beeld, 18 October 2003 (originally in Afrikaans), Martina Lees Website, accessed 13 December 2010
- "Snuff", Britannica Online Encyclopedia
- "Does Snuff Exist?", The Dark Side of Porn, Season 2 Episode 4, Channel 4 documentary, 18 April 2006
- Frew, Callum (1999-04-13). ""Perverts murdered woman for snuff movie"". The Daily Record.
- ""Serial killer inspired by Guinea Pig films"". guineapigfilms.com. http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/psychology/movies_made_me_kill/11.html. Retrieved 2008-06-17.
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- Jason Burke in London, Amelia Gentleman in Moscow, Philip Willan in Rome: "British link to 'snuff' videos", The Observer, 1 October 2000, accessed 13 December 2010
- Snuff.mov website
- David Kerekes and David Slater. Killing for Culture: Death Film from Mondo to Snuff (Creation Cinema Collection). London: Creation Books, 1996.