This article discusses issues and contains images of a controversial and graphic nature. Sensitive readers may not want to continue.
The existence of real snuff films is a hotly debated topic. Some people say they actually exist, and some say they don't. It really depends on your definition of snuff films. According to one definition, a snuff film is any murder captured on camera circulated underground for entertainment purposes. A stricter definition says that it's not a real snuff film unless the film is made with the intention of selling it. The Snopes website has an interesting article that explains why most experts don't think snuff films exist.
"Snuff" films as a subgenre of horror
[note: in this article, the term "snuff" in quotation marks refers to the fictional horror genre, to distinguish it from actual snuff films].
If you take a torture porn movie and combine it with a found-footage movie, you have basically created a "snuff" movie. They are not hard to make; by nature, they are supposed to look cheap, as real snuff films would be amateur works with simple video cameras. There's usually little or no plot, because a snuff film exists solely to document the torture and murder of an individual.
"Snuff" films (or films with "snuff" subplots) have been made since the 1970's. These are usually underground films and don't get much of a theatrical release, which can make them hard to find. However, they are popular enough with certain audiences that they keep getting made.
The problem of gore
When making a "snuff" film, the film-maker needs to decide how much violence to actually show. There needs to be enough to justify it being a "snuff" film. But showing a whole lot of gore usually means cheap special effects, which can detract from the film and make it more silly than sick (this is the problem that Grotesque ran into).
And by showing too much extreme violence for too long, you run the risk of making the viewer numb to it all (such as Philosophy of a Knife).
"Snuff" is a bigger genre than most people realize, and they run the range from really stupid to really... effective. Let's look at three "snuff" films that are noteworthy examples of the genre - either good or bad.
The Cohasset Snuff Film
This is an excellent example of false advertising. And a shitty "snuff" film.
You see the poster on the left? Yeah. I have no idea where that came from. There is nothing remotely like that in the movie - that's literally the hardest thing to look at. It's all downhill silliness from there.
You may notice that I did not mark the trailer as NSFW. That's because almost nothing in the movie is NSFW except for a couple of boobs and vaginas. There is no gore. I've honestly seen more violence in prime time TV.
It's about a high school boy videotaping himself turning into a psychopath, and killing three women. I seriously suspect that this was the result of some bored theater kids with a video camera during summer vacation (one of the funniest parts was seeing that the high school yearbook team consists of 6 people and they always meet in an empty classroom).
The worst part is Stephen Wu, who plays the star of the film, the killer teenager Collin. He spends the whole time overacting, scoffing, laughing, and looking ridiculous while trying to say things that seem socially relevant. I don't know what he based his character on, but it's not anything remotely resembling an actual serial killer.
This is a great example of the failure of a movie to attain effective "snuff" status. Or cult status. It's just embarrassing.
The Great American Snuff Film
The poster wants you to believe that it's based on a real serial killer, William Allen Grone. It's not; he and his partner in crime were made up for the movie. But that's OK. Part of the gimmick of "snuff" films is to create a small crack in your skepticism so part of you wonders "what if?"
The NSFW trailer:
This movie had some genuinely chilling moments. The acting was still not great, but the characters felt much more real than some other "snuff" films I've seen.
Part of the strength of this film is that it wasn't all POV; the story was "re-enacted", which gave room for some creativity in the way it was presented.
For no budget, the camera work was well done. The violence was more realistic than some in the genre.
Both of the main actors did well in their roles. While they were a little too much like stereotypical FBI profiles, Grone's dead robotic voice delivering his nihilistic lines about life were very effective.
Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera
This is the most polarizing, controversial, and interesting of these three films. It is a real(ish) documentary with real people discussing snuff films.The film is sprinkled with scenes from movies that could fit in the "snuff" horror genre.
The NSFW trailer:
One problem with the way the movie tells the story is that when they show "snuff" footage, they don't always state what movies the scenes are from; people who don't already know what the movie is may suspect that the footage is real, even when it isn't.
The movie discusses the connection between snuff films and pornography, and wades into the discussion of whether watching porn will naturally lead viewers into wanting to see more extreme footage, including real violence and murder.
The movie also spends a lot of time discussing death films as opposed to snuff films. Death films, which are just recordings of people being killed, are all over the place. It's not very hard to find death films, especially in the time of terrorist beheadings. This movie shows footage of a couple murders from the Middle East, including that of James Wright Foley, which was widely circulated on the internet.
But movies like those are filmed for other reasons and freely distributed, so they technically aren't snuff films. Remember, snuff films are officially defined as murdering someone on camera specifically to sell to other people for entertainment. It's a lot harder to prove the existence of those.
Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera is a creepy movie that gets under your skin. It's a little overdone (I kind of doubt that the story of the tape in the mail described in the trailer actually happened), but it does show actual footage from real serial killers such as Leonard Lake and Charles Ng - although no actual killing was recorded.
The most fascinating part of the movie are the interviews with Mark L. Rosen, a film producer that handled the distribution of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (he wasn't an actual producer of Texas Chainsaw, though, like this movie says). He tells stories about his work in the adult film industry, handling and distributing porn flicks. The film ends with him telling a very disturbing story about meeting a man from the Philippines who wanted him to distribute a movie that involved a woman having anal sex and then being stabbed in the throat with a knife.
If Rosen is telling the truth, then we have proof that actual snuff films exist. But there are a few inconsistencies in his story, and he is suspected by some people of making it up. He actually responded to some claims on his IMDb page, and he apparently always stuck to his story. Unfortunately, Rosen died in 2012, so we will probably never know the actual truth.
In 2012, Luka Magnotta killed, dismembered, and ate part of his boyfriend, and put the video online, on a few internet forums. Magnotta edited out the actual murder, but showed the mutilation of the body. Many people consider this as evidence that snuff films must exist.
The subject of snuff films is delicate and complicated. Why are "snuff" films made? The fiction movies pretend to kill people in a realistic way, and then they are sold to real people for the purpose of entertainment. At heart, is there much of a difference between snuff films and "snuff" films? What is the allure? What's the point? I don't have the answers to those questions.
If you are new to the "snuff" genre and it interests you, these are three that give you a basic understanding. There are others out there that are not made for beginners, and which will may make you question some things. But those are other articles for other times.