Sunday, March 9, 2014

Snuff Said

I've been sorting through boxes of paperwork and notes recently and I uncovered the production notes from a documentary I was researching for Channel 4 in late 2001. I had read Killing for Culture as background reading when writing my dissertation about Censorship in the late 90's. There were many stories within it that just hung with me about "snuff" films and why after all this time no-one had ever been prosecuted or proven that they existed. Surely now with the advent of the internet, illicit distribution was much easier, would we see the emergence of the darkest parts of film and video?
This was still 2001 though, streaming video was not very advanced, Youtube hadn't been invented and Darknet was well hidden and unknown.

"Snuff" it appeared had been an urban myth, one used to scare people about pornography and also the holy grail for some sick and twisted people.
I had this idea of making a documentary about the history of the snuff myths, exploring the dark corners and question whether a myth had born a reality in the advent of the internet age, following many rumours of films made during the Bosnian war. Starting at the beginning with the story of a bad little 70's B movie that helped kickstart the myths I sought out the makers of "Snuff" and secured these interviews with 2 people involved in making it. Carter Stevens and Simon Nuchtern. I've included the full text of the interview because there are many rumours and conflicting stories about the making of the infamous last 10 mins of Snuff, these snippets of history felt like they should be recorded:

Carter Stevens is often listed as being involved in the making of the infamous scene, sometimes as director and/ or Director of Photography. He was a pornographer for most of his career. Here is his account:

"For the record: I did NOT direct the last 10 minutes of the film "Snuff". Nor was I the cameraman or the DP. The sequence WAS filmed at the studio I owned on 29th Street in New York. I had rented it out to Allan Shackleton, a Producer/ Distributor who I was good friends with and was working on another project. The "real" director's name for this segment was Simon Nocturn.

Background having nothing to do with Snuff:

Allan was a genius as far as promotion. We were working on an "R" rated smutty take off on the old Star Trek series. This was before Paramount realised what they had. I had been living with a young lady who before she had become a top-notch script supervisor had lived with the guy who had started the Star Trek conventions. As a result I had helped out on several conventions and met most of the old cast. The working title for the film was "Star Dreck" and the first draft script was written by Martin Pasko who was a comic book writer working on Wonder Woman and Superman at that point. He went on to become a TV writer and worked on Simon & Simon, Buck Rogers and other shows before we lost touch. Marty was about 18-19 at this point an had the wildest sense of humour. The script was a take off on the Trouble with Tribbles and was about an intergalactic venereal disease called "dribbles", Mr Shmuck the "Spock" take off had a penis shaped head. This was NOT going to be a porn film, but a raunchy satire along the lines of Flesh Gordon. We had gotten a very tentative agreement from Walter Koenig and George Takei to make cameos, as both their careers were non-existent at this point. We had also found some kid in Pennysylvania who had built an entire mock up of the Enterprise Bridge and found the supplier for uniform shirts and patches. Before we had started Allan had got some legal opinions that we would be covered under 1st amendment as a satire and since it was a dead TV show we were spoofing Paramount couldn't touch us on unfair trade either. However, just as we were about to go into serious production Paramount announced the first Star Trek movie and the lawyers told us to forget it. Paramount could and would sue us if we were infringing on a multi-million dollar film, so Allan pulled the plug and the project died.

Just about this same time Alan bought a real piece of crap film from Michael and Roberta Findlay (He was later killed on the roof of the Pan Am building in a helicopter accident. He died just about the same way as Vic Morrow did on the Twilight Zone movie but I don't there was any kind of stink as it was just a helicopter accident but they stopped landing on the Pan Am building after that). Anyway, I digress again.
The film the Findlays had made made in South America was a real piece of garbage. It was so bad it couldn't be released and Allan bought it for pennies on the dollar. Rumours of "snuff" films were running rampant in the newspapers about this time and I had even been asked to look at several suspected snuff films by a Lt. on the public morals squad who had arrested me on my porn bust and knew my technical background and training . For the record I never saw anything that even remotely looked like a real snuff film.
Allan was very savvy and since the Findlay's film was about a Manson Family style murder cult, he decided to film a "snuff" ending and release the stinker retitled as "Snuff" and ride the wave of free publicity.

