Review Date: October 20, 2005
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 10/25/2005
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
Anyone who thinks only films from the 1920’s or before can be considered “lost” should hear the story of Effects
. An ultra-low budget regional production shot by a trio of Pittsburgh filmmakers in 1979, the movie received little more than a handful of festival screenings before seeming to disappear forever, thanks largely to a distributor who snagged the rights and then went out of business. It’s quite possible that no more than a few prints were ever struck of it, and in that situation all it would have taken would have been some accident or for the lab to have thrown out the negative when someone didn’t pay the storage bill and Effects
would have been gone forever. Fortunately here it is now, yet another obscurity rescued by an enterprising DVD company. Keep reading to get the lowdown on what is quite possibly the most obscure and little-seen horror film in a generation.
A shapely woman (Debra Gordon
) thoroughly rinses herself down in the shower and then dries herself off, taking time to puff on a joint while she’s at it. Suddenly she sees her husband (Bernard McKenna
) leering at her from the shower with a razor blade, but then just as suddenly he disappears and re-appears – this time seeming normal – at the bathroom door and starts having a mundane conversation with her. This strange happening is actually just a rouse, a scene in a low-budget horror movie being shot by smarmy director Lacey Bickel (John Harrison
). The woman is an actress named Rita, and the man is her real-life husband Barney. The scene is being photographed by young cinematographer and special effects man Dominic (Joe Pilato
). Also present on the crew is gaffer Celeste (Susan Chapek
) and production assistants Nicky (Tom Savini
) and Lobo (Charles Hoyes
The production is going fairly well, though not without minor difficulties. Rita and Barney fight a lot, Lacey has creative differences with Celeste, Nicky acts like a jerk and pretty much everyone on the set is a bit edgy from doing too much cocaine. But one night as the men are hanging out drinking and doing drugs Lacey pulls out a 16mm film reel that he says a friend of his sent him from England, saying he wants to show them something that will amaze them. They watch the footage, and to their horror they see a hooded man tie a woman to a chair and then kill her in what appears to be an actual murder, not a special effect! Everyone is unsettled by what seems to be an actual snuff movie, and Dominic is particularly upset. At first Lacey insists that it is real, but then backtracks and says it is actually a student film of his, created with ingenious special effects. Dominic isn’t sure if he’s joking or not.
Lacey is playing a joke all right – a joke on the entire production. There are television cameras hidden all over the remote mountain cabin they are shooting in, as well as in the surrounding woods. Periodically Lacey sneaks through a hidden door in the back of his closet that takes him down to the cabin’s basement, where a large group of technicians watches video feed from the monitors and tapes the cast and crew at work and play. There’s a movie being made, but it’s actually about them. But Lacey’s intentions are not innocent and his perverse interest in “snuff” movies is leading him in a dangerous direction, and it isn’t long before people really start getting hurt...
In many ways Effects
seems like a horror variation on Francois Truffaut's Day For Night
. However, fans should be aware going into it that, despite the somewhat misleading packaging on this release, this is not a slasher film at all. Though it does have moments when it resembles a typical low-budget horror feature from the era, they are almost exclusively limited to when director Dusty Nelson shows us the scenes that the film crew is shooting, and shows them edited as they would be in a finished production. Other than that the thrills are almost entirely psychological, and not only is this in and of itself surprising, but it is even more surprising to realize just how well it is pulled off. It is not a lost masterpiece, but it does enough things right to make it enjoyable and interesting to watch.
Nelson keeps the film moving at a good pace, using both long takes and rapid-fire editing to good effect. The cast itself is above average, and people manage to hold their own and avoid the worst pitfalls of low-budget acting. John Harrison (who also produced and composed the score, and who is probably best known for writing the memorable soundtrack to George Romero’s Day of the Dead
) is weirdly believable as the creepy Lacey Bickel, and Harrison deadpans almost every moment to good effect. Bernard McKenna is amusing as the cocaine-snorting wisecracking Barney, while Tom Savini is...well...Tom Savini. He’s not really an actor, but he does have a unique screen presence. But the main weak point in the cast is Joe Pilato as Dominic. He’s nominally the hero of the movie (the script doesn’t assign traditional roles in quite the same way a standard Hollywood feature would) and he doesn’t always do a good job of carrying the role. In fact, one weakness of Effects
is that it lacks a truly strong main character.
