Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Effects

For Day 2 of this year’s 31 Days of Halloween, I chose to stick with the rather meta-theme of picking a horror movie about the making of a horror movie. Yesterday, that meant the 2017 Japanese wonder One Cut of the Dead! Today, I’m jumping several decades back and far away from Japan over to the American rust belt for 1978’s Effects.

What’s It About?

A special effects guy (Joe Pilato, playing the complete opposite of his Day of the Dead baddie) joins up with a crew to film a low-budget movie in a cabin in the woods. He thinks they’re making a film about a rural couple fighting off demonic possession. He doesn’t realize that his new co-workers – including an unhinged, post-Dawn of the Dead/pre-Friday the 13th Tom Savini – are actually up to something far more nefarious.

Why I Watched It

In my One Cut of the Dead article, I admitted I’m a sucker for movies about movies. So, fellow blogger Stephen McClurg replied to ask if I’d heard of Effects. I had, but only in the “this sounds kind of interesting so I’ll put it in my Shudder watchlist and always mean to get around to it but never do” kind of way. He gave it a thumbs up and directed me to a review he’d written for Exploitation Retrospect years ago. That was all the convincing I needed.

Did I Like It?

Yes, but it took me a minute to get over the film’s low-fi aesthetic. The backstory here is that three of George Romero’s Pittsburgh area proteges – writer-director Dusty Nelson and producers Pasquale Buba and John Harrison – jumped from learning from the master on the set of Martin to trying to launch their own production. The result is Effects, which was financed for just 55K, filmed in 1978, entered into a couple of film festivals, and then promptly lost to time until hitting DVD in 2005 and Blu-Ray in 2017. The version we have now is a 4K transfer from the only 35mm theatrical print in existence, which was itself blown up from the original 16mm camera negative.

Translation: the grain is strong with this one.

It’s a grainy movie is what I’m trying to say – grainy, scratchy, and little washed out, more so than usual for your typical Blu-Ray release. In my experience, such films, particularly those that end up overly celebrated for the story behind their long-delayed restoration, are either going to fall into one of two categories: best left to the dustbin of history or a tantalizing preview of a talented director who could have done so much more if given a bigger budget. