Of all urban legends, perhaps the most insidious is the existence of the snuff film. The idea is as simple as it gets: A network exists of people who videotape real-life murders on commission from high-paying clients. Although rumors about the existence of snuff films have floated around since the days of the Manson Family murders (who supposedly produced such a film, although nothing has ever been discovered), with the exception of instances such as the Luca Magnota video and the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs where murders were uploaded to the internet for the sake of shock, no such for-profit films have ever been proven to exist.
Common sense would dictate that Trent Reznor should have been pleased by the critical and commercial success of Nine Inch Nails’ debut album Pretty Hate Machine. However, a crumbling romantic relationship and interpersonal turmoil with TVT Records had left the musician in a deep depression. On top of that, his disappearing street cred and misconceptions by the mainstream about the content of his work took Reznor’s ire to new heights. He told Spin in 1996: “I had this snotty, elitist mentality — you’re not cool enough to like my band, don’t buy my records. I wanted to make a ‘fuck you’ record. It was also a bit of a knee-jerk, ‘I’m not a pussy,’ ‘I’m not a sellout’ attitude.”
This mindset fueled Nine Inch Nails’ follow-up EP, Broken. By removing the synthpop elements that made Pretty Hate Machine a hit and accentuating guitar and noise, Reznor created an altogether uglier affair. As reactionary as the music on Broken was, it had nothing on the notorious promotional video he had produced for the record. A deep admirer of legendary industrial provocateurs Coil and Throbbing Gristle, Reznor commissioned Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson to craft a work of visual art that was as unsettling as can be.
In an interview with The Quietus, Reznor explained: “[Coil’s] ‘Tainted Love’ video remains one of the greatest music videos of all time. I was always more attracted to Coil than Throbbing Gristle; the darkness and the scatology really chimed with me. If it’s not immediately obvious: Horse Rotorvator [Coil album] was deeply influential on me. What they did to your senses. What they could do with sound.
What Jhonn was doing lyrically. The exotic darkness of them permeated their work. So I figured that if I hired [Sleazy] as a director then I could at least meet him and hang out for a bit. We established a friendship, and that friendship was very valuable to me. Making the Broken movie was a lot of fun. There was no label involvement or pressure from anyone, it was just he and I talking. ‘What if we built a framework around these songs, what if we took an approach where it really was scary, instead of a cop out horror movie nod to the camera. What if it felt real?’
Then he went off and filmed some stuff. And I had an interesting phone call where he said, ‘Ahh, well, we’ve done it and, er, I really don’t know what to think.’ So I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t know what to think? Do you mean it didn’t turn out properly?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m just not sure what to think. [laughs] I’m going to send it to you, but it’s going to show up in a paper bag unmarked because there could be… I’m not sure I want the authorities knowing this came from me.’”
With marching orders from Reznor that basically told him to do his worst, Sleazy went about as far as he could go by turning the promotional video into a simulated snuff film.
“A few weeks later something came in the mail. And then I watched it. And it was like, ‘Holy fuck! Now I kind of get what you’re talking about!’ It felt like we’d crossed over into territory that was perhaps too far. And to be honest, at that point I was living in the Sharon Tate house recording Downward Spiral. And as stupid as it sounds now, that genuinely wasn’t a case of, ‘What’s the most ridiculously extreme thing I can do to get attention?’ Flood [producer] and I were looking for a place in New Orleans to record in, but we couldn’t find anywhere that was right. The only houses we could find that were cool were in residential areas, and we didn’t want to spend ages soundproofing a house, and we knew we were going to be making loud music in the middle of the night.
Jimmy Iovine from Interscope said, “Why don’t you come over to LA? I’ll set up ten houses for you to look at and you choose one.” We hadn’t really spent any time in LA so we went for it. We looked at eight or nine houses that day and that house was the perfect place. It had a beautiful view, it was up on a hill, it was a small ranch house. It had a cool vibe, honestly. I wasn’t thinking about Charles Manson – I mean why would I be?
Anyway, that night I told a friend where we were thinking of renting, and he said, ‘You know – that’s where those Manson murders took place.’ Like anyone else my age those murders had freaked me out when I was younger but I hadn’t thought of them in years. He had a copy of a book on them at his house, so we started leafing through it. I thought, ‘Well, it kind of looks familiar.’ But then I saw a picture of a ladder leading up into the loft – the ladder I had just climbed that day to see what was up there. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that is that house.’ And when he asked if I was still going to rent the place I said, ‘Fuck yeah, we gotta rent that house.’ Not realizing that it would be the narrative for the next 20 years.
Anyway, that’s where I was living when this package turned up, and I thought, ‘Enough. I don’t know that I need this kind of thing.’ With the house it felt too stunty, and Peter agreed. So we shelved it, but little did we know that the internet would come into existence, and it would find its home on there.”
In an interview with The Wire, Sleazy spoke of their intentions with the Broken movie: “Basically the video was what I intended to be a comment on the existence of snuff movies and people’s obsession with them, and I did it without regard for MTV and what was showable and not showable, because that’s what he asked me to do.”
Although the public release wound up being scrapped, tapes were given by Reznor to friends with different video markers at points, a tool he used to identify anyone redistributing copies that might surface. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers was responsible for the biggest leak of the tape.
The film has briefly appeared on the Internet several times. Many believe that the source of these leaks is Reznor himself, although that claim remains unproven. The Broken movie is currently available on several video platforming services, although it periodically disappears.
Watch at your own risk. It’s about as NSFW as it gets.