On 8MM

Another look at Joel Schumacher’s devastating neo-noir horror film

It’s as good a time as any to scribble about a motion picture that I cite as one of the most underrated horror films of the past quarter century and certainly, the most undervalued in the Nicolas Cage cannon. It’s a movie that positions itself as a noir-steeped murder mystery but goes so deeply into phantasmagoria that it becomes, almost imperceptibly, a full blown horror film. And while there isn’t anything explicitly supernatural in the film, there is a leather-clad Frankenstein monster-esque porn stud-gimp named “Machine” who acts as the angel of sexual death for an egomaniacal snuff film pimp named Dino Velvet who is so over the edge with his grim villainy that he makes Dracula look like a milquetoast by comparison.

Indeed, the movie I’m about to rave about is the Andrew Kevin Walker (SEVEN) scripted psychodrama 8MM, released in 1999 and directed by the Hollywood the late gun-for-hire Joel Schumacher, he of slick and empty entertainments like THE LOST BOYS, FLATLINERS, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the risable BATMAN FOREVER and the even more dire BATMAN AND ROBIN. Outside of the latter two pictures, however, I actually rather liked Schumacher’s solid journeyman work. He was a sleazier Tony Scott in some ways, making glossy, easily packaged product that nonetheless had covert personal kinks splashing around on the peripheral and very often, a palpable passion for movie-making at their cores. I believe 8MM to be his masterpiece and certainly, it’s further evidence that Cage is one of the great dramatic screen presences when used properly and when dialing down his patented eccentricities (though I am indeed a huge devotee of said eccentricities).

The film sees Cage playing Tom Welles, an affluent and easy going Private Investigator living a life of domestic bliss with his supportive wife (an unfortunately wasted Catherine Keener) and beloved infant daughter. Welles’ beat is cheating wives and insurance fraud and rarely does he take on any sort of case that would put him – or his family – in harm’s way. He thinks he knows the dark side that lines the hearts of most men. He thinks he’s better than it. He think that he’s mastered it. But unbeknownst to him, that protected world view is about to get stained with all manner of fluids and truths.

One night Welles is summoned to the looming mansion of his latest client, a rich widow (Myra Carter) who, while sifting through her late husband’s estate, is disturbed to discover an unmarked 8mm film loop. The mourning woman had been devoted to her late husband, a man who was, by all accounts, a wonderful, loving husband and cherished father. Except the film in question seems to indicate otherwise. Welles obliges to watch the picture in the drawing room, the projector sputters to life in the dark and unveils the most sickening sights imaginable: a young girl, glassy eyed and starring into the lens, is beaten, raped and viciously murdered by a zipper and leather-decorated monster.

Shaken and drained, Welles confirms the widows suspicions that this indeed appears to be a legitimate snuff film however, as many of these legendary loops have historically been proven to be fakes, he takes the case on, promising to not only uncover the identity of the girl in the film but determine whether or not she is indeed alive or dead.

Kissing his family goodbye, Welles begins his investigation, a serpentine quest that first leads him to the lonely home of the girl’s emotionally ruined mother (Amy Morton in a haunting turn) and then, eventually into the seediest depths of LA’s porno underworld (with a quick stop off to meet the girl’s shithead ex-boyfriend, played by a young Norman Reedus). He picks up a partner, a seemingly world weary, but ultimately sweet and gentle, adult video store employee (deftly played by Joaquin Phoenix) who ushers him deeper into the belly of the beast and straight into the lair of cult fetish porn filmmaker Dino Velvet (a reptilian Peter Stormare) and his arguably more despicable partner in exploitation, Eddie Poole (a pre-SOPRANOS James Gandolfini, who has never, ever been better than he is here). For better or for worse, Welles becomes bound to his targets, his world view changed, his life inexorably altered as he sinks deeper and deeper into a world of privilege, pain, perversion, pornography and the lowest, most insidious distortions of humanity to ever slime their ways through city streets.

To give away more about 8MM’s downward spiraling narrative would be to rob you of the picture’s mesmerizing power. Suffice it to say, this is a grim, unpleasant movie (as would be expected with Walker’s name on it) and with subject matter this lurid and horrific, it needs to be. The tone is decidedly bleak from the get go due in no small part to cinematographer Robert Elswit’s shadowy, lurid color pallet, Gary Wissner’s austere production design and especially, Canadian composer Mychael Danna’s nightmarish, smothering Middle Eastern tinged score. The violence and sex is sleazy and suitably exploitative but never graphic to the point of being gratuitous. Schumacher’s direction is measured, cool and assured when it needs to be and stylized in such a manner that, in my original review of the film, I claimed that “this is the best horror movie Dario Argento never made”. When I told Cage this he responded favorably, being an Argento fan (and a horror fan in general) and he also told me that, although the film flopped and was a North American critical disaster, Europeans, especially the French, loved it and embraced it. Makes sense.

As Welles, Cage is in almost every scene and he’s nothing short of magnetic. This is Cage at his best: haunted, hurt (his hangdog face and wounded eyes are the films’ greatest special effect) and driven by an ever increasing moral outrage that sparks an equal teeth gritting anxiety in the audience. The scene where, while mulling over a decision to commit murder, Cage calls the little girl’s mother and asks her for permission to “hurt the people who hurt her daughter” is emotionally leveling.

But as shattering and frightening a film as 8MM is, there are enough kinky and colorful quirks in it to push it into cult film territory, which over the past decade and a half it has slowly been recognized as. Stormare’s preening Velvet is as campy as he is vile and the world he inhabits is, again, a very stylized vision of the mythical snuff underworld. Phoenix’s cheeky presence adds much levity as well, but it’s a real performance with a very real and tragic heart beating within his characters’ glib exterior.

There’s so much more to say about this strange movie’s sick spell but really, my hyperbole can’t properly do it justice. If you’ve seen this movie and dismissed it, I strongly advise you to re-evaluate it. If you haven’t seen it at all, you as a horror film fan are doing yourself a grave disservice and are wasting time reading this essay when you should be watching it. And if you still resist, because you’re one of the select cineastes who can’t stand Cage, again, this picture might just make you understand and appreciate the man a bit more.

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