Monday, July 3, 2023

Effects (1979)

... aka: Death's Director
... aka: Manipulator, The

Directed by:
Dusty Nelson

What makes this otherwise rocky low budget regional production of special interest to genre fans is that it was made by a whole host of George A. Romero film alumni. Director / writer Nelson had previously served as an editor and cameraman for the Romero directed and produced sports series The Winners. Producer / editor / sound man Pasquale Buba was one of Romero's trusted editors. Composer and executive producer John Harrison, who also gets to play an important supporting role, had already done the scores for several Romero films. Tom Savini, who'd first made a name for himself in the world of special effects through the early Romero films, also did the make-up for this one and plays a supporting part. And Romero fans will recognize a number of the other cast members, including leading man Joseph Pilato, who played small roles in both DAWN OF THE DEAD and Knightriders before graduating to play the lead baddie in Day of the Dead. There are a number of other Romero world connections littered throughout that I could mention, not least of which that this was filmed entirely around Pittsburgh. Romero himself, along with frequent collaborators Richard P. Rubinstein and Michael Gornick, are all given a special thanks in the credits.

That they could have, yet didn't, use Romero as a promotional tool is pretty bizarre, as is the fact this wasn't widely available until it was nearly three decades old. Shot all the way back in 1978, this had its premiere in late 1979 and was then given an extremely limited theatrical release in 1980, but never turned up on home video in the 80s and 90s. By the time Synapse Films released a DVD in 2005 the film had long been forgotten. The official story given for the hold up boils down to the original distributor not having the financial means to give it either a wide theatrical release or a home video release yet still retaining the rights into the 90s. By the time the makers regained ownership again, there was a general lack of interest in low budget genre films on VHS. Video stores were already full and owners were mostly interested in stocking major studio films with Hollywood stars. It wouldn't be until the DVD market picked up in the 2000s that the film finally received its release. 

I wish I could say it was worth the wait.

Effects takes place on the set of a super low-budget independent horror movie called "Something's Wrong," which seems aimed at the lowest common denominator with lingering camera shots of a woman showering and cheap gore fx. The pompous, cold-blooded director - Lacey Bickel (Harrison) - curiously seems disinterested in the whole affair. A wealthy trust fund brat who inherited a lot of money, he's not the least bit interested in realism or quality and brushes any suggestions off. After all, "Nobody has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of an audience." That puts him conflict with Celeste (Susan Chapek), who's usually an actress but has taken a job as the film's gaffer and wants to be involved in a quality production. Celeste doesn't like Lacey's script, doesn't like Lacey's insistence on piling on unconvincing gore and doesn't like Lacey's attitude. She also just doesn't like Lacey period. The two used to be romantically involved, which she brushes off as two people using one another. He wanted sex. She wanted access to his money. Simple as that.

Pilato plays Dominic, the production's easygoing cinematographer / cameraman / fx guy. (Hey, it's a cheap regional production so everyone wears many hats!) Dominic begins to date Celeste and suspects she may be bitter because, as of yet, she's failed to secure an acting role in the production. The lead actors are bickering real-life husband and wife Barney (Bernard McKenna) and Rita (Debra Gordon), who seem perfectly cast playing the bickering fictional couple in the film. Almost everyone is heavily involved with drugs. Not many of them seem like they can stand one another. Nicky (Savini), who supplies everyone with coke and does miscellaneous jobs on the set, causes some problems, and there are a lot of film-within-a-film bits meant to disorient. Sometimes we're not sure if what's being shown is part of the movie or is really happening.

It's obvious from the get-go that things aren't exactly what they appear to be. For starters, if Lacey has so much money, why are they shooting on 16mm with such a small crew? And then there's the fact the entire home they're shooting in has hidden cameras and audio equipment in certain rooms that only a few of the crew members are aware of. We're soon clued in that the secretly-recorded footage, including crew members having sex, is being sent back to a modern studio which Lacey and a shadow crew are watching and editing. There's some kind of parallel production going on that only some characters are aware is being made.

We're given a clue as to what's actually going down when Lacey whips out an 8mm film reel to show part of his crew. The b/w silent film depicts a woman tied to a chair getting slashed to death with a razor by a man wearing an executioner's hood. At first, Lacey claims the scene is the real deal; that the woman seen being murdered was actually murdered and the film was shot specifically for a British snuff film collector friend of his. He then backtracks on that claim and says he shot the footage himself and the murder was faked. Being experienced in special effects himself, Dominic suspects it's authentic, but doesn't remove himself from the situation as quickly as he should.

With its meta elements, discussion of other genre films (The Omen and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are among those mentioned) and critique of amoral opportunists hoping to capitalize on numbed audiences always on the lookout for more extreme and shocking forms of entertainment, this feels thematically ahead of its time. However, a clever central idea isn't quite enough to overcome the film's myriad problems. While the performances are adequate and the gritty, grainy 16mm photography and poor lighting create a potent dreary atmosphere, the pacing is sluggish, characters are flat and uninteresting, a number of scenes are needlessly drawn out, the film fails to shock, disturb or create any suspense and many of the story detours are half-developed and confusing. A good example of the latter is the minor subplot involving the Barney character's gradual transformation from your standard husband type to a more flamboyant alternate personality.

This was supposedly based on a novel called Snuff by William H. Mooney, though I was unable to verify the existence of such a novel. Years later, Harrison would direct and write Donor Unknown (1995), which was also supposedly based on another Mooney novel called Corazon, which also doesn't appear to exist. I'm not sure if these were unpublished novels or these credits were simply made up. I was able to verify that a writer by the name of William H. Mooney does indeed exist. He's a graduate of Penn State, a film scholar, professor and the author of several film-related books, so I assume it's the same guy.

The budget was just 55,000 dollars. Director Nelson went on to make Necromancer: Satan's Servant  (1988) and a couple of action movies. In 2017, American Genre Film Archive released this on Blu-ray. Though the film has been restored from the only 35mm in existence, the print used is heavily damaged, which shouldn't be a problem at all for those who enjoy the grindhouse aesthetic. The AGFA release comes with a commentary track, two short films from director Nelson and Michael Felsher's hour-long documentary After Effects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking (2005), which features interviews with Romero, Savini, Nelson, Buba, Harrison and most of the primary cast.

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