Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned.
Most of the films I cover here received a release of some kind and simply failed to catch on with audiences at the time, but this week’s entry never even had that much of a chance. Effects played some film festivals, but a shoddy distribution deal essentially tanked its release in 1980 and sent the film into relative obscurity. Its legend persisted though thanks to the involvement of Pittsburgh-based filmmakers who shared the air with George Romero including Tom Savini, John Harrison, and Day of the Dead‘s Joe Pilato.
The fine folks at Synapse Films (headed up by Don May Jr.) helped right the wrong a quarter of a century later by releasing it onto DVD in 2005, and now the equally awesome film lovers at the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) have taken it a step further — they’ve completed a brand new 4K restoration from the only existing 35mm print and are putting it out on Blu-ray later this month. The attention is long overdue and well-deserved as Effects is a film far ahead of its time.
Lacey Bickle (Harrison) is a film director in search of a hit. His latest attempt is a horror film he’s making at a remote house with a crew of both compatriots and newcomers. Dominic (Pilato) is one of the latter and has joined the production as cameraman/cinematographer. The first few days of the shoot are uneventful as scenes progress and both cast and crew seem to bond after hours, but it soon becomes clear that Bickle may be making a different film — or a second film — using hidden cameras.
The director’s agenda grows even murkier when he shows a few members of the crew a “special” piece of film that appears by all accounts to be an authentic snuff film showing a young woman being murdered on camera. Dominic is disgusted, but Bickle lessens the tension saying it’s a fake that he himself made back in film school. Production continues with a slightly more wary cameraman, but soon things appear to take a darker turn as Bickle’s plan for a guaranteed hit kick into overdrive.
Watching 1980’s Effects now reveals some familiarity with films that have come and gone in the years since, but even viewers with a good idea of where things are going will find themselves caught up in it all the same. The film holds up well as writer/director Dusty Nelson succeeds at lulling us in through conversations and normal interactions before dropping the hammer with the snuff film — from that point forward we’re left on edge and ascribing dark motives to every decision leading to a third act that delivers terror, thrills, and maybe a surprise or two.
The film’s a thriller working to varying degrees on both surface and meta levels, and it offers a fascinating look at themes of desires and trust between filmmakers and their cast/crew… and between filmmakers and the audience itself. Would an audience watch an actual snuff film? Bickle wonders this aloud, and it’s Dominic who replies with the answer we all know to be true. Of course they would — there’s an audience for every possible act a camera can capture, real or otherwise.
The cast is never less than competent with the standouts being Pilato and Harrison. The former takes on a rare “good guy” role and convinces as a man who wants nothing more than to collect a paycheck and start a romance with his fellow crew member, Celeste (Susan Chapek). Harrison meanwhile, better known as the director of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and composer for Romero’s Day of the Dead, was initially set to serve here only as producer and composer but stepped into the lead role to help save money. His dispassionate performance suits the character quite well offering a man detached from his humanity while in pursuit of his art. Savini appears in a supporting turn in addition to providing the film with its various effects, and he once again charms as an energetic and joyful brute.
Effects is a film well worth discovering for the first time, and while audiences can’t be blamed for missing it back in 1980 they no longer have an excuse. It’s far from the blood bath its legend and the presence of Savini might suggest, but don’t let that turn you off. It’s the good stuff, and while it took far longer to hit our eyeballs than originally planned it’s definitely a case of better late than never.
AGFA’s new Blu-ray offers the film with the best possible picture and sound, but knowing its history it should be understood that this is no pristine transfer. The new scan is from the only print available, but while wear and tear is visible you’d have to be a putz to take issue with it after the long road it’s taken to reach this point. Plus, it just feels right seeing the film the same way you would have in 1980 had it actually gotten a release.
The disc’s extras are ported over from Synapse’s DVD but are still worth your time. Two short films and a commentary offer their own engagements, but the meat of the supplements is an hour-long making-of documentary called “After Effects.” Cast and crew reunite for an entertaining and engaging chat about the film’s production, and it also offers an insightful look into Pittsburgh’s indie film scene at the time. It’s a great little package for AGFA’s second release.
Pre-order Effects on Blu-ray from Amazon.