I had a small studio on the 12th floor of a loft building on 29th Street in Chelsea at this point, where I had shot most of my early porns and which I rented out as an insert stage for other porno producers and an occasional commercial and/or student films. Allan hired Simon Nocturn who had his own little production company in mid town making mostly industrial films and low budget commercials. (Simon also co-produced and I think directed Mondo New York). Simon did most of the production work and hired a lot of non-union people (it was a small group of non-union people working in New York at this point) who we both knew to shoot the ten-minute insert. The shoot was supposed to take about 12 hours on Thursday and I had plans to leave for Washington DC for a Star Trek convention on Friday. I was divorced but got my kids for some weekends and summers and they were both there for the shoot because they were going with us to the Star Trek convention. My daughter was about 10 and my son about 8. They helped the special effects man make up buckets of blood (mostly karo syrup and food colouring). I remember he had a skinned sheep's head that he was going to use the eyes for a close up of the girls eye being slit but it never worked so it didn't make the final film. He had great fun in grossing out the cast and crew with this ghastly bloody thing, but I remember the kids loved it and laughed like hell every time he took it out of the ice it was packed in and shook it at one of the crew.
The effects were sloppy at best but the shoot dragged on for about 23 hours. Morning call had been about 8am but it was well after midnight when the actress playing the murder victim suddenly freaked out. She jumped up and ran into the kitchen/ green room sobbing that the actor who was playing the "murderer" was really going to kill her. That we really were making a snuff film and we were all crazy and she wasn't going to let us kill her and he (the lead actor) really was crazy, she could see it in her eyes!

It took us a couple of hours to calm her down, (my convincing her I would never have had my children running around if we were really going to kill her helped) but she did calm down and we got the entrails scene shot and that was the end of it. It took a couple of weeks for Simon to edit the footage. It really wasn't very realistic in the scene where we cut off her hand with a jig saw (I still have that jig saw and am thinking of selling it off on E-bay one of these days) her fingers keep squeezing and releasing after the hand is separated from the arm which a human hand could not do. But it was good enough for Allan to get it booked into the National Theatre on Broadway, one of the two best houses in NYC. The media went crazy. I remember Rhoda Barrett condemning us on national TV. And the day it opened there were pickets all around the theatre. I called Allan and jokingly asked him how much the pickets had cost him, there was dead silence on the line for about 10 seconds and then he answered me very seriously "I didn't hire them. (pause) I was going to hire some but I didn't have to. I don't know where these people came from." Like I said Allan was a genius at promotion. The entire film couldn't have cost him more than $25, 000 and he grossed more than double that the first week.
He later dropped dead jogging in Central Park, but he was a really nice guy and I miss him."

Carter included a picture of the Jigsaw in the email to me:

I then interviewed Simon Nuchtern, who added further information and also some contradictory memories to Carter:

Interview with Simon Nuchtern:

Who were the key cast in the final controversial sequence?

Can't really remember the names. They were cast through a small NYC casting agent who presented us a few women and a few men. We filmed them in 16mm doing a couple of scenes and then Allan and I picked the best we saw. All minor unknowns.

Where and when was this sequence shot and what format?

It was shot in 35mm on a sound stage on 54th St & Broadway (which no longer exists). The set already existed and we added a few knick-knacks.

Who was the Director of Photography and who was the director of the sequence?

I directed the sequence and the DP was a young fellow who no longer is in the film business (he is now a cabinet maker) and - after speaking to him, he would rather not have his name published.

Is it true that the FBI performed an investigation to track down the actress following reports that the film was real?

