8MM: A Joel Schumacher Film Noir about Snuff films, starring Nic Cage.
That’s as effective a review that can ever be written about 8MM. Its’ short pitch neatly ties together just how awful this film is. But then it is bizarrely compelling at the same time.
It pains me to admit it, but 8MM is a guilty pleasure. A wafer of a film, it’s impossible to defend its artistic worth to either the Cinerati or to the average-punter-in-the-multiplex. Its’ hooks (Nicholas Cage + grotty porn-ish narrative) are obvious; its’ look, its’ soundtrack and its’ plywood acting even worse. But I just can’t resist having it on in the background. Cheap and charming wallpaper, you could say. But then there’s still more to it than that.
The premise is drawn from the cod-noir trope of the gumshoe hired into clean up the dirty business left behind by the Establishment. The feature revolves around the titular home, a snuff film found tucked away in the safe of a deceased Captain of Industry. The dirty secret of a seemingly respectable family man, his widowed wife recruits Ol’ Horseface Cage to come in and prove that the film isn’t a real snuff film. It’s just very cleverly faked, of course, using make up and special effects. Of course.
The tale of a flick which carefully depicts the slow and deliberate execution of someone in an almost pornographic manner is a myth many have capitalised on before, most notably in the predictably named Snuff. A sub-standard exploitation horror, it reached new heights in headline grabbing by having a ‘real’ faked murder tagged onto the end of a unsellable film, a reel that the dastardly filmmakers ‘forgot’ to cut out. Ee-gads, if the morbid teenagers didn’t queue around the block to see the notion of someone really being killed, crikey such a thrill! As an individual somewhat obsessed about film censorship, and getting a glimpse at what shouldn’t be seen, I should perhaps not go throwing rocks, but Snuff is about as cynical as exploitation cinema gets. And that’s saying something in its own right.
Anyways, Ol’ Horseface sets off on his investigations after the girl featured in the snuff film, and his path leads him towards the sordid backwaters of Hollywood and the ‘adult entertainment’ industry that Cage feels certain the girl fell into. As he trawls the seedy bars, and the red light districts of the big smoke the soundtrack rolls out a bizarre arabesque of pure Orientalism. Fresh off his commission for Fry’s Turkish Delight, the score’s composer goes wild on chanting arabs, oud’s and dulcimers. An allusion perhaps to the taboo vices of Marrakesh, and the sweaty boys that fill William S. Borrough’s fevered vision of Tangiers in Naked Lunch. It’s all playing with notions of the Middle Eastern that are non-kosher at best, pretty racist at worst. These associations are continually spun as Cage enters the underground filth bazaars of LA. Imagine a second hand record fair, but for paedophiles. When Cage starts asking around for the Xtra hard ‘snuff’ stuff, these high principled nonces take the moral high ground and shout him out of the market. Tsch, come on Nic, there’s paedophilia, and then there’s going too far!
A few dead-ends later and he’s chasing the trail to a porn casting agency run by a porn baron, played by none other than Tony Soprano! And here the film takes an amazing turn, as brilliant actor after brilliant actor start stumbling into the roles of the devious trio behind the snuff film. First Tony, then Peter Stormare shows up as the visionary S&M director behind the snuff film, and then finally Frank Sobotka (from Season 2 of the Wire) is unmasked as the murderous gimp in the film. We’ve already had Joaquin Phoenix pop up as a Nic’s side-kick/inside-man from the porn shops, sporting a look styled after a pensioner’s distracted recollections of seeing the front man from Janes Addiction on TV last night. One solid actor is one thing, but four has you doubting quite how bad this film actually is.
Frank Sobotka is revealed in a dramatic flourish right at the end of the film [not a spoiler per se] and the shock of having the murderer revealed is only surpassed by the shock of seeing a genuinely good actor beneath the mask. And all these assorted actors do a tremendous job of pulling their weight with a by-and-large leaden script. Their work however, remains built on the shaky foundations of the acting talent that is Nic Cage, and that is quite possibly where the whole film comes undone.
The film wastes no time throwing Nic right into the deep end when it comes to pooling his thesp-y skills, giving cinema of the highest cringe factor as we watch him pretend squirm infront of a pretend snuff film we are forbidden from pretend seeing. He’s a father, a husband, and the outrage and the disgust at the horrors he sees knows no bound! The poker face he has, the lies he has to tell to get into the close circles of these perverts, the double lies, the deceit! Such anger, such frustration, such emotion!
It’s a demanding role, and Cage wholly, uttely and desperately fails to even approach the heights or nuance the role actually demands. The conflicted dick is the unshifting anchor of a good film noir; Bogey in the Maltese Falcon, Joseph Cotton in the Third Man, Fred MacMurray in Sunset Boulevard. Cage is an unguarded sledgehammer through every scene in this film, a cardboard cut out of himself that occasionally amuses but predominantly reminds you that you are watching a Nic Cage film.
Because that’s what it is. A Nic Cage film. A Nic Cage film with some very interesting notions about the value of the recorded image, the sexualisation of violence, the aggressive undercurrents of pornography, the parallels of the legitimate and illicit film industries in Hollywood, the myth of the snuff film, and the bizarre compulsion to hide from the most gruesome sights known to man, while simultaneously watching it through shielding hands. The awfulness of this film could be read as perfect illustration of this repulsion/attraction at work, but that really would be giving this film a lot more credit than it’s due.
There are distant echoes of Cronenberg’s Crash in all of this, and many other fine film besides. Perhaps knocking the budget down and making it a bit more ‘indie’ would have stood this film to good stead. Perhaps recasting either Stormare/Sobotka/Soprano in the lead role would have stood the film even better. Either ways, it still won’t stop me from watching the-amazing-film-that-could-have-been again sometime in the not too distant future, Nic Cage be damned either ways.