Special Effects

Director: Larry Cohen
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
Stars: Zoë Tamerlis (Andrea Wilcox / Elaine Bernstein), Eric Bogosian (Neville), Brad Rijn (Keefe Waterman), Kevin O’Connor (Det. Lt.Philip Delroy), Bill Oland (Det. Vickers), H. Richard Greene (Leon Gruskin), Steven Pudenz (Wiesanthal), Heidi Bassett (Neville’s Asst. Director), John Woehrle (Studio Executive), Kitty Summerall (Andrea’s Roommate), Kris Evans (Cosmetician), Mike Alpert (Taxi Driver)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.S.
Special Effects Blu-Ray
Special EffectsLarry Cohen’s Special Effects was made near the end of a particularly fertile period for the prolific writer/director, who had moved out of television writing in the early 1970s with a series of low-budget, but commercially successful Blaxploitation and horror films. Between 1974 and 1984, he made almost a film a year in a wide range of genres, from the self-explanatory The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), to the winged monster movie Q (1981). While he did some work with major studios, Cohen was always an independent at heart, a drive-in maverick who has been regularly compared to indie pioneer John Cassavettes—at least in production style and spirit, if not necessarily output.

Special Effects was one of Cohen’s true indie efforts, shot almost simultaneously on the mean streets of New York City with Perfect Strangers (1984) using an overlapping cast and crew. The screenplay was actually an oldie he had dug up and dusted off. Originally titled The Cutting Room Floor, he had penned it some 17 years earlier when he was eager to write something that Alfred Hitchcock might direct. Alas, that collaboration never came to pass, but the Hitchcockian overtones, undertones, references, and homages in Special Effects remained, so heavy and obvious, in fact, that one could watch it solely as a compendium of the Master’s thematic and narrative motifs. There’s a major shift of character identification from Psycho (1960), an unwitting doppelgänger out of Vertigo (1958), a murder that visually echoes one in Dial M for Murder (1955), and enough plotlines involving voyeurism and controlling gazes to keep a psychoanalyst busy for weeks. The problem is that the resulting film lacks both the style and the finesse of even Hitchcock’s most prosaic works. Some of this can be attributed to the low-budget production and the limited acting ability of most of the cast, but some of it is simply due to the fact that Cohen, a B-movie maestro a plethora of films both good and bad under his belt, was more of a proficient craftsman than artist.

Warning: Major plot spoilers ahead, so proceed at your own risk. The film introduces us to Andrea Wilcox (Zoë Tamerlis), a blonde ingénue from somewhere in the South who is trying to make it as an actress in New York, but is currently posing for semi-nude cheesecake shots (the film opens with a fascinating, but bizarre sequence in which she is posing on a spinning dais in the middle of a mock-up of the Oval Office while salacious men take her photo). She is tracked down by her drawling husband, Keefe (Brad Rijn), who wants to haul her back to their home town where they have a two-and-a-half-year-old son she deserted.

Andrea wants nothing to do with her former life and slips out a window, steals Keefe’s car, and heads to the Soho loft of Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian), a hotshot director whose last film, a multi-million-dollar special-effects-laden epic, was a box-office dud and who was fired from a subsequent production for going over budget. Neville lets her in thinking she’s a caterer, and they soon end up naked in his luridly decorated bedroom, which hides a movie camera behind a two-way mirror. When she figures out that she’s about to be the star of Neville’s homemade pornography, she resists him and he responds by strangling her to death and leaving her body in Keefe’s car, which makes him an immediate suspect for the homicide investigator, Det. Lt. Philip Delroy (Kevin O’Connor).

The story takes a perverse turn when Neville bails Keefe out of jail and then starts working with him and Det. Delroy to make a movie about Andrea that mixes recreated scenes with documentary footage of the actual people involved. At this point Keefe is still a suspect and no one knows that Neville is the actual murderer, which makes the project particularly twisted (Keefe is essentially blackmailed into participating because Neville is the one keeping him out of prison, and Delroy goes along because he’s promised screen credit as a producer and consultant). The exact nature of Neville’s film is kept somewhat vague, although he makes various assertions about making it “more real than real,” whatever that means.

