A snuff film, or snuff movie, is "a movie in a purported genre of movies in which a person is actually murdered or commits suicide". It may include a motion picture genre that depicts the actual murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of financial exploitation, but that detail is extraneous, so long as it is "circulated amongst a jaded few for the purpose of entertainment". Some filmed records of executions and murders exist, but these were not staged for commercial purposes. The case of Australian paedophile Peter Scully revealed that he was selling films of himself torturing and raping children on the dark web, but these films did not show him murdering the victims.
The first known use of the term "snuff movie" is in a 1971 book by Ed Sanders, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. He alleges that The Manson Family was involved in making such a film in California to record their murders.
The noun "snuff" originally meant the part of a candle wick that has already burned; the verb "snuff" meant to cut this off, and by extension to extinguish or kill. The word has been used in this sense in English slang for hundreds of years. It was defined in 1874 as a "term very common among the lower orders of London, meaning to die from disease or accident".
According to Geoffrey O'Brien, "whether or not commercially distributed 'snuff' movies actually exist, the possibility of such movies is implicit in the stock B-movie motif of the mad artist killing his models, as in A Bucket of Blood , Color Me Blood Red , or Decoy for Terror " also known as Playgirl Killer. Michael Powell's film Peeping Tom (1960) featured a filmmaker who committed murders and used the acts as the content of his documentary films, although no real murders are seen in the film.
The concept of "snuff films" being made for profit became more widely known with the commercial film Snuff (1976). This low-budget exploitation horror film, originally entitled Slaughter, was directed by Michael and Roberta Findlay. In an interview decades later, Roberta Findlay said the film's distributor Allan Shackleton had read about snuff films being imported from South America and retitled Slaughter to Snuff, to exploit the idea; he also added a new ending that depicted an actress being murdered on a film set. The promotion of Snuff on its second release suggested it featured the murder of an actress: "The film that could only be made in South America... where life is CHEAP", but that was false advertising. Shackleton put out false newspaper clippings that reported a citizens group's crusading against the film and hired people to act as protesters to picket screenings.
In the wake of Snuff, numerous films explored the idea of snuff films, or used them as a plot device. They include:
The Guinea Pig films
The first two films in the Japanese Guinea Pig series are designed to look like snuff films; the video is grainy and unsteady, as if recorded by amateurs. The sixth film in the series, Mermaid in a Manhole, allegedly served as an inspiration for Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who murdered several preschool girls in the late 1980s.
In 1991, actor Charlie Sheen became convinced that Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985), the second film in the series, depicted an actual homicide and contacted the FBI. The Bureau initiated an investigation but closed it after the series' producers released a "making of" film demonstrating the special effects used to simulate the murders.
The Italian director Ruggero Deodato was charged after rumors that the depictions of the killing of the main actors in his film Cannibal Holocaust (1980) were real. He was able to clear himself of the charges after the actors made an appearance in court.
Other than graphic gore, the film contains several scenes of sexual violence and the genuine deaths of six animals onscreen and one off screen, issues which find Cannibal Holocaust in the midst of controversy to this day. It has also been claimed that Cannibal Holocaust is banned in over 50 countries, although this has never been verified. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Cannibal Holocaust as the 20th most controversial film of all-time.