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The most shocking thing about Joel Schumacher’s Eight Millimeter isn’t its perverse subject matter or casually virulent misogyny, but the fact that scanning this slick yet grimy trash gives you an insight or two about the nature of movie violence. Manure, it seems, can fertilize an idea or two.

At heart, the movie is a standard police procedural starring Nicolas Cage as Tom Welles, a suburban family man who’s also a surveillance expert. One gray day, a rich widow summons him to her mansion. She has found, in her husband’s safe, a reel of film that appears to show a girl being murdered — a snuff film — and wants Tom to (dis)prove its authenticity. In his quest for the truth, Tom views and reviews this terminal smut while following leads through a cartoonishly seedy underworld (populated by the likes of To Die For‘s Joaquin Phoenix and The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini). The movie is as stagnant in tone (what else to expect from Schumacher, the director of Batman & Robin) as it is sensationalist in detail (what else to expect from Andrew Kevin Walker, the writer of Seven), emerging as just another exploitation film about exploitation.

The myth of the snuff film reportedly began after the Tate-LaBianca murders shook Los Angeles in 1969, amid rumors that Charles Manson and his followers had committed their killings on film. The legend grew with the 1976 release of Snuff, which was actually an inept 1971 Manson-inspired Argentinean thriller called Slaughter, onto which a distributor appended a (staged) scene in which a camera crew disembowels a young woman. Even today, video copies boast that the flick ”goes beyond the limits of realism — to reality.” Never mind that the blood here is the color and consistency of tempera paint.

Eight Millimeter makes only superficial attempts to penetrate the glaze of such sleaze and question the appeal of the sex-death fetish. Like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the movie’s title sequence opens onto the glaring eye of a projector. Both shots reference Ingmar Bergman’s identity-probing Persona, but Schumacher’s homage is just art-house window dressing. The question remains: What does the myth of snuff say about our attraction to movie violence and its covert connections to movie sex? Scorsese, for one, might suggest that this Freudian mess is best addressed by a film that contains no nudity and no bloodshed — Peeping Tom, which he has described as the ”greatest intellectual influence” on his work.

After making 1960’s Peeping Tom, Michael Powell — celebrated director of sensuous fantasies like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes — saw his career effectively crushed. A meditation on cinema wrapped inside a thriller, the movie stars Karl Boehm as Mark Lewis, a serial killer who shoots his prey (with his movie camera) as he stabs them (with a sharpened leg of his tripod) and then screens the carnage later. Tensions build up in screening rooms and on soundstages until Mark is forced to turn the camera on himself. Upon the film’s release, typical response echoed critic Derek Hill’s ”flush [the movie] swiftly down the nearest sewer.” It’s creepy stuff, sure, but why should Peeping Tom have been more scandalous than 1960s’ most infamous shocker — Psycho?

Peeping Tom makes us uneasy in a way that movie violence seldom does by erasing the emotional distance between the viewer of the movie and the voyeur in it. We watch the killings from Mark’s perspective, looking at the slasher film within the slasher film. It’s as if Powell had twisted a Hitchcock thriller inside out to first give the audience a fast rush of violence and then a lasting aftershock of nausea. The nausea comes because the viewer — usually just a passive consumer of cheap thrills — so closely identifies with the agent of aggressive horror. And when it comes to movies, what can be more shocking than that?
Eight Millimeter: C-
Snuff: F
Peeping Tom: A-