Judge David Johnson thinks this long-lost suspense film has the right "snuff."
Making movies can be murder!
This rare horror/thriller has been unearthed and packaged into a nifty DVD package by Synapse. As low-budget and grassroots filmmaking goes, Effects is a case study…but it's also pretty damn good.
Facts of the Case
A film crew shooting a horror film in a remote mountain area welcomes Dominic (Joe Pilato, Day of the Dead) to the team. Dominic is the new cinematographer and special effects guru.
His boss, the director, is Lacey Bickle (John Harrison), an eccentric, tight-lipped man who comes across a tad sinister. The man is up to something beyond just crafting his film, and Dominic has no idea that he plays a central role in this dark venture.
As Lacey films one movie, he is secretly filming another, with Dominic as the unsuspecting star, flanked by costars/crew-members Nicky (Tom Savini, From Dusk Till Down) and Celeste (Susan Chapek).
As filming progresses and Dominic remains in the dark, the dramatic weight will be increased on Lacey's ambitious project—the oblivious star will soon be thrown in a contest for his life.
Effects is not really a horror film as it is a suspense/thriller. If you go into it recognizing that, I think you might be pleasantly surprised. There is a gimmick to it, but it's a clever one, a well-executed. And for a movie made 25 years ago, its film-within-a-film premise is notably prophetic of the reality-drenched entertainment that Americans have been ape-dirt over.
Writer/director Dusty Nelson deserves much of the credit for skillfully forging his film. As we'll find out in the accompanying retrospective, Effects came to be thanks to nuts-and-bolts fundraising. The final cost was $55,000, but to Nelson's credit, Effects looks a lot slicker than most films 50 times its budget.
Yes the entire film takes place at a house and in its surrounding acreage, and there is hardly any blood (despite a few neat effects courtesy of Mr. Savini), and the pacing is deliberately methodical, but Nelson has found a way for it to work.
His success begins and ends with the group of actors he has populating the film. Pilato is great as Dominic, playing the guinea pig role, and is eventually rewarded at the climax with some grittier, more desperate work. Likewise are his other costars, with Savini as an excellent scumbag.
But it's John Harrison who really scores with his cold work as Lacey Bickle. There is one scene in particular, infamous among the film festivals Effects played in, that is skin-crawling. Lacey gathers his crew together, and his new "star," to show them a film that will "blow their mind." The film? A black and white snuff film, disturbing in its own right—Nelson shows the entire thing from start to end—but the reaction it generates from Lacey is the focus: he calmly boasts about its inventiveness, even admiring it. It's an important moment, unnerving for sure, but the linchpin of the entire film. It clues us into the dark territory Effects seeks to enter and perfectly frames the characters. Their reactions to the snuff film in this simple scene are more telling about who they are than the cumulative screen time that came before it. An uncomfortable but highly effective piece of filmmaking by Nelson.
That's all I'll say about the plot. Events get zany toward the end, culminating in a nice little closing shot, but I won't ruin it. Effects is a smart thriller that generates suspense not from an over-abundance of gore (there is barely any) or cheap jump scares, but from excellent character work, solid execution, and a deeply unsettling premise.
Effects makes its home video debut in fine form. Synapse has released it with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from the original materials and it look good. Colors are rich and the detailing is decent, especially considering its age and budget. A 2.0 mono audio pushed the sound adequately.
The extras bin is where this release shines. The centerpiece is the 60 minute documentary, called "AfterEffects," reuniting the principles of the film. It's a fantastic feature and gives real insight into how the film came to be, as well as its premature departure from the public eye due to a distribution snafu. Supplementing this is a commentary by John Harrison, Dusty Nelson, and editor Pasquale Buba, two short films, and a photo gallery.
It's not a blood-drenched gore saga or even a horror film in the traditional sense of the word. But Effects has to date made me shift in my seat more than any of the onslaught of those "traditional" horror films I've seen. A cool flick.
Not guilty. Now someone got get Nicolas Cage on the case!
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Scales of Justice
• "AfterEffects" Documentary
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