SHOCK goes to bat for Joel Schumacher’s devastating neo-noir horror film 8MM.
Its as good a time as any to scribble about a motion picture that I cite as one of the most underrated genre films of the past quarter century and certainly, the most undervalued in the Nicolas Cage cannon. Its 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 isnt anything explicitly supernatural in the film, there is a leather-clad Frankenstein monster-esque porn stud-cum-gimp named Machine who acts as the angel of sexual death for an egomaniacal snuff film pimp named Dino Velvet. Isnt that element alone reason enough to make it SHOCK friendly? I think so
Perhaps some of you have gleaned that the movie Im raving about is the Andrew Kevin Walker (SEVEN) scripted psychodrama 8MM. The film was released in 1999 and is directed by the Hollywood gun-for-hire hack Joel Schumacher, he of slick and empty entertainments like THE LOST BOYS, FLATLINERS, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and the despicable BATMAN FOREVER and the even more dire BATMAN AND ROBIN. Outside of the latter two pictures, however, I actually rather like Schumacher. Hes a sleazier Tony Scott in some ways, making glossy, easily packaged product that nonetheless has covert personal kinks splooging around on the peripheral and often, palpable heart at their cores. I believe 8MM to be his 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 harms way. He thinks he knows the dark side that lines the hearts of most men. He thinks hes better than it. He think that hes 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 husbands 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 girls emotionally ruined mother (Amy Morton in a haunting turn) and then, eventually into the seediest depths of LAs porno underworld (with a quick stop off to meet the girls 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 8MMs downward spiraling narrative would be to rob you of the pictures mesmerizing power. Suffice it to say, this is a grim, unpleasant movie (as would be expected with Walkers 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 Elswits shadowy, lurid color pallet, Gary Wissners austere production design and especially, Canadian composer Mychael Dannas nightmarish, Middle Eastern tinged and smothering score. The violence and sex is sleazy and suitably exploitative but never graphic to the point of being gratuitous. Schumachers direction is measured, cool and assured when it needs to be and stylized to the point 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 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. Take from that what you will…
As Welles, Cage is in almost every scene and hes 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 girls 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. Stormares 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. Phoenixs cheeky presence adds much levity as well, but its a real performance with a very real and tragic heart beating within his characters glib exterior.
Theres so much more to say about this strange movies sick spell but really, my hyperbole cant properly do it justice. If youve seen this movie and dismissed it, I strongly advise you to re-evaluate it. If you havent 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 youre one of the select cineastes who cant stand Cage, again, this picture might just make you understand and appreciate the man a bit more.