Color, 1999, 123 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Starring Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, Anthony Heald, Chris Bauer, Catherine Keener, Myra Carter
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Cinema Cult (Blu-ray) (Australia R0 HD), Sony (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

After 8MMhis flamboyant 8MMDay-Glo stabs at the Batman franchise and a pair of John Grisham thrillers in the 1990s, director Joel Schumacher suddenly found himself in the commercial doghouse and yearning for a new creative direction. That meant shifting gears to something different-- very, very different: the gritty snuff movie thriller 8MM. Drawing more than a little inspiration from the nihilistic thrillers inaugurated by the success of David Fincher's Seven in 1995, the film even came from the same screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker, who was vocally displeased with the changes made to his script by the time it reached the screen. (Walker's original script has since been published and is significantly different, most notably in the absence of an over-the-top scene in the film with our hero asking for permission to... well, just see for yourself). Nevertheless, the film is fascinating as the first attempt by Hollywood to really delve into the urban legend of snuff movies since 1979's Hardcore (not counting the laughably incoherent Law & Order "Performance" episode from 1995), again conflating the concept of snuff films (in which a person is killed for real on camera) with the pornographic sex industry for some reason. It's really best to approach this as a grimy pulp thriller, one that opened early in 1999 and was almost immediately eclipsed during one of the best moviemaking years in history.

When 8MMthe widow (Carter) of a wealthy businessman finds a disturbing 8mm reel of film in his safe depicting what appears to be the actual murder of a young woman, she decides to hire discreet private detective Tom Welles (Cage) to look into it and put her mind at ease. With a wife (Keener) and new baby at home, 8MMWelles has kept a realistic perspective on evil in the world but finds his soul tested as this assignment leads him into the underbelly of L.A. and New York City's porno world courtesy of Max California (Phoenix), his guide and an adult video store retailer. Among the dark denizens he encounters are procurer Eddie Poole (the late Gandolfini, who hit it big on The Sopranos the same year) and an extreme smut filmmaker, Dino Velvet (Stormare, grating as always), who could be responsible for that deeply disturbing film.

Much critical reaction at the time wondered how this film could have skating along with an R rating given the subject matter and nastiness of the violence, though anyone familiar with '70s noir thrillers shouldn't be all that shocked by what unfolds here. (Just take a look at Prime Cut for one example in addition to the aforementioned Hardcore.) What you do get are a couple of very strong lead performances from Cage and particularly Phoenix, 8MMwho was about to come into his own as a leading man himself and really shines here. In fact, had the film shifted its perspective to his character at least part of the time, the results could have been very interesting. The moody score by Mychael Danna and sharp lensing by Robert 8MMElswit (who also shot most of Paul Thomas Anderson's films) are largely responsible for the film's dank, brooding atmosphere which manages to stay on course even with some of the hammier acting choices (with The Silence of the Lambs' Heald also chomping up the scenery in his limited screen time) and the fact that the depictions of the porn world look a lot more like music videos than anything in the actual industry circa '99.

Regularly available on DVD since the format's infancy, 8MM was initially released with an audio commentary by Schumacher covering his reasons for taking on the project, the research process involved, the toning down of some of the background videos in the porn store shots to avoid an NC-17, some rather prophetic comments about changes coming because of the Internet, and the casting choices for what would be the first of a string of weighty projects for him (followed by Tigerland, The Number 23 and the interesting Blood Creek). It's also just odd to hear the director of the The 8MMLost Boys talking about "portable, battery-operated vaginas" and saying "this is an enema film, if you'd like to know more about it." He also mentions several scenes that were cut down or eliminated along the way to the final cut, so it's a shame they haven't been preserved 8MManywhere on video.

In 2018, Scream Factory brought the film to Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S., porting over the audio commentary, the theatrical trailer (which is in desperate need of a remaster), and a making-of featurette (5m7s) basically comprised of EPK-style sound bites with the cast and crew, interspersed with flashes of footage from the set. Most notably the disc adds a new video interview, "8MM in 35MM" (21m8s), with Schumacher recalling his burnt-out state before making the film, the potential casting of Russell Crowe (which would've made this a really weird precursor to Gladiator with Phoenix), the flack Sony head Amy Pascal got for the project, his wrangling with the MPAA (including its "three thrust" rule), and an incident with alternative lifestyle performers that got more than a bit out of hand. Three TV spots are also included along with an extensive 6m39s still gallery.

Reviewed on December 30, 2018.