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Movie Review: Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera

Camera on a tripod in a torture room

Anybody sitting down to watch, or even just reading a review of, Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera is going to want to know one thing right off the bat: Did director Paul von Stoetzel find evidence of actual snuff films?

But, I’ll get to that later.

The film is very specific in its definition of what an actual “snuff” film is: A movie that is sold for profit in which a person is murdered. A film that just happens to have an actual death in it doesn’t count, e.g. those cheezy old Faces of Death videos aren’t considered “snuff films” just because they include actual newsreel footage of real murder — in between the majority of faked death scenes.

Since the existence of snuff films is up to debate for most people, von Stoetzel spends most of the time having people talk about what isn’t a snuff film. So, we get a lot of discussion about those Faces of Death videos; the infamous horror movie Cannibal Holocaust that was purportedly all-real death until the director had to go to court to prove it wasn’t to avoid going to jail; a cheapo ’70s horror flick called Snuff that still pretends to have a real murder in it except for how fake looking it all is; as well as other movies of that ilk. Most of this isn’t about real death, but that doesn’t make watching all the fakery any less unpleasant.

Snuff the documentary is very difficult to watch. Although put together with an air of traditional, investigatory documentary practices: nicely lit sit-down expert interviews, lots of archival footage, chapter headings, et. al. But, between the lighting choices for the interviews, the music and graphics, the material is all presented with a lurid sheen. The movie even opens with a warning screen advising the audience that what they’re about to see is extremely disturbing. William Castle would be proud.

However, the difference between Castle and von Stoetzel is that the modern director really does deliver the goods. The only quibble with the film is that many of the “experts” he interviews are fellow movie directors whose names and films aren’t easily recognizable. Plus, one of the other main experts is labeled as a “film historian,” but we never learn what his qualifications really are. He’s certainly a knowledgeable person and a great interview, but I wish I had gotten more on his credentials, like what books or articles he’s written.

There are very authoritative law enforcement experts interviewed, too, some of whom are on hand to discuss the more disturbing segments of the film. Although I had never heard of them before, Leonard Lake and Charles Ng captured, tortured and killed several men, women and babies in Northern California in the ’80s — and videotaped themselves doing it. The film includes excerpts from these videos. Nothing grisly is shown, but we do see some extremely uncomfortable psychological torturing. But what’s strange is that while everything else in the documentary is explicitly spelled out, we’re never told if these are in fact real Lake and Ng videos or recreations. If they’re real, how did von Stoetzel get his hands on them? I would have to assume they’re the real deal, but the explanation is an odd omission.

There’s also a terribly unpleasant section on war atrocities commited to film and video, including those horrific beheading videos from the start of the current Irag war.

But, back to the notion of genuine “snuff films,” one of the themes set up early in the documentary is the idea that they have to be a myth because of one basic question: Do you know anybody who has actually seen one? Snuff found a guy who has. Oddly enough, like with any movie, I don’t want to ruin “the ending” of this documentary, so I don’t want to write too much, but I can’t avoid bringing the subject up entirely What we get isn’t just a guy saying, “Yeah, I saw one” and leaves it at that. Instead, he relates a truly tragic, horrific story that’s one of the most unsettling and downright disturbing things I’ve ever heard — at the end of a film that had already chilled me to the bone.

As a reviewer, I feel a bit in an odd position. It’s hard to say I “enjoyed” Snuff without sounding a bit evil myself. But I will say it’s a very good and extremely well put-together documentary. It’s not a film everyone is going to rush right out and see, but for those who are intrigued by and can stomach the subject matter, it doesn’t disappoint.

More on this film: Movie Site

(This film was sent to the Underground Film Journal as a screener from the 2008 Spooky Movie Film Festival, Washington, D.C.’s horror film festival, which runs this year Oct. 16-20.)

Watch the Snuff movie trailer: