What's worse - a movie that wastes your time by trying to pass off fantasy as full blown recreationist reality, or a movie that does so with the intent purpose of pulling the horror film wool over your eyes? Put another way, is it a bigger cinematic sin to fake the truth, or to pass it off as the same? That's the problem with The Greatest American Snuff Film (amplified from "Great" for this new DVD release). Supposedly based on the serial killing crime spree of William Allen Grone - a name that even Google can't find among its multi-gazillons of files - and drenched in the kind of first year film student desire to shock with sleaze and sensationalism, this overlong exercise in boredom can't even pull off its title promise. Instead, it offers 90 minutes of filmic farting around before really pissing us off with some clearly counterfeit "evidence".
We are told that William Allen Grone was a proficient serial killer that also fancied himself a filmmaker. According to a journal discovered by police, he used a handheld Super 8 camera to photograph his victims as he tortured and murdered them. When finally captured, a reel containing more than two minutes of such horrible footage was discovered. We are promised and exclusive look at the end of the narrative. We then go through a fictionalized version of the psycho's last crime, a gruesome affair involving the death of some male campers, the capture of two young girls, and their systematic degradation and eventual deaths. Of course, it's all caught on celluloid. With the help of his country rube partner in crime and a deserted junkyard as his playground, Grone goes about his sickening cinema verite with bloody abandon. When finally captured, his confession (and film proof) of his acts is just as terrifying.
The Greatest American Snuff Film is all style and no substance. It's an attempt by writer/director Sean Tretta to introduce himself to the world of indie horror and as a resume reel, the final result's not half bad. There is a definite look to this otherwise lame excuse for entertainment, a first person POV perspective that has been milked to macabre death by movies such as Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism, and Quarantine. For his part, Tretta doesn't overuse the dynamic, but instead, mixes it into other choices to try and create an atmosphere of dread. Of course, none of it works, the abysmal grade school level acting undermining everything the camera tries. In fact, it's safe to say that the obvious lack of skill shown by everyone in front of the lens dissolves Tretta's potential. This is not to say that The Greatest American Snuff Film would be any better narratively - it's a real mess. But when striving for something unique, mediocrity is your best worst enemy.
So are false ambitions. This is the homemade horror film version of The Fourth Kind, fake storyline fueling an equally fake "recreation" of snuff reality. Instead of making yet another variation on "the crazy guy with a need to kill" concept, Tretta fudges a criminal, imagines what his movie making modus operandi would be, and then tries to bring said strategy to life. Tossing in a few formidable cliches along the way - dimwitted assistant in slaughter who's more interested in sex that splatter, a pair of overripe victims spewing grrrl power proclamations of hope, a lead psycho whose lifetime of abuse led to his fatalistic Fellini-ings - we are supposed to feel sickened and disgusted by what we see. Instead, there are times when The Greatest American Snuff Film is just laughably bad, all the smeared mascara and torn t-shirts substituting for anything truly dramatic or frightening. Sure, there is lots of physical and psychological abuse here, but because we are dealing with novices, not actual killers, the threat is non-existent.
In fact, the deeper one dives into this unholy misery, the more one grows concerned. The Greatest American Snuff Film is like the scary movie version of Jackass, a series of salacious stunts that no one should try at home, let alone for commercial release. It's a adolescent fever dream retrofitted with lots of pretty post-production twaddle, an attempt at in your face that feels like it was pulled out of someone's ass. Even if Grone truly existed - and the Internet has been known to get things wrong now and again - Tretta's FBI profiler approach to his motives are meaningless. So are the buck-toothed antics of his crotch grabbing partner in slime. If all he wanted to do was prove he could pick up a digital lens and goof around for a while, our wannbe auteur has accomplished said goal. But as a movie, as an attempt at entertaining (or at the very least, disturbing) the intended demo, The Greatest American Snuff Film falls way short. Somewhere, Roberta and Michael Findlay are laughing...or better yet, crying.
Offered by Well Go USA in a decent 1./78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, The Greatest American Snuff Film doesn't look half bad. Again, there has been a lot of post-production tweaking here and there, the colors de- or re- saturated for that rotten, ripe exploitation feel. There is also a nice balance between film and video, the various filters and other image applications doing a good job of maintaining the ruse. About the only place the visuals stumble is in the detail department. The picture looks soft, even when it's supposed to be gross and gritty.
The Dolby Digital Stereo mix is nothing special. The voice-over narration (supposedly reading from Grone's actual diary) is clear, but the conversations in camera are hemmed in by the internal microphone aspect of the recording. The music meanders a bit, lunging into power metal drive when not gazing at its own sloppy shoes. Overall, the technical elements here are fine, considering the "on the fly" nature of this low budget effort.
This is where the truth finally comes out. "It's all fake," says Tretta in his commentary track, "get over it. It's a movie." Kind of like the "it's a joke" excuse whenever someone says something provocative or un-PC, the admission is just one of many insights offered by the filmmaker. He seems happy, in general, with what he's created and praises performances that should be condemned. As usual, this is the kind of "my turn" take on the entire experience which reeks of self-congratulation. Luckily, Tretta is a tad more down to earth, also able to point out some important flaws as well. The rest of the added content focuses on the behind the scenes Making-of for the film, including a featurette, a music video, a trailer, and "extra snuff" (read: more staged deaths). Not too shabby for a film that's nothing but.
There is a lot to loathe about The Greatest American Snuff Film - most of it having to do with the "is it or isn't it" aspect of the "based on true events" storyline. Movies that write creative checks they can't cash are a dime a couple hundred dozen in the nu-media age, and this purported slice of real life is no different. While it would be easy (and, perhaps, preferable) to dismiss it outright with a Skip It, there will be some for whom this earnest envelope pushing is nothing but net. For them, we award a reluctant Rent It, hoping that the commercial caveat that comes with such a score is warning enough. In the end, the fraud perpetrated on the audience can be forgiven. Even the most skilled director is prone to fudging the facts once in a while. The problem with The Greatest American Snuff Film is that, style aside, that's all Sean Tretta's title has going for it. The results are as ridiculous as they are insulting.