In the 2017 documentary King Cohen, guerrilla filmmaking pioneer Larry Cohen runs down every major work of his career, from his blaxploitation hits of the 70s (Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem), horror titles (The Stuff, A Return to Salem’s Lot) and assorted B-movies (Q, Wicked Stepmother) of the 80s to screenwriter-for-hire in the 90s (Maniac Cop 1 and 2). Along the way, we discover some of his memories might have been exaggerated by time.
So, maybe I shouldn’t totally trust his version of how the 1984 movie Special Effects came to be, but I like the story enough to run with it:
He had two scripts – this and the mob thriller Perfect Strangers, not to be confused with the Bronson Pinchot sitcom – ready to go. For economical reasons, he wanted to film them back-to-back. Helping make that feasible, for Special Effects he found an incredible location which not only begged to be photographed but was also big enough to serve as one of the only settings in the whole movie. In fact, it sometimes feels more like they found the location first and came up with a story to go with it later.
Either way, the plot – a film director turns a murder he commits into the basis for his next movie – has a lot of Larry in it.
- A cynical view of the entertainment industry? Check.
- A depiction of a director who takes neorealism way too far? Check.
- Distinctly and unapologetically New York in look and feel? Check.
- Blatant Hitchcock homages but done so much sleazier? Check.
- A script which seems to have been made up as they went along? Unfortunately, also check.
Still, he’s not wrong about the house:
Owned by a New York artist named Lowell Nesbitt, the 12,500 square foot property had been a police stable. With the help of a designer, Nesbitt turned it into a studio/living space with an indoor swimming pool, 4-story atrium, enough plants to necessitate a full-time employee to tend to them, and more floral patterns and pictures of flowers than a Georgia O’Keefe exhibit.
In Special Effects, Nesbitt’s complex doubles as the home of director Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian in just his second film), a bit of a wunderkind who built his reputation on splashy, effects-laden movies before going over budget and getting fired from back-to-back projects. (Cohen wrote from experience, having been fired from 1981’s I, the Jury after going over budget. It happened to him again in 1987 with Deadly Illusion.)
One night, Andrea Wilcox (NY art scene darling Zoe Lund) shows up on Neville’s footsteps claiming to be a film student. In reality, she’s an aspiring actress fleeing from the estranged husband who just drove up from Dallas hoping to drag her back home to take care of their child. She’ll do anything to prove her career is actually going somewhere.
So, of course, she initiates a casting couch scenario where she’ll sleep with Neville in exchange for a part in his next movie. Instead, she becomes his next movie, with the sex tape she doesn’t consent to quickly turning into a snuff film as Neville snaps and strangles her. Like some kind of Harvey Weinstein fever dream, he almost instantly hatches a plan to make a movie about her life that will end with the actual footage of her death, but if he does it right audiences won’t realize it’s not fake.
The cops arrest the husband as their prime suspect, but Neville actually gets him out of jail in exchange for signing Andrea’s life rights away. On top of that, he hires both the husband and lead detective on the case to serve as a consultant on the movie. Turns out, every serious individual who might be able to bring him down is easily subdued by the charms of showbiz.
No one ends up being more seduced than Elaine Bernstein (Lund). She’s most definitely not an actress, but she is Andrea’s exact doppelganger. “Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I volunteer my time and my talents at the Salvation Army,” she proudly explains. “Mondays I read to the blind at the lighthouse. Wednesdays, I’m up in Harlem teaching kids the new math. Weekends, I’m busy with my feminist things.”
Before long, Ms. “my feminist things” is on a movie set with her brunette hair dyed blonde, giving this acting thing a go, and getting so caught up with everything that history starts to repeat itself. She never falls quite as low as Andrea, who opens the movie like this:
But once Elaine hits her first movie set she soon falls into most of the same traps, completely enchanted with the idea of pretending to be someone else. She later agrees to sleep with Neville even though she already has the part in the movie and kind of hates him. (Look away, fans of strongly written female characters.) On the other side, her protector is Andrea’s avenging husband – the same guy who ultimately wants her to return to Dallas with him and pretend to be Andrea, meaning she’ll both serve as his wife and mother to his kid.
In truth, I watched Special Effects yesterday because it was the last day to stream it for free on Vudu, and for a good stretch of the movie, I believed I was witnessing an overlooked gem of exploitation cinema. The same year this came out, Brian De Palma took his prurient interest in L.A.’s underground film scene, combined it with Rear Window and Vertigo, called it Body Double, and got a movie people at least remember as a cult classic. Cohen did the same thing for the New York film scene, mixed in a little Italian neorealism with his Vertigo mimicry, and got a movie fleetingly referenced in a documentary about him.
Special Effects deserves better than that!
Actually, Special Effects deserves a better third act. There is a sickly twisted feel to the first two-thirds of the film and a fair bit of black comedy – never hire a cop with secret aspirations of being a writer to consult on your movie! However, character motivations, Elaine’s especially, which already begin on shaky ground seem to disappear entirely inside of Cohen’s general ode to the voyeuristic charm, but destructive potential of cinema.
Points, at least, for having easily the bleakest mad dash to the airport finale I’ve ever seen.
My Bottom Line
Filmmakers love nothing more than to turn the camera inward and tell stories about people working in the film industry because that, after all, is what they know. Like any decade, the 80s had its fair share of examples of this, from De Palma’s genre homages (Blow Out, Body Double) to a mainstream hit like F/X. Larry Cohen’s Special Effects is rarely going to end up on any list of the best movies about movies, but for a good chunk of its run time, it seems like a truly twisted gem. Pity the way it falls apart at the end.
My Rating (Out of 5): ★★★