I had first heard rumblings about SNUFF: A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT KILLING ON CAMERA at the time of its original release back in 2008. I had somehow missed the film itself and did not realize, even while I was reading about it, that it would hit close to home in so many ways.
Before we move on, I must disclose that unbeknownst to me until recently, SNUFF was directed by Paul von Stoetzel. Paul is a friend of mine, a great friend for whose presence in my life I will always be thankful. We practically grew up together. We had lost touch and had not spoken for several years, until social media linked us up once again. When the opportunity came to look at this film, I was excited but I leveled the same rules I’m repeating now. No matter what my feelings are for von Stoetzel as a person, I am reviewing the film on its own terms. Whatever the film’s successes or failures, they belong to the film itself with no personal bias steering me in one direction or another.
I should also point out that though this film contains a number of disclaimers regarding the material that will be shown and discussed, viewing death on camera was not a new prospect for me. In fact, it used to be how I made my living. That is not to say I specialized in seedy or criminal material. In the past I worked for a satellite news gathering agency. I had a number of responsibilities, though the primary facet of my job was getting news stories from local television affiliates in certain regions of the United States and then distributing them to dozens of other stations across the country. Unfortunately, I was told more than once that the actual newsworthiness of the material would always rank second to what was called simply, “good video.” Sometimes, this was something as innocuous as a human interest story about animals or kids. But more often, it involved bringing in and reviewing raw footage that would later be cut down before being transmitted to other interested parties. I saw death on my screen several times a week. If I was covering a fire, the flames engulfing a house or building would be good video. If I was covering a car accident, the crash itself or the crumpled cars would be good video. And no matter what I covered, whether it was the aftermath of a random event or someone who went on a shooting spree, footage of the bodies was always, always considered good video.
In one of my most shameful moments as a human being, I remember screaming over the phone at a television station that would not release footage they had in their possession. The video would have allegedly shown the dashboard camera from a police vehicle as officers defended themselves by shooting and killing an eighteen year old boy. I was told by my superiors to make getting this video a priority and I bellowed like a beast when the station would not give it up. Their reason was that after viewing the footage, they were not going to use it in their broadcast. They said it did not aid the story and was instead too graphic and incendiary. They felt the damage that would be done not only to the officers involved but also to the boy’s family would outweigh any benefit of actually showing the loss of life. They were being respectful, responsible journalists. I was not.
Of course, what you see on the news is still different than what would be considered snuff, even if that difference occasionally does not seem all that substantial. The notion of the snuff film is often chalked up as an urban legend, though there are still several people who swear to its legitimacy. SNUFF: A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT KILLING ON CAMERA seeks to cover the history and elusive truths in what has become one of the most controversial topics in the world of true crime. It gathers a number of individuals, including ex-law enforcement, FBI profilers, film historians, filmmakers and other professionals in order to deliver the film’s narrative. The film is split into chapters, each discussing a salient point in the story.
Since so many people throughout history have had different ideas of what constitutes a snuff film, the first thing the documentary does is give a definition. The accurate definition of a snuff film, which this documentary follows, is a film that features a premeditated act of murder of a human being, shot on camera for the purposes of selling said film for profit.
Though there had been whispers about these types of films for decades, the first real exposure in mass media was with Michael and Roberta Findlay’s cult classic, SNUFF (1976). Starting out as an action thriller shot in Argentina and then morphing into a Manson-esque exploitation film, the unfinished film was altered even further when a scene was tacked onto the end purporting to show cameramen filming while the director (not Findlay) seduced and then murdered a production assistant. Shot with cutaways and ropey special effects, von Stoetzel’s film is correct in suggesting how hard it is to be taken seriously. And yet it was, contributing to the already growing urban legend about snuff films.
Von Stoetzel’s SNUFF features film producers and historians, such as R.P. Whalen talking about the myth surrounding producers who had somehow filmed actual murders and sold it to the public. Films like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and FACES OF DEATH are covered. It’s a breezy and entertaining overview that touches on controversies and court trials. Another interesting point of this is how various groups used the unproven specter of the snuff film to help take down pornography, these groups alleging that the display of unsimulated sex and unsimulated murder were somehow two inevitable sides of the same coin.
