Snuff love: British nostalgia and the mythology of real death in VoD horror

Curator's Note

In recent years, film and media studies has witnessed growing interest in the areas of “informal” film distribution and amateur fiction filmaking. Both are apposite discussion points, as they point not only to the unregulatory nature and (the alleged) “threats” associated with the Internet in an era of viral “shock videos”, but also to the creative potential that the amateur has in exploring these areas for capitalistic/creative means.

The British filmmaker Jason Impey is relevant here. A number of his shorts and features take as their focus the filming of “real death” for monetary or artistic ends, with titles such as Suicide Snuff (2008) pseudo-documenting the creative processes involved in the shooting and distributing of snuff movies. It might be suggested that the “amateur” qualities of his shot-on-video films (i.e. shaky cameras) and the largely informal methods through which they are distributed (online), pertain to “authenticity”. However, while it is true that other “filmmakers” have operated under these auspices, Impey is not concerned with “fooling” anyone. Rather, he positions “the snuff movie” as an intertextual reference point: one that is bound to an appreciation of (or “love” for) "video nasties" such as Snuff (1976), Faces of Death (1978) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and the centrality of the snuff mythology to their historical legacies as banned movies in Britain (Petley 2000).

In the clip provided, Impey plays himself: a factor which at once hints towards the many economic compromises that befall amateur filmmakers (often directors “star” in their own films), while also implying a certain recognisability and/or infamy on his part (it is expected that the viewer already knows who he is). He also “boasts” to the camera that he has been tipped-off about the existence of a real snuff movie—one that he seeks to claim and profiteer from.

What is most interesting about this is the way through which Impey works to satirise what we might recognise as the “exclusivity of snuff” by, first, “claiming” the found film as his own, second, pointing to its elusiveness and desirability among certain factions of the dark web, while third, placing the snuff movie in the context of exploitation film history and fan culture. These elements of the film at once strip the snuff movie of its broader threat, by celebrating the “hunt” for snuff as fan practice, as well as the mythology's place in British history as a nostalgic point of reference.


Hey Johnny, really enjoyed this post! What I love about this clip is the way that it modulates the transgressive allure of snuff movie mythology, and its desire for the ‘real deal’, with a humorous recognition that this authentic artefact has never existed, and still doesn’t exist—even in the places where we most expect/desire/fear it. Your reference to the online distribution of these amateur films is key in this respect, and I love how the suicide snuff moment in the video plays on, and skewers, some of the moral panics surrounding ideas about the Internet as the last (or perhaps the latest) unregulated space where ‘real’ transgression and shock might reside. One way it does this is by foregrounding the artifice and ridiculousness of what it means to ‘play to the camera’ today. In this sense, as you say, this video gestures back nostalgically to the history of “video nasties” in Britain, while opening up new questions about the stakes of online performance and spectatorship today. More than anything else, the 'suicide' performance reminded me of a 'video selfie' - something performed expressly to be circulated to an online community of viewers. There was an element of solipsism in it that interested me. I wondered if you had any further comments about whether you see the online mode of distribution as opening up new debates for the snuff movie, or revisiting and revising some of the same terrain?

Hi all. Thanks for the comments. Tina -- to my mind mind, the internet has merely permitted us to revisit the ways in which snuff has been positioned in the past. As with home video, the internet affords the snuff mythology a closeness to us (and our children) that continues to make moralists uneasy. In the clip, Impey seems to be saying that, in spite of this closeness, "snuff" (as a mythos) is the property of a fan elite -- it's exclusive. But, through its exclusivity, it's rendered safe, as if to say, "we" (being those who understand horror discourse) are the only ones who truly understand it.

Interesting threads today! So there would seem to be a tension between the closeness afforded by the Internet (and as Tanya mentions its 'reality effect') and the distance that is introduced through the framing/remediation of snuff in relation to a nostalgic lost history.

Johnny and Tina, I have to say that the connections this post and response have brought out between traditional modes of image distribution and the way the internet and online sharing of video/images/etc. have perhaps changed that network are quite fascinating. I too am interested in how this change affects the discourse which has surrounded "underground" image culture over many decades now and whether the online mode of representation actually does anything in this regard at all...

Johnny - this is really interesting. It seems as though the Internet has the potential to both heighten and dull the reality effect and potential shock value of such clips - often simultaneously. The clip is very performative - and as Tina says, curiously solipsistic - and it repositions us in relation to images of violence and death in interesting ways. I suppose I am interested in hearing more about how you think such a clip positions us as viewers and how that relates to previous debates over snuff, video nasties and spectatorship.

Thanks Tanya. I'm also particularly interested in the performativity of the clip which, to my mind, is more parodic than anything. Impey is more than aware of the niche audience he is playing to, which makes his position as a "celebrity" in this clip all the more interesting. In terms of the video nasties, Impey's nostalgia can only be a false memory, as he was born in the late 1980s. But, nevertheless, it's curious how the video nasty era has been historicised and cultified and, as I suggest in my reply to Tina's post, "claimed" by fans and filmmakers alike. The video nasty era, like snuff movies more generally, has been mythologised.

I find the British context of all of this to be the most fascinating point, honestly, which I think makes the need for a full work on this subject more obvious in the U.S. Here we had no "video nasties" and the industry was largely left to its self-regulation, even within the distribution of horror on home video. So what has manifested here in particular is a nostalgia specifically for the technology of VHS or tactile film rather than the mythologized content. Certainly there are threads connecting the two instances of video/outmoded distribution nostalgia between the UK and US, but I wonder if you would say the technology itself is important in any way to the UK specifically? If I'm reading you right, you seem to be hinting at a way in which the desire for content and the ability to manipulate that desire digitally, might be pointing in another direction...

If truth be told, it's the British context which fascinates me the most too. I've examined the influence of the cultural memory of video nasties on horror cinema in an article for Horror Studies, but I do think there is more to be said about how fan filmmakers seek to recall the era and what it meant, and continues to mean... specifically in the relation to snuff, and how the internet facilitates accessibility to weird and wonderful things. I think the technology is important, yes. Impey, in particular, has shot films on S-VHS, deliberately to recreate the "feel" of a video nasty. It was often the case that, in the 1990s at least, when collectors were paying top dollar (or sterling, even!), for pirated nasty titles, often these videos would be fourth-, or fifth-, generation copies. So while Impey's aesthetic choice to shoot on VHS relates to "content" (i.e. what's on a tape), it is specifically connected to the technology of VHS as well. In fact, one could argue that most horror fan in the 1980s experienced faux-snuff movies through a "lens of VHS"--one that has been subsequently trumped (in the case of Cannibal Holocaust at least) by HD and widescreen restorations. It is the aesthetic of VHS, thus, that is positioned as the "original" and as "authentic" is this instance.

Hi Johnny. Interesting post. I can't say I know much about these dimensions of the horror genre, but the connection to VHS here got me to thinking about analog vs. digital media, and the way in which VHS as an analog recording mechanism retains a certain aura of the original (event) that digital does not. Or so the old discussions go about what is lost in digital, that light gets turned into binary data, whereas VHS is a magnetic transcription of the original. Not quite the same as silver nitrate emulsion as a direct transfer of the moment, but still analog, and thus still retaining some direct matter from the snuff moment captured (as opposed to matter translated into numbers). Is there, then, a link here between VHS as original and authentic that has to do with its status as analog, and thereby the aura of the "real" snuff moment / event lives in the medium -- in the tape?

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