The Best Movie You Never Saw: 8MM
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be looking at 8MM!
THE STORY: A family man/ private eye (Nicolas Cage) is hired by the wealthy, influential widow of a tycoon to find out whether or not a snuff film which she discovered in the man’s vault is legit.
THE HISTORY: Something was in the air in 1999. In the wake of movies like SE7EN, which pushed the boundaries in what was considered acceptable in a mainstream film, and the crossover success of the violent, provocative indie hits of the late nineties, big studios were all of a sudden willing to green light violent films which skirted the edges of the R-rating. This is a bigger deal than one might think nowadays, as back then NC-17 movies couldn’t be advertised in traditional ways, and Blockbuster, which dominated the all-important rental market, wouldn’t carry them. Still, you had movies like this that somehow got away with R-ratings – even if barely – but it was a short-lived trend, with the 1999 Columbine Massacre radically changing Hollywood’s perception of violence in film (for a while) making movies like this week’s selection, 8MM (and other 1999 releases like FIGHT CLUB) outliers.
“Joel made the movie he wanted to make, and it was too tough for a lot of people.” Amy Pascal – L.A. Times
However, even in 1999, 8MM, which was originally designed as a gritty, low-budget indie with Russell Crowe in the lead, and morphed into a big-budget studio flick when Nicolas Cage signed on, was not without controversy. After it’s release, the movie was all but disowned by Sony Pictures, with Amy Pascal telling the L.A. Times that it was not quite what the studio had in mind, with them hoping for something more along the lines of SE7EN (which is exactly what this is – oddly – it even shares a screenwriter in Andrew Kevin Walker). The movie, which cost at least $40 million topped out at $36 million domestically. But, with foreign receipts it likely turned a profit and was a big enough video hit that the studio later made a DTV sequel, 8MM2. Still, it’s a movie that’s rarely discussed nowadays, especially with 1999 being such a well-remembered year chockfull of classics.
WHY IT’S GREAT: There are two Joel Schumacher’s. One is the campy director who gave us nipples on the Batsuit, while the other is stone-cold serious. Both Schumacher’s have given us great films, and his duality as a director has always fascinated me. You’d never think that the same guy who gave us BATMAN & ROBIN could give us FALLING DOWN, but he did. 8MM is, in some ways, even darker than FALLING DOWN, in that it examines the skeevy, skid-row porn world of late nineties L.A. and in particular, snuff films.
In this movie, Cage’s character rather naively says snuff films don’t actually exist, but in a post dark web world, we know that’s not true. In fact, part of what makes 8MM so fascinating is the way it’s so obviously a product of its time. In ’99, porn was just starting to go online but there were still loads of actual shops peddling stuff, while now, people can order their smut from the comfort of their own homes.
Granted, 8MM isn’t a perfect film. Having not watched it in years, I was surprised at how much Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay seemingly owes to Paul Schrader’s HARDCORE, with the scene where a wincing Cage watches the snuff film a carbon copy of the new gone-viral scene of George C. Scott watching porn starring his daughter. Still, the movie remains a creepy, madly effective thriller. Cage dials it way down as our everyman hero-turned avenger, while Joaquin Phoenix steals every scene as his guide into the smut world, Max California. Peter Stormare is terrific as smut auteur Dino Velvet, while James Gandolfini, in what must have been his last role before “The Sopranos” is a secondary baddie – a skeezy porn talent agent who runs afoul of the butt of Cage’s gun in a scene that was apparently cut to keep the film from getting an NC-17. And, of course, there’s “True Blood”, “The Wire” and “The Deuce”’s Chris Bauer as Machine, the leather mask wearing killer in the snuff films who Cage faces off with in the end.
Overall, 8MM holds up like gangbusters, even if a few of Schumacher’s choices seem strange now, such as the score by Mychael Danna having an exotic middle-eastern vibe (cheesy) although he also deserves major credit for doing things that, in hindsight, a lot of other directors didn’t do – such as not shying away from either the violence or nudity such a world would involve, and also beefing up Catherine Keener’s role as Cage’s put-upon wife.
BEST SCENE: Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as the scene-stealing Max California, and his chemistry with Cage is spot on. His intro, where Cage catches him reading Truman Capote in the midst of so much smutty porn, is a winner. You really buy the relationship between these two right off the bat.
SEE IT: 8MM can be streamed for free (with ads) on Crackle, while it can also be found digitally through iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, etc. Scream Factory also just put out a nice new Blu-ray edition of the film if you’re a collector.
PARTING SHOT: If 8MM hadn’t come out in ’99, the same year some legit classics hit theaters, it would no doubt be a bigger deal. I vividly remember seeing it in theaters, having cut class with some buddies and using a fake ID to buy a ticket, as it was slapped with a restrictive 18+ rating here in Quebec. I think that was likely the best possible way to experience it, as I felt like I was getting away with something. Still, even twenty-years removed from my teenaged rebellion, the movie holds up as slick entertainment and is well worth a watch.