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Not Up to Snuff

[whitespace] Eight Millimeter
Christine Loss

Critical Distance: In 'Eight Millimeter,' detective Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) takes a courageous stand against the production and distribution of snuff films.

'Eight Millimeter' begs for more in porn underworld

By Richard von Busack

WE HAVE Allan Shackerton to blame for this. The infamous Snuff, released in 1976, was a 1971 Argentine horror film with a new sequence filmed by Shackerton in which a live actress was supposedly butchered for the camera, causing a nationwide howl of outrage. According to Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: "Irate film reviewers provided maximum publicity by condemning the phony movie. ... The badly done special effects fooled no one except reviewers who hadn't even watched the film." And the whole dang thing was blamed on the usual foreigners--the ads stated, "Snuff! From Argentina, where life is cheap!"

From Hollywood, where life is even cheaper, comes Eight Millimeter, a stunned, ponderous exploitation film. Nicolas Cage's very square private detective Tom Welles (Welles! As if!) is hired by a wealthy widow who has discovered an 8mm snuff film in her husband's effects. Is it the real thing? "Whoever made this film was certainly adept at authenticity," Welles says, but judging from the badly pulled punch the "murderer" delivers to the "victim," probably not. Welles finds the trail in L.A. and gets a partner (a porn salesman/ex-punk rocker played by Joaquin Phoenix). The two find the men responsible: a Hollywood porn producer (James Gandolfini) and Dino Velvet, a director of Johnny Dark-style kink, described as "the Jim Jarmusch of porn" (Velvet is played by Peter Stormare, literally chewing the props).

This is the most dumbed-down of films, the sort that's unacceptable unless you're clobbered with Percodan after oral surgery. The script is pure backwash by Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven. Maybe, like Seven, Eight Millimeter is supposed to be a bloody Christian allegory (the millionairess widow is named Mrs. Christian), but who wants to delve when the plot is so completely simplistic? David Fincher, who directed Seven, at least had enough visual style to make that ridiculous yarn stick. But Joel Schumacher--late of the ineffable, and insufferable, Batman & Robin--layers on wintery gloom underneath a mournful hip-as-a-whip soundtrack of sampled Arab singers. (It's kind of an insult to the Moslems; basically, the film is saying the world of porn is like a godless Arabic souk.)

When the film has something to mourn, it is at its best. Schumacher's dreary telephoto cityscapes of some boarded-up Scranton-level Pennsylvania town are as effective as Amy Morton's fine underplaying of the dead girl's mom. There's no relief by the usually first-rate Catherine Keener (Out of Sight), though; she literally phones in her performance as Mrs. Welles, tearfully calling her husband long distance. How sad to see Keener serving time in that most unforgiving of roles, the suffering wife who's not going to take it anymore: "If you go out tonight and break open that snuff-film ring, I may not be here when you get back." What is all of this moralizing for, to chastise the snuff-film fanciers in the audience? Well, it's about time that someone stood up and said "enough" to snuff! Eight Millimeter's preachiness is especially hypocritical because the only interesting parts of the movie are the Neanderthal revenge pulp scenes. When it's payback time, the villains are hot and willing and begging for it. Gandolfini's gross, ugly villain doesn't just chuckle when he's half kicked to death, he wags his tongue and taunts Welles, begging him to hit him harder. Having seen years' worth of studio "thrillers" like this, why did I ever believe snuff movies are a myth?

Eight Millimeter (R; 123 min.), directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Andrew Kevin Walker, photographed by Robert Elswit and starring Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix and Peter Stormare.

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From the March 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro.

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