However, this is one area of von Stoetzel’s film that could have benefitted from a bit more detail. I was already familiar with a lot of this material, simply because I’ve been obsessively studying it for years. But if you are coming into this film completely cold, or at least without a large bit of background information, one could easily see how the viewer could become lost. Last names are tossed around without pointing out to the audience who the people are or what their significance is. I know who Ruggero Deodato is. You might know who he is. But is everyone who sits down to watch this documentary going to be equally knowledgeable?
The rest of SNUFF is filled with much more graphic, disturbing and altogether serious subject matter. This is where von Stoetzel’s documentary travels where angels fear to tread, dealing with the cinematic exploits of some truly loathsome individuals. The existence of snuff films is debatable, but to think no one has put murder on video is simply naïve. Serial killers have been known to record acts of rape, torture and murder, which is something SNUFF explores. The alleged crimes of a Russian child pornographer known as Dimitri are enough to turn anyone’s stomach. And yet, SNUFF never flinches in exploring this darkest part of humanity, exposing it but taking no prurient enjoyment in doing so. Particularly unsettling are the details regarding the crimes of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng. These killers filmed the torture, degradation and murder of their victims. This doesn’t fit the definition of snuff in that the tapes were made for Lake and Ng’s own enjoyment rather than monetary gain. The testimonials from people involved in that investigation are some of the most informative parts of the film.
Unfortunately, the idea of capturing murder on camera has attracted a far more insidious criminal mind. In what is by far the most graphic, disturbing and fascinating part of the documentary, SNUFF tackles the War on Terror. As recent years have shown us, terrorists and extremists have used video and internet streaming technology to broadcast their crimes to the world. SNUFF does not shy away from this, describing and in some cases showing these previously distributed materials.
It is important to note that though SNUFF covers exploitation cinema and through its interview subjects even shares a sense of camaraderie with the world of exploitation, the documentary is not exploitive in itself. One of the interviewees notes how unnecessary it was for Michael Moore to show footage from the Columbine massacre in his documentary BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, though he chose to anyway. In the case of this film however, death on camera is the primary subject matter. You cannot cover this material without showing it to some degree. Thus, SNUFF shows examples of wartime footage including a sniper targeting U.S. forces, army personnel shooting and killing suspects in a raid, suspected Iraqi insurgents being brutalized, American soldiers under enemy fire and terrorists beheading contractor Eugene Armstrong. This is the reason why SNUFF is preceded by so many disclaimers warning of its content. And though a previous career in viewing death on camera prepared me for this material, even I turned my head away from the beheading video. I still don’t know how much of that video was shown in von Stoetzel’s film. I only heard the screams.
Had the documentary ended with this section, I could have given it even higher praise. After all, SNUFF had come to a provocative yet accurate conclusion. Terrorists not only use this material as propaganda, they also earn money from it. People are able to buy videos of suicide bombers and snipers, that money then being funneled into the organizations that create the next wave of terrorists. The classic snuff film of yesteryear, viewed through the specter of pornography and organized crime, may or may not exist. But if the snuff film didn’t exist before, it certainly does now, at least to some degree. The boogeyman of the snuff film has been made flesh from the ever-escalating perpetual war machine.
Unfortunately, SNUFF has one more card to play. The final moments of the film are given to a haunting story told by producer Mark L. Rosen. Rosen, who also serves as SNUFF’s executive producer, had a prosperous film career starting with the highly controversial Bryanston Pictures and continuing long after that company was shut down. In this final segment, he shares his account of dealing with some shady people who may have possessed an actual snuff film.
Shot like a confessional, with minimal editing, it’s a powerful moment that may have worked better if placed somewhere in the middle of the film, such as when other subjects are actively discussing the validity of snuff films. Or perhaps it would work if the film presented it without taking sides. But SNUFF not only places this story at the end, it swears to its authenticity via title cards. And it might be true; the point is nobody knows for certain. But as emotional and genuine as Rosen’s testimony may be, it’s still the stuff urban legends are made of – we haven’t seen evidence of a snuff film ourselves, but we’ve heard from someone who might have.
Most documentaries would hesitate before venturing into many of the areas SNUFF covers without blinking. Though it might have its flaws, this documentary covers a lot of ground as it explores what continues to be an immensely polarizing subject. Recommended.
RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA
- What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
- In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.