Of course, since Neville’s film is about Andrea they need someone to play her, and Keefe stumbles across her lookalike in a woman named Elaine Bernstein (also played by Zoë Tamerlis), who is made over Vertigo-style to look exactly like Andrea. In becoming Andrea, Elaine—who is the closest thing the film has to a true innocent—becomes the subject of both Neville’s murderous gaze (literally and through his camera lens) and Keefe’s possessive gaze, as he begins to see her as not just a dead ringer for his dead wife, but a potential wife/mother replacement. There is all manner of line blurring going on here, as Keefe must play himself having sex with Elaine as part of the film, while Neville plots to recreate the original murder in such a way that Keefe will be fingered as the culprit. Neville wants to cover his tracks and make a professional comeback at the same time; thus, getting away with murder and making a hit movie become one in the same.

Theoretically, at least, Special Effects is a fascinating meta-film about the perverse, controlling nature of filmmaking and the thin line between the real and the recreated, especially in terms of violence. There are numerous allusions to the role of photography and filmmaking in capturing and/or recreating real-life violence, from Neville watching footage of Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald on his Moviola, to references in the dialogue to murdered Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratton, who became the subject of Bob Fosse’s Star 80 (1980), to Neville telling an interviewer that one of his filmmaking inspirations is Abraham Zapruder (when asked how to spell the name, he replies “J-F-K”). Unfortunately, Cohen’s film can’t make good on its premise, as it is consistently muddy in dealing with its themes and obsessions. It is as if Cohen had a list of ideas he wanted to incorporate, but no real sense of how to articulate them, so they all wind up in a big, messy stew. He does put together some memorable imagery, including Neville’s loft, which is adorned with massive stained-glass windows that give it an eerily medieval vibe to contrast with the gaudy interior, and a shot of an entire floor covered with the black-and-white headshots of hundreds of aspiring actresses, on top of when Neville walks (one of the shots is Dustin Hoffman from Tootsie, a decidedly weird and momentarily diegesis-shattering in-joke).

It doesn’t help that Zoë Tamerlis, who had previously starred in the title role of Abel Ferrara’s notorious rape-revenge thriller Mrs. 45 (1981), doesn’t have much range in a role that requires her to play two separate characters, both of whom are playing various roles within the film. Cohen usually manages to get at least one really good performance in each of his films, and Eric Bogosian, then known as an Off-Broadway theater actor, comes the closest. He plays Neville with the kind of wicked gleam in his eye that suggests either a psychopath or a brilliant artist on the cusp of a breakthrough; he’s a bit campy, but not so much that we can’t take him seriously. However, the other performers come off as mostly amateurish, which makes the film’s already confused stew of ideas and themes feel that much messier.

Special Effects Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
SupplementsTheatrical trailer
DistributorOlive Films
SRP$29.95
Release DateOctober 18, 2016

VIDEO & AUDIO
Olive Films’ new high-definition presentation of Special Effects is a welcome replacement for the old MGM DVD that was released back in 2004. The new 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer has the film looking about as good as it will ever look, with decently strong detail, natural color, and good black levels and shadow detail. Some of the imagery is quite striking, including the gaudy stained glass windows in Neville’s loft and a scene in which he and Keefe are silhouetted against the Big Apple’s neon lights just outside a glass door. There are some minor signs of wear and age on the source print, including a bit of white speckling during the opening credits, but otherwise it looks clean. The soundtrack is presented in its original monaural mix, and it sounds fine. Dialogue is clean and distinct, and the synthesizer/drum machine-heavy musical track has some moderate depth at times.
SUPPLEMENTS
The only supplement included is an original theatrical trailer.

Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Olive Films / MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Overall Rating: (2)



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