Mar 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

Few studio films are as dark – literally and figuratively – as 8MM (Eight Millimeter). Director Joel Schumacher stages much of this disturbing thriller either at night or in subterranean dwellings untouched by sunlight – and cinematographer Robert Elswit makes most scenes seem on the verge of being engulfed by a very tangible, ever-encroaching darkness. This is no aesthetic accident.

Schumacher is less the preening stylist (Flatliners, Batman Forever) and more the moralist (Falling Down, A Time to Kill) in 8MM. As he follows private investigator Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) – a decent, hardworking family man – into the violent fringes of the pornography industry, he doesn’t want the audience to remain unscathed. They should feel not just Welles’ discomfort and revulsion, but share in his eventual violation.

Welles lives under the illusion of security: a thriving business, a comfortable suburban home, a wife (Catherine Keener) and baby daughter to greet him when he returns from a surveillance job. But his can-do professionalism and sense of discretion bring him a haunting case. An elderly widow finds, among her wealthy husband’s most private possessions, a small reel of 8 mm film which shows a doe-eyed teenage girl being sexually assaulted and ritually murdered.

Is this "snuff film" real? With punk musician-porn store clerk Max California (Joaquin Phoenix) as his thick-skinned, cynical guide, Welles enters the stomach-churning sub-hardcore pornography underworld to find out.

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) views pornography as Hollywood’s shadow side, while Schumacher creates a fun-house mirror of American sex and violence, and proposes that anyone could slip into this other world as easily as falling down a rabbit hole. For all his envelope-pushing bluster, Joel Schumacher isn’t a subversive filmmaker: 8MM is actually a standard horror film, and composer Mychael Danna’s superb Moroccan-flavored music underscores its conventional approach.

During the course of 8MM, Joel Schumacher attempts to make the audience feel as unhinged as Tom Welles is by his trip through the inner circles of hell. But ultimately, Schumacher merely serves as a seasoned tour guide, leading a safe, air-conditioned bus through an exotic terrain.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].