An exclusive excerpt from Killing For Culture: From Edison to Isis: A New History of Death on Film (by David Kerekes & David Slater), an all-new edition of the 90s cult classic, available now in special edition hardback.
Snuff started life as Slaughter, a dire exploitation film shot in 1971 by husband and wife filmmakers Michael and Roberta Findlay. The Findlays were prodigious in the field of exploitation. Whether working apart or together, they churned out films to meet current trends in the market, so cheap it was nigh impossible they could lose any money. One early production that Michael worked on (without Roberta) was Satan’s Bed (1965), starring the unknown Yoko Ono. The rest is a succession of cheese and grindhouse sleaze, including roughies like Body of a Female (1964) and horror pictures like Shriek of the Mutilated (1974). Slaughter was exceptionally bad, however. It fell between the cracks. Indeed, the film’s producer, exploitation specialist Allan Shackleton, had almost given up on it when he got the idea to film a new ending and precipitate its release as Snuff with a scurrilous marketing campaign.
Scrubbing all references to the Findlays’ movie, Shackleton removed the original title and credits and adopted a new title — Snuff, as in ‘snuff film’. Shackleton was ready to scratch a legend into the annals of exploitation history with a stunt comparable to the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Orson Welles’ play that convinced 1938 America that Martians were invading Earth. Now, Snuff was primed to electrify the imaginations of a new generation, same as the old generation.
The next move was to engineer additional footage (running a little under five-and-a-half minutes) and splice it onto what was left of Slaughter. For this task, Shackleton hired Simon Nuchtern, a jobbing director with a handful of not altogether remarkable movies to his name.
In the newly-edited Slaughter, the scene cuts away to reveal the new material: A studio set with actors caught in the moment. Surrounding the actors are the trappings of movie making, including one archetypal bulldozing director.
The director confides to a pretty production assistant that the last take “was dynamite. That was a gory scene and it really turned me on.” She confesses it turned her on, too.
What follows is a stupefying descent into madness, and for the tawdry movie of the last seventy-odd minutes a contrivance as daft as it is unexpected. The director, wearing a t-shirt that bears the slogan VIVA LA MUERTE (Long live death), begins to lean on the girl. “Why don’t you and I go to the bed and get turned on… turn each other on, mm?”
“What about all these people watching?” she asks.
“Give ’em just a minute, they’re gonna be gone.”
Still in long shot, still in whispers, the director and girl engage in a little light petting on the prop bed. Contrary to leaving, however, the other people in the room slowly focus their attention on the couple, including the cameraman and soundman.
Point of view of the cameraman as the couple grope and fondle; the girl’s startled face as she suddenly becomes aware that the camera is on them.
“What are you doing? Are you filming this? They’re filming it!”
The girl struggles to free herself from the director’s pawing. “Don’t worry about it,” he says.
“Just move a little back up here — ”
“You’re crazy!” Scared.
“ — right back up here.”
“Let me go!”
“Shaddap!” Then to the crew he says, “Do all of you wanna get a good scene?”
Cutaway to the crew and affirmation.
“Okay… watch yourself… watch …”
“Let me up!”
“Let me go! You’re crazy!”
The director calls for assistance. A member of the crew expressionlessly complies, holding the girl’s arms down on the bed, while the director reaches for a knife.
“You’re crazy. You’re not serious. You’re not really gonna do it,” the girl pleads.
“You don’t think so?”
“Think I’ll kill her…”
The director slices through the girl’s blouse and across her shoulder. Blood (the colour of raspberries) oozes from the wound. She writhes and hollers.
“Scream, go on, scream!” the director demands. “That’s it, scream!”
The screaming becomes a pathetic sob.
Exasperated, he bellows, “STOP!! You want to play!?”
Following a few minutes of spectacular, if hardly convincing violence, the frame runs to leader-tape, then blackness. A whisper punctuates the void: “Shit, shit… we ran out of film.”
Another voice whispers: “Did you get it — did you get it all?”
“Yeah, we got it all.”
“Let’s get outta here.”
The sound of breathing. Ends.
The movie did not premiere with any of its stars in attendance (after all, they were supposed to be dead), nor did it boast any local luminaries. Not many people attended the premiere at all. Sixteen people in total turned out for the first evening show at 6pm. A uniformed security guard was on hand to make sure no one below the age of eighteen was admitted.
Ticket price notwithstanding, Monarch stuck to their original campaign and public awareness of the movie increased. By the time Snuff left Indianapolis it was already picking up momentum. More than 300 people attended the film’s opening night at the Orpheum Theater in Wichita, Kansas, on January 30. Many of those in attendance were “laughing instead of moaning”, reported a theater spokesman. Shackleton was driving the print of the film in his car from one engagement to another on its route to New York, ballyhooing it at every turn. Having traveled from Cincinnati to St Paul, he witnessed people being turned away from the box office of the Strand Theater on the day of its St Paul premiere, February 20. Pickets and adverse press weren’t only conspiring to stop him in this instance: The theater itself had been closed down by police the day before the scheduled screening, pending a matter of theater licensing. The resourceful Shackleton simply packed Snuff back into his trunk and drove across the river to Minneapolis, where it played an impromptu engagement at the American Theater, fittingly an X-rated movie house, complete with ads proclaiming its ‘ban’ in St Paul.
The trailer—not really all that safe for work—for Shackleton’s ‘Snuff’
The Adult Film Association of America was not happy with Snuff. Not surprising really. Formed in 1969 to protect the interests of those involved in the production, distribution and exhibition of adult motion pictures, the AFAA fought against negative representation, which included among other things child exploitation and rumours of so-called snuff films. Shackleton, hitherto a member of the AFAA, was unceremoniously kicked out of the organization because of Snuff.
Aware that it was all a gimmick and that no one was actually killed in Snuff, the AFAA nevertheless took pains to distance itself from the film. It was the sort of attention they didn’t need. President Vince Miranda, owner of the Pussycat Theater chain, announced that AFAA member theaters would not be screening it. But by and large, Snuff circumvented adult theaters anyway and played the regular houses. The AFAA unwittingly played into Shackleton’s hands when its members joined picket lines on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. “We called a press conference to say the film was a phoney,” recalled AFAA chairman David Friedman, “and that we were proud to say we would not show it.” But the AFAA were not the only group protesting Snuff. Women’s groups were also up in arms.
The absurdity of a theatrical motion picture that dabbled in actual murder (of a crew member, no less) was lost on some; likewise, that such a movie, supposedly having been ‘smuggled’ into the country, should turn up in New York City and openly promote itself on Times Square and around the country. It didn’t matter because lobby groups still protested against it, media still arrived to document the protestations, and officials continued to look into the matter.
But the protests outside the National Theater, which included the presence of ‘high profile’ FBI agents, didn’t stop the movie grossing over $300,000 during its first eight weeks and it certainly didn’t halt the publicity, which shifted into gears possibly beyond the expectation of even Allan Shackleton. Snuff was a rampaging publicity monster.
Killing for Culture available now in special edition—out in paperback next year. And below you can check out the official new Killing For Culture documentary, The Death Illusion: Murder, Cinema & the Myth of Snuff, directed by David Hinds and written and narrated by occasional Dangerous Mind Thomas McGrath.