Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Effects

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Directed by Dusty Nelson
AGFA / Something Weird Video / Bududa Inc. / MVD Visual
84 minutes, 1980 / 2005 / 2017

So-called snuff films became a focus in American culture during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, in large part, for two reasons. The first was due to some pretty bad films such as Snuff (1975), which supposedly had a real snuff scene at the end (any seasoned SFX fan could see that it was fake), and the Faces of Death series (which was also bogus when concerning humans). The other was the rising video boom that was desperately in need for film fodder for fans, and would take anything they could find and put it out there in the exploding video store market. Snuff, a film that probably would have easily passed into the mire of bad cinema along with the Face of Death, found new life and became shocking sensations that made national news.

This led to a series of “realistic” releases trying to ride the wave. Hell, no one would have probably even heard the word “snuff” if it weren’t for those reasons. But it did lead us to Dusty Nelson’s film, Effects. Thanks to a revival of the VHS craze from that period, which has now passed into the nostalgia phase, companies like American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) are putting out hi-def, Blu-ray versions of these very same films. In this case, thanks to distribution and legal issues, this film was not actually released until 2005 on DVD, and now this Blu-ray from a rare print (more on the quality later). Thing is, as bad as some of these releases are, I’m glad they are given new – err – life.

Joseph Pilato, Tom Savini
Essentially, in a convoluted way, the film plays with the notions of what is real, what is pretend, and what happens when they mix in the world of film (although there are some moments that seem like it’s television). This is what is facing the dating couple of special effects expert/cameraman Dom (Joseph Pilato) and actress Celeste (Susan Chapek); they – and others – are caught in a web of confusion, like the audience. How will this effect the director, Lacey (John Harrison), fellow actors Barney (Bernard McKenna), Rita (Debra Gordon) and Nicky (SFX wizard Tom Savini in one of his early acting roles)? The big question, however, appears to be how far would/should/could one go to make a film?

Though I’m certain they were just trying to keep current, it’s interesting to me how many then-current cultural signifiers they use throughout the film, such as someone playing the electronic game Simon, or all the drug references (e.g., lines of coke and Maryjane). Then there’s the clothing, such as the common place jeans-and-tees (with images like The Rocky Horror Picture Show logo from 1977). There are other small touchstones, similar to a take-off of the Bill Saluga classic, “You doesn’thave to call me Johnson” bit.  There are more references in here than in a Family Guy episode. Heck, there’s even a bit of a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Susan Chapek
Speaking of the “looks of then,” it’s amazing how the look and pacing of the film is like porn films of the period. Yeah, there’s a couple of (female) nudie scenes, such as the then-obligatory and totally unnecessary-to-the-story shower scene that opens up the pic, but nothing that would really qualify as even softcore. And yet, the feel of the film, the pacing, acting and ambiance screams late ‘70s adult cinema.

That being said, much of the cast and crew are part of the Pittsburgh area film group, which included George A. Romero (RIP). Many of the cast and crew were in front or behind (or both) the camera on numerous Romero releases. In fact, one of the lead actors, Pilato, would play a pivotal role (and have an iconic scene) in Day of the Dead (1985).

Filmed in a pre-MTV period, by the standards of even a couple of years later, the camera is quite static, with long shots and dialogue that keeps the story at a steady pace, as we get to know, although not necessarily like (which is the point), most of the main characters. The camera pretty much sits there, or just lazily cuts from character to character.

Debra Gordon (Bernard McKenna in mirror)
Along with the languid pace until the last 15 minutes, even though there are some decent moments of tension throughout, the film bleeds out rather than spurts. I wish the story was a bit clearer as it was happening, but even with all the character build-up, there isn’t much to connect to with hardly anyone. This is not helped by the very grainy visuals (shot in 16mm) and spotty sound, but I’m glad to have had a chance to see this almost-lost piece of cinema history from a very specific period of time.

The first extra is the 59-minutes documentary After Effects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking (2005; Red Shirt Pictures), directed by Michael Felsher, in which Felsher interviews the cast and crew 27 years later in Los Angeles. The arc is how the director and his team first got into making indie films (then called guerilla filmmaking) including and documentaries and commercials, and grew into raising the funds and gathering all the threads with enough cojones to make Effects. Also featured and interviewed is the late, great Romero (d. 2017). There are also some cleaned-up clips both visually and audibly from the film that I wish had been the whole film proper. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of watching this long featurette because I thought I was going to be bored by it for the hour, but it’s actually quite well done and kept my interest throughout. There is an additional After Effects full-length commentary with the director. Much of the talking is about the distribution deal that squashed the original film, and how it eventually came out. It’s also the link between Effects and After Effects. Not overly exciting stuff, honestly, but somewhat interesting in its historical perspective. To be truthful, I made it through about the first 20 minutes.

Next up are two rare shorts. The first is the 12-minute Ubu (1973), an experimental picture directed by John Harrison, who plays the director in Effects. He actually has a few really nice credits under his belt, including the 2000 mini-series version of Dune. Here, we meet the titular Ubu, who is the tyrant of a Dark Ages version of Poland (or, as the marionette narrator states, “that is to say, nowhere”). It’s definitely a piece for its time, in a period of paranoia about the Nixon Administration. This is followed by Dusty Nelson’s 15-minute Beastie. Chris (Paula Swart) is hitchhiking and gets picked up by George (Steve Pearson). They instantly start a relationship, and we follow it until… well, I’ll not give it away. It’s also a story of its generation, which seems to be just-post-hippie.

Last up is the 2005 full-length commentary with Nelson, Harrison and Pasquale Buba, who all make up the production company, Bududa Inc. It’s a quite decent combination of technical matters, anecdotes and intentions. They work really well together, and it shows in the way they respectfully let each other finish their own bits, such as positing what the film is actually about: “…What’s real and what’s not, and if you don’t know the difference, does it matter?” Even though it’s hard to tell who is telling what story, it really isn’t important because it’s the content of the tale that matters. It was interesting throughout.

In some ways Effects reminds me of Maniac (also 1980, and name checked in one form or another in the documentary sides, which is not surprising considering Savini also worked on that one), which also had an appearance and – err – effects by Savini. I would recommend any fan of the VHS or Pittsburgh film school to see Effects, because it is an important piece of work, even with its occasional wonkiness.

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