It was not the FBI (as far as I can remember), it was the local NYC police who sent a couple of detectives to my office - who were very sheepish and apologetic - told me they had to investigate any complaint, although they were quite sure this was all legit - but they could not locate the actress (she was in Bermuda or some other Caribbean island on holiday - I'm quite sure, organised by Allan (a very crafty fellow - but he never did tell me - I just suspect it...). I showed them a Polaroid of the "disembowelled" victim sitting in bed, laughing and eating a sandwich. The police left very quickly and I never heard from them again.

Is it true that Allan Shackleton distributed letters and pamphlets to newspapers and the FBI under pseudonyms to create hysteria surrounding Snuff and whether it was genuine or not?

He always denied this (but with a big smirk on his face) and I was always SURE that he was the cause of all the created hysteria. Whenever I tried to speak to him about the massive negative publicity, he would just laugh and say something to the effect "do you think I would be capable of doing that?" (with a twinkle in his eye...)

Is it true that the actress freaked out whilst filming and tried to make an exit as she thought the actor playing the killer was really going to kill her?

Never happened. The scenes were well choreographed and took a relatively long time to prepare and do.

Is it true that Michael Findlay after selling the film cheaply to Allan Shackleton, then later realising what he was up to, tried to blackmail him into re-negotiating the contract so he would see more of the profits? 

This I wouldn't know. I was not involved in any of the marketing or distribution of the film.

The FBI contacted Monarch Releasing on leads regarding Snuff and following trade ads to find out whether it was real or not. Allan replied that he would be a fool to admit whether they were real or not. Do you know about this?

I know the cops were in touch with Allan also, but I have no idea what he said or did.

Snuff grossed more than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is this true?

Again, I wouldn't know this, but it sure would make me happy if it did!

Following the success of Snuff, Allan relocated to California?

Snuff helped, but Allan always wanted to go to California. He always thought big success, a la Roger Corman could more easily be achieved there. He was a very hyper A-type personality and he always asked me how he could calm himself down (I'm pretty calm) so I got him started jogging - he liked that. One weekend he called me on one of his trips back to NY and wanted to meet me to talk to me about a great new idea he had. He wanted me to direct it and he asked me to join him on a jog around Central Park - I think it was for Saturday - but I was busy that morning and told him I'd have lunch with him on Monday. A journalist friend of mine was also running around the park that day and witnessed Allan collapsing and dying right there. Very ironic.......

Was the premiers in Indianapolis? 

It may have been tested in Indianapolis, but I think the premiere was at the National theatre in NY.

Did Allan hire protesters in New York to stir up feminist backlash against the film and therefore get press coverage?

Again, never admitted by Allan - but common knowledge among the small time distributors.

Any other memories or stories regarding Allan Shackleton and the making of Snuff?

Can't remember much more than the above. I was preparing to do a horror film and we used Snuff to practice some of the techniques, props and devices. For us, it was a small one day project. Who knew it was going to be such a stink? I got a big laugh out of it.

When I was digging around with this story it was hard to get hold of the film, it had disappeared into obscurity. A forgotten start to a bigger urban myth, now it's been re-released on Blu-Ray and is easily available on i-tunes. The Blu-Ray features interviews with Carter and film director Nicholas Winding-Refn discussing it's cult status.

When I was positing my theory about how the internet would eventually birth a snuff film, it still hadn't happened as far as I can tell in 2001. The documentary ended up being "too dark" for Channel 4 and it languished in "development", Sept 11th had happened and the world spent a decade looking at terrorism. The other day a story came into my timeline about Luka Magnotta and his "1 lunatic 1 ice pick" video, as I looked into it I realised that there is also "3 guys one hammer" in circulation too. Whilst not fitting the motif or strict definition of "snuff film", it is shocking that in a few years since I was looking to make that documentary, the world of sinister video production has moved on considerably. What made the snuff myth unlikely was the difficulty of production and distribution, whereas now the proliferation would be easy.

I daren't look back into that abyss again for fear of what you would find. Time to shred those old files.

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