8mm Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

There are going to be things that you'll see that you can't unsee.

Nicolas Cage

By strict definition, a 'snuff film' would involve the commission of murder for the sole purpose of capturing the act on film with the hopes of some sort of commercial distribution. While some psychotics have certainly recorded the murder of their victims, these productions are incidental to the acts of violence and usually remain in the possession of the murderer.

From what I know, snuff films are something of an urban myth.

True snuff films, by definition, have yet to be seen, with many of the purported authentic productions turning out to be elaborately staged hoaxes. According to an interview conducted by The Times of London, Paul Lanning, the FBI's chief researcher into child pornography, stated that in his twenty years, no hard evidence for true snuff films have ever been found. This statement has also been supported by a number of other in-depth FBI investigations into the subject, none of which have turned up an 'authentic' snuff film.

Do you want to tell me what you found, Mrs. Christian?

Interestingly enough, the press coined the term 'snuff film' in 1969 after hearing rumors that the Charles Manson 'Family' had made 'home movies' of the Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles. Even though this rumor later turned out to be false, the name stuck. Over the years, a number of other alleged snuff films have come to light, all of which were quickly dismissed as 'hokey latex and stage blood' frauds, including the 1970s B-movie horror film "Snuff", and "Guinea Pig", a Japanese hoax that prompted actor Charlie Sheen to contact the FBI. Despite the dearth of evidence pointing to an underground trade in snuff films, there have been some arrests of individuals for attempting to produce snuff films, such as the 1989 arrest of a furniture upholsterer from California during an undercover police sting operation.

It's a film where a girl appears to be murdered.

Joaquin Phoenix

Regardless of the debate over the veracity of the existence of snuff films, it certainly has not dimmed the imagination of Hollywood writers. Paul Schrader's "Hardcore" and John Frankenheimer's "52 Pickup" have tackled the subject before, and this time around, director Joel Schumacher ("Batman and Robin") tackles this distasteful subject matter with the help of scribe Andrew Kevin Walker (who wrote "Seven") in "8mm". And while the first two acts certainly manage to be equally engaging and disturbing, the film's final act winds up scuttling a premise with promise with its cheap theatrics, hammy dialogue, and contrived plot complications.

We want you to go and find out who made this film and validate its authenticity.

Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage of "City of Angels") is a private investigator for the rich and powerful, uncovering illicit affairs with his rugged determination and his surveillance equipment. Recently, his frequent business trips have put a strain on his relationship with his wife Amy (Catherine Keener of "Your Friends and Neighbors") and his recently born daughter, both of whom Tom cares about very deeply.

Tell me that the poor girl wasn't killed... find her alive.

After arriving home from an extended surveillance job, Tom is summoned to the opulent mansion of Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter) whose tycoon husband has recently passed away. After securing a promise for absolute discretion, the widow shows Tom what was found in her dead husband's safe-- an 8mm film that apparently shows a teenage girl (Jenny Powell) being brutally murdered by a man wearing a leather mask. Disturbed by what he has seen in the film and lured by a handsome payoff that will put his daughter through college, Tom begins investigating the authenticity of the alleged snuff film and the fate of its unwitting starlet.

This could be the break we've been waiting for.
I didn't know that we needed a break.

With little to go on other than a photograph and his obsession to find the dead girl, Tom sets off on a cross-country journey in order to identify and track down the mysterious girl. Starting in Cleveland, the search eventually takes him to Hollywood, where the dead girl may have fallen victim to the city's active pornography industry. With the help of an irreverent adult bookstore employee (Joaquin Phoenix), Tom gradually uncovers clues pointing to the final fate of the film's 'victim'.

At first glance, "8mm" is quite an engaging thriller, with Welles' investigation triggering a disquieting descent into the depraved underworld of pornography. As clues and insights are uncovered, the audience is there to savor each new revelation. Furthermore, Welles' reflections on the dead girl's final days are also quite affecting, such as the entries made in her diary and the contents of her long-forgotten suitcase. Furthermore, the film's bleak atmosphere has definitely made good use of the David Fincher (director of "Seven" and "The Game") rulebook, and is assisted by the haunting musical score of Mychael Danna (who also scored "The Sweet Hereafter").

Unfortunately, the film's good intentions all go to pot as the film begins to run out of gas. The first sign of trouble appears about halfway through, in which Welles learns from a nun that the dead girl had stayed at a transient shelter six years prior. While this sort of recall is entirely possible, the film's execution of this disclosure comes off sounding implausible. From this point onward, things just go downhill, with loquacious bad guys giving verbose speeches outlining their evil plans, Welles' wife delivering a stilted 'I'm sick of being ignored' nervous breakdown address, and Welles lurking through a darkened house with predictable results. Throw some flavorless thesping by Cage and some unintentionally hilarious sequences into the mix, and you have a disappointing outcome.

Why did he want a film of a little girl being butchered?!
Because he could.

"8mm" is one of those films that are difficult to assess, due to the dichotomy between the film's strong beginning and disappointing resolution. It is quite an engaging and clever thriller for the first two acts that plays off the momentum of Welles' investigation. Unfortunately, all this momentum winds up dissipating in an overly contrived and excessively long third act. Some moviegoers might forgive the film's frustrating missteps, but the majority probably won't.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Go Back to Movie Review Archive Index