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Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera

Westlake Entertainment // Unrated // August 26, 2008
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted September 25, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera:
There's nothing more sensationalistic in the world of moving images than the concept of the snuff movie. No paean to snorted stimulants, a snuff movie by definition features an actual filmed murder committed for the sole purpose of distribution and profit. It's a narrow definition that helps keep snuff officially classified as an urban myth, with no less an organization than the FBI claiming that no snuff films have ever been found. In this world, where evidence of every single type of crime imaginable is stockpiled somewhere or other, it's hard to believe that no one has ever seen a 'real' snuff film, but that's beside the point. The point is; if you want to eat your cake and have it too, then make a documentary about snuff - you'll get to, in a sense, decry and vilify that very thing you're peddling to the masses.

From a pair of trailers that seem to indict those foolhardy enough to sit down and watch this documentary, to a sensationalistic warning screen that more-than-echoes Jacopetti and Cavara movies like Mondo Cane and others, Snuff seems to almost have haughty (severed) tongue-in-cheek. It's a bad way to start a serious documentary (one presented by Killing Joke Films no less) - or maybe I'm missing the point, and the whole thing's a sick joke. Told in a brief 76-minute run-time, Snuff covers the usual death-culture bases, featuring portentous talking-head interviews and footage or stills from both 'real' and cinematic atrocities. After setting us up with the FBI lowdown we're treated to the ultimate scene from cult-schlocker Snuff, ('filmed in South America, where life is CHEAP!') the movie that arguably started this whole gross ball rolling. Real-life atrocity films like Faces Of Death are discussed; the very real and terrifying notion of serial killers filming their exploits is examined; and the recent glut of Middle East execution videos is prodded - all with the aid of multiple video clips. At the end of the day, Snuff: A Documentary comes across as a crass spook-show, disingenuously taking the moral high road while trotting out any number of things I never want to see again. The further fact that the documentary is ultimately only a glancing look at the subject - tarted up to disturb and employing some dubious experts - only leads me to infer this thesis; killing for the camera is indeed entertainment; we the filmmakers want our cut, and aren't you naughty for enjoying it.

An FBI agent, some scholars, 'cinephiles,' filmmakers and video store owners provide the anecdotes, most of which relate not to snuff films - since they 'don't exist' - but actually to the myriad other ways killing is captured on film (hence the catch-all subtitle). Those seeking out this documentary already know their information and insights likely - folk not looking for gruesome thrills but serious exploration (perhaps even some conclusions?) about whether snuff films really exist. I frequently found myself muttering at the screen correcting bits of information presented. An often guffawing cinephile sometimes brings the level of discourse down to pints and chips; he's the type of guy who'd daringly recommend you watch Flower Of Flesh And Blood, but not exactly a scholarly source.

It gets trickier when one scholar rightly notes that all documentary is narrative. What then do we take from another subject chiding Michael Moore for 'playing the snuff card' by showing security camera footage of the Columbine massacre in Bowling For Columbine -even as documentary director Paul Von Stoetzel shows some of the same footage? Further sliding down the well of 'is it information or entertainment?' we're treated to snippets of Americans being decapitated, Iraqis being beaten, unexplained and unattributed snaps of the likes of Sharon Tate's bloodied body and - most horrific, though not at all graphic - some of serial rapist/murderers Lake and Ng's home movies? Claims are made that true snuff is publicly dismissed because we can't accept such a horrible concept. Somehow, the existence of this documentary (in its muted sensationalism) and the millions of views of Saddam Hussein's execution and other Iraq horrors videos proves there's a huge (if unwilling to pay) market for exactly such stuff. I guess that's the rub - plenty of us seem to want to see this - to know the reality of death, (the unknowable) but is it untenable to pay for the privilege? If only we could ask the Roman gladiators ...

Dire, grim and loosey-goosey all at once, Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera would be even more disturbing if it wasn't dressed up to look like an Eli Roth interview. Sometimes twitchy subjects who occasionally glance accusingly at the camera from shadowy seats let us know the whole subject is wrong, wrong, wrong. Horrors parade by or flash almost subliminally. Film vet Mark L Rosen nearly gets the vapors while recounting his own brush with snuff, (and I don't doubt his sincerity) while the most harrowing (and derailing) segment puts us behind the lens of troops being fired upon in Iraq. "Jesus, please let it stop," our combat-avatar moans, and I'm with him. Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera never really draws any conclusions about the matter, it's ultimately a sour sideshow attraction that wants to have it both ways.


Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera comes in a 1.33:1 fullscreen ratio and generally looks excellent, with clear, sharp images of interview subjects (except for a few out-of-focus moments which look to be deliberate). Detail levels are excellent, limited however to close-ups and medium shots of our subjects, with little more than a fuzzy, grimy window in the background. Colors are mostly a stylishly washed out grey/white, and black levels are deep. Clips from movies sport a wider range of clarity and color, but are all good looking. 'Real life' footage is mostly culled from the Internet, and looks like you'd expect, grainy, pixilated to high-heaven and nasty - which in most cases is a welcome reprieve from the horror.

Dolby Digital Stereo Audio is problematic, with weird fluctuations in volume cropping up occasionally in both the feature and the commentary track. Spot checks of other DVDs lying around (for instance I had to watch an episode of Square Pegs afterward to soothe my soul) seemed normal, so I'm not sure what those volume drops are about. All the things I didn't want to hear - a mother asking Lake and Ng if her baby was OK, or someone having his head hacked off and beginning to scream, for instance - revealed source deficiencies but were all-too audible.

A Commentary Track with director Paul Von Stoetzel and a number of interviewees does a good deal to close the open circle created by the documentary. It's nice to hear everyone discuss in round-table-style what they've said, seen and what it all might mean. Notably, Von Stoetzel himself even questions at one point his reasons for directing the movie. Extended Interviews from pretty much everyone in the film, usually about 2 minutes each, alternately add welcome insight or seem needless and almost totally off subject, a mixed bag for sure. Two Trailers for the documentary hype the horror but have those troubling shots of interviewees glancing at the camera as if in reproach. If we're supposed to feel sort-of bad about wanting to see this, then why make it? A Short Film by Von Stoetzel, War Propheteer, details in eight minutes the waning moments of an American contractor abducted by Iraqi insurgents. While the conceit of the man's abductors leaving their video camera running overnight - leading to some trenchant soul-searching on their captive's part - is hard to swallow, Von Stoetzel's point is well made. It also makes us wonder if Von Stoetzel didn't really want to make a movie about the 'frenzy of the visible' (during war) that has reached an untenable boiling point, starting from the Vietnam War and bubbling over currently.

Final Thoughts:
As one of those eighties teens I took up the challenge to watch Faces Of Death and have been grimly fascinated ever since. Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera, was a natural choice (though I've avoided all the current Iraq footage - I've softened since having a kid. Like watching your grandparents have sex, I now realize that just because you can see something doesn't mean you should). Anyway, there's some projection in this review - I'm sorry I was curious - but I leave lacking the in-depth analysis of snuff, or any understanding, that I hoped to find. What Snuff: A Documentary About Killing On Camera delivers is a somewhat moralistic, chiding tone dressed up in gloomy atmosphere, with plenty of glimpses of the horrors that we're discouraged from seeking out. It's sensationalism with a veneer of respectability - a little bit two-faced and casting a wide net that seems to approach what Von Stoetzel might actually want to talk about (Iraq horrors on Youtube for instance) - but not quite making it. Worth a Rent It for the inclusion of the commentary track, but, rightly so as the director might point out, not really something most people should be watching.

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