The story inadvertently foreshadows the reality TV craze of recent years. That format, which is supposed to show people as they really are reacting to real situations, is hardly authentic. The truth of it is that those situations are usually carefully manipulated. It’s real people having real reactions to highly artificial events. But even with all the manipulation, things still end up going wrong, much as in Effects
. One episode of Survivor
featured a contestant being attacked by a shark, while during an episode of Big Brother
a girl found herself having a knife held to her throat on live TV by a household resident who, as it turned out, had a criminal record. That more people haven’t been seriously hurt in these situations is amazing. But as far as Effects
goes people do end up getting seriously hurt, both in ways intended and unintended by Lacey. The lack of cheap horror thrills allows viewers to more clearly think about the apparent commentary on the mass media culture that was still in its infancy in 1979. What is the difference between reality and fantasy in media? The conflict is perfectly summed up during a conversation between Lacey and Celeste when the latter objects to Lacey wanting a huge spurt of blood during a special effect where Rita’s foot is sliced open. Celeste argues that it isn’t realistic and that blood doesn’t do that when that particular area is sliced open, while Lacey argues that nobody in the audience will know or care. But they’re both right in their own ways.
Unfortunately, by the time Effects
was over with I ended up feeling somewhat underwhelmed. The movie just didn’t live up to all its potential. The cast and crew come damn close, but in the end they just aren’t able to pull it all the way across the finish line. But the effort and talent does show itself, and now that it’s time as a “lost” film has come to an end it will hopefully find the audience that it deserves.
The film is presented in a 16x9 enhanced transfer letterboxed at exactly 1.78:1, and for the most part it looks really good. It appears to have been mastered from film elements that were either in spectacular shape or which underwent extensive clean-up (the back of the box says the transfer was struck from original vault materials, and I believe it). Colors are usually very strong and the compression (including the many night scenes) is expertly handled, though the scant few digital artifacts that are present are quite noticeable.
was shot on 16mm using high-speed film and with little in the way of lighting equipment or extra stock for re-takes, and these factors do effect the image. A fine layer of grain is visible on most occasions, though it only becomes heavy and distracting during certain select shots. Shadow detail is poor to mediocre in many night shots, and some of those same dark scenes have a softer, more faded look to them.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono, and sounds about as good as you can expect from a Mono track. The fidelity is still limited and sometimes the audio has a shrill quality to it, but background noise and distortion have been almost completely eliminated, dialogue is almost always perfectly audible and even small sounds like the click of a projector being turned on are reproduced clearly.
The first major extra on this release is a commentary track with writer/director Dusty Nelson, producer/star John Harrison and producer/editor Pasquale Buba. The three old friends are never at a loss for words, and their comments provide wonderful insight into the world of low-budget independent filmmaking. They focus on their dual responsibilities during the production and the difficulties in getting the entire piece produced and (not) distributed. Aspiring filmmakers might just learn a thing or two from their experiences.
Just as good as the commentary is AfterEffects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking
, a 60-minute all-new documentary on the making of the film, which also serves as a background piece on the Pittsburgh filmmaking community of the 1970’s. Every single prominent member of the cast and crew of Effects
is interviewed, including John Harrison, Dusty Nelson, Pasquale Buba, Tom Savini and, in a surprise cameo, George Romero himself, who spends time discussing filmmaking in Pittsburgh during the era. Although the hour running time of the piece may sound excessive (especially when one considers how many major films only get 30-35 minute featurettes), it is very well put together and the interview subjects are engaging to listen to, and it is definitely worth taking time to sit down and watch.
Next are two short films, both from 1974. The first is a bizarre 12-minute feature called Ubu
, which John Harrison adapted from a short play and then directed. It begins with a rambling introduction by a marionette, then segues into a story of a white-faced, obese, cone-headed tyrant named Pa Ubu who seizes power and then commences to execute every aristocrat and government official in the entire country via a convenient trap door in the floor. When someone points out that it will be impossible to run the government without officials or tax collectors, the despot laughs evilly and announces he will collect all the taxes himself. Though it’s surreal, and with some interesting art design, it’s also dull and the actor who plays Ubu gets annoying. Ubu
is presented full-frame 1.33:1 and looks extremely beat up, but that’s hardly surprising considering its age and origins.
The second short film is called Beastie
, and it was written and directed by Dusty Nelson. It tells the story of a construction worker who picks up a beautiful young hitchhiker. The two instantly hit it off and begin a whirlwind romance, but the man is shocked one day when he leaves the house to get take-out and spots his new love – being a hitchhiker anew – getting into a car with someone else and driving off. It’s competently made and with decent acting. It runs 15 minutes and is presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, and, though coming from a very beat-up print, is perfectly watchable.
The release is rounded out by a short still gallery and liner notes written by Michael Felsher, who also edited the documentary.
Finally rescued from two and a half decades of obscurity, Effects
will hopefully now be viewed and appreciated by fans at large. Synapse has applied their usual tender loving care approach to this release with great extras and a video restoration that, while incapable of overcoming the flaws of the original production, still shows the film in a completely watchable and satisfying presentation.
Movie - B
Image Quality - B
Sound – B
Supplements – A-
- Running Time - 1 hour 24 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Mono
- Audio commentary with Dusty Nelson, John Harrison and Pasquale Buba
- AfterEffects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking documentary
- Ubu and Beastie short films
- Still gallery
- Liner notes