The aura of snuff

I have already explained at some length elsewhere (Petley 2000) why I believe that the commercially made 'snuff' movie is an entirely imaginary creature, and other sceptical examinations of the myth can be found in Johnson and Schaeffer (1993) and Kerekes and Slater (1995). Although this is most emphatically not - pace Black (2002: 68) - to deny the possibility that real murders may have been filmed or otherwise recorded by their perpetrators for purely private purposes. My earlier contribution to this subject suggested that gullible and hyped-up press reports about the existence of commercially produced 'snuff' films are major contributory factors to the apparently widespread belief that such a genre actually exists. However, what I want to examine here are the formal cinematic strategies which can lead viewers, and are indeed intended to lead viewers, to believe that the images of death which they are witnessing on screen represent the 'real thing'. In what follows I will be concentrating largely on Cannibal Holocaust; this is partly because it has so frequently stood accused of being a 'snuff' movie, but it is also on account of the curious fact that, although it is a cinematic mock-documentary avant la lettre, it nonetheless provides an excellent demonstration of many of the sub-genre's key aesthetic strategies and devices.

Even in this case, however, extra-textual factors played a significant role in creating the aura of 'snuff' around Deodato's film. Thus, in January 1981, a French magazine, Photo, published an article entitled 'Grand Guignol Cannibale' which suggested that people may actually have been killed during the making of Cannibal Holocaust. Four weeks after it opened in Italy, on 8 February 1980, the film was banned under an ancient law, originally drafted in order to outlaw bull-fighting, which prohibited the wounding or killing of animals for entertainment purposes. Deodato fought the ban, but it was three years before the film re-appeared in Italian cinemas. Meanwhile, in Britain, Cannibal Holocaust was in the process of becoming one of the earliest and most notorious victims of the 'video nasty' panic, being repeatedly demonized by the press, seized by the police and found guilty by the courts under the Obscene Publications Act, even though the version distributed here was a relatively tame one shorn of the most extreme footage. Apparently irrevocably banned under the Video Recordings Act 1984, the film was condemned to a samizdat existence in Britain, but, as we have already seen, its ro notoriety was kept alive by the occasional high-profile seizure. And even though, in ^ 2001, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) did finally pass Cannibal ~ Holocaust for distribution on video and DVD, they cut it by five minutes and 44 S seconds, in the process largely obliterating many of the features analysed below. js (For full details of the cuts see Slater 2002: 110 or visit the BBFC website.)

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