I've talked a lot about the line between horror movies and thrillers (and I'm sure I will continue to do so), and how it seems to be arbitrary sometimes depending on the people involved, as if directors, producers, and actors of a certain caliber automatically elevate something from the level of genre film to something else by their mere presence. I've also talked about how I think Joel Schumacher ruined this specific screenplay with wrongheaded casting and story choices. So I am not necessarily in love with this movie. But I do think there's something redeemable about it, and have since I first saw it in the theaters.
For all of its flaws and thriller/drama trappings, I'd argue that 8mm is actually an existential horror film.
In most horror movies (not all, but most), what's at threat is the loss of life. Whether it's some supernatural agent like a ghost, vampire, or monster, or an earthly agent like a killer, cannibal, cannibal killer, etc., the worst thing that's going to happen is that you're going to die. Horrible things may happen first (or after), but it comes down to dying. In some cases, it comes down to loss of humanity instead, as the protagonists themselves become something monstrous. In 8mm, I'd argue that what's at stake is not whether someone lives or dies (someone is dead as the story gets started), not so much the presence or absence of humanity (it's sort of at stake, but not centrally), but rather whether or not a person could be said to have existed at all.
The movie opens with private investigator Tom Welles doing what private investigators do: He's tailing somebody who's having an extramarital affair. He gets the evidence his client needs, responding to their reaction with a mixture of sympathy and world-weariness. He knows how the world works, even when his clients don't. It's a tough job - long, boring hours away from home - but it provides a good life for him, his wife, and their daughter in the D.C. suburbs. He mows the lawn, chats with the neighbors. He can keep his family safe from the disappointing facets of human nature which nonetheless pay the bills.
Welles has a reputation for discretion which makes him a go-to P.I. for people in D.C., powerful people who don't want their dirt spread around, and it's this reputation that gets him hired by the recent widow of a steel magnate. In going through her late husband's things after his death, she finds a roll of 8mm film in a hidden safe in his private office (wood paneling, fireplace, big oil painting of him on the wall, old-school rich dude style all the way). She's watched it once, and tells Welles it is footage of what appears to be a young woman being butchered on camera.
Welles tells her that it's faked - special effects and camera trickery. So-called "snuff films" are an urban myth, he reassures her. He knows how the world works, even when his clients don't. She screens the film for him: A scrawny, dull-eyed girl - probably a runaway. A shabby bedroom in an abandoned house. The bed is covered with a plastic tarp. A man in a leather mask enters the frame, handles the girl a little roughly. He walks over to a table with a tray of sharp instruments on it. At this point, our point of view changes to Welles' reactions to what he's seeing on camera. Whatever he's seeing, his disgust and horror tell us it isn't faked. She's really being horrifically murdered on camera.
The widow believes him, for the most part: She wants him to make sure this girl is still alive, that it was just faked. Maybe she's trying to convince herself despite what she surely knows from her own viewing of the film . Welles tells her she's probably right, and he'll find the girl, even though he knows she's dead already. They're lying to themselves and each other, but off he goes.
What Welles discovers in pretty short order through the second act of the film is that first, the world is a much more fucked-up place than he'd ever imagined. His descent into the fringes of the pornography industry, looking under every rock he can, tells him that there are appetites and economies to service those appetites he never imagined. Second, that the young woman slaughtered in this film is barely a cipher - he only discovers her name by wading through an ocean of missing persons reports with a grainy still from the film. Tracing her path is laborious - her ex-boyfriend pimped her out, she was nothing to him. Only her mother remembers her, and has been holding out hope that she was alive. If not for her mother, nobody would know or care about this girl. Welles sets out to make this girl real, somebody acknowledged as having lived.
What, then, is at stake here is whether or not the memory of this girl will vanish from all recollection. Once her mother dies, everything but a grainy 8mm film of this girl's final moments will die with her. And when Welles finally encounters the parties responsible for the film, this is highlighted further. This girl was nothing, nobody, they say. When the film's director crumples up a photograph and eats it, he is just making the subtext into text: We consumed this girl like a commodity. We chewed her up, and once the film is gone she will be swallowed whole, never to be seen or known again.
Of course, this examination of nihilism and what it means to have been remembered and known is buried under almost cartoonishly broad characters, heavy-handed exposition and monologuing, lots of yelling and a fairly pat resolution. It is the least obvious type of horror presented in the most painfully obvious way possible, and for once, I'd love to see a remake.
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Available on Netflix