In “Sinister,” the new horror movie starring Ethan Hawke, a man explores the attic of his new home and finds a box of old Super 8 film reels. After his family goes to bed, he pours himself a whiskey and watches them: At first it’s normal home-video sort of stuff, a family goofing around in their backyard on an autumn afternoon, and then it suddenly cuts to all of them, hooded, hanging from a tree.

It’s a chilling image, and the latest example of commercial cinema trading on its most rumored and reviled cousin: the snuff movie. Slang for a film in which someone is actually and deliberately murdered on screen, snuff has long been considered an urban myth of sorts, always presumed to be out there, but with few people able to confirm a sighting. It’s served as a plot premise for dozens of movies, from the intelligent (“Videodrome”) to the inane (“8mm”) and the depraved (“Kogyaru-gui: Osaka Terekura Hen [Eating Schoolgirls: Osaka Telephone Club]”), but a more interesting history lies in the films that purported to be snuff.

The classic faux-snuff film — and the movie that brought the term into widespread use — was the 1976 grindhouse nasty “Snuff.” This was originally an Argentinian flick titled “Slaughter,” which was kind of an inept “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” take on the Manson family. The flick was bought up by Allan Shackleton of Monarch Pictures, who tacked a graphic on-set murder scene onto the end and ran a cheeky press campaign that traded in “is it real or not?” speculation. For those convinced of hippie depravity, it seemed believable enough, since the Manson family had reportedly filmed one of its bizarre murders.

Using the tag line “Made in South America … where life is cheap!” and deliberately inciting feminist groups to picket the film — thus attracting free media coverage — Shackleton gave his seedy film some notoriety and box-office success, to the extent that undercover FBI agents attended the film’s first screening. Yet anyone viewing the cheesy special effects (of the tomato-ketchup blood variety) would instantly know it was a fake.

Following a similar path was 1980’s ultra-sicko “Cannibal Holocaust,” an Italian film that purported to be footage taken by a missing documentary-film crew among cannibal tribes in the deepest, darkest reaches of the Amazon. (This was some two decades before “The Blair Witch Project” would score big with a similar premise.) Director Ruggero Deodato’s stunt was so convincing that his film was seized by the authorities and he was soon facing a murder trial, which was only averted when he managed to produce his cast members alive and well and all in one piece. (He had originally made them sign contracts to avoid all media contact for a year, to foster the illusion that they were dead.) It remains banned in many countries today.

Japan had a similar controversy in 1985 with “Guinea Pig: Chiniku no Hana (Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood),” based on the horror manga by Hideshi Hino. The look and feel of this film (starring Hino himself as a samurai who disembowels and dismembers a female captive) was so deliberately trying to pass as snuff that actor Charlie Sheen, upon viewing a bootleg copy circulating among U.S. horror fans, was spooked enough to contact the FBI. The film turned out to already be under investigation in Japan — due to Hino’s claims that the film was based on a anonymous snuff film sent to him in the mail — but all involved were eventually cleared. This didn’t prevent it from being one of the 10 most-rented videos in Japan that year.

More terrifying than the film itself is the fact that serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, the so-called Otaku Killer who gruesomely murdered four young girls in Saitama in 1988-89 — sending letters to the victims’ families graphically recounting what he had done to their daughters — reportedly reenacted some of the scenes from the “Guinea Pig” series, copies of which were found in Miyazaki’s apartment amid over 6,000 tapes of porn, anime and horror.

The ’80s also saw the rental success of “Faces of Death,” a 1978 compilation video series of actual deaths — murders, accidents, suicides — that were caught on tape. Though much was real, it turned out that a lot was faked as well, though viewers weren’t aware of this. The director, John Alan Schwartz, has always drawn a difference between his films and snuff, pointing out that no one was murdered in front of his cameras. Yet the desire to profit from imagery of real death makes the moral difference between this and the snuff film almost negligible.

Given the success of law enforcement in the U.S. and Europe in finding and prosecuting the distributors of child pornography, it’s rather telling that they have no snuff film convictions to date. One reason might be that anyone seeking such sick thrills already has the sadism of torture-porn movies, which are perfectly legal. As FBI special agent Ken Lanning put it in the British Channel 4 documentary “Does Snuff Exist?”: “Why risk killing somebody when you can make it look like you killed somebody, and to the viewer who wants to believe this, they’re going to believe it?”

And yet, cases do surface: of a murdered actress on an amateur film in the U.K. — the reels of which mysteriously disappeared — or Italian police claiming they found snuff amid tapes seized from a sleazy Russian child-porn merchant. Isolated examples, or the tip of a vast submerged iceberg?

Given the proliferation of cellphone cameras and anonymous torrent-site video sharing, it is clearly only a matter of time before actual snuff films find their way onto the Web. In fact, they already have, such as the infamous “3guys1hammer” video that went viral in 2007. Shot on a cellphone camera, it showed the grisly and entirely real murder of Sergei Yatzenko by serial killers in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, with the killers chillingly laughing to the camera. The video was evidence in the trial against the killers, but was somehow leaked to the Net, and remains there to this day. Should your curiosity get the better of you, note that the Internet is littered with messages from people who have viewed this video and strongly regret having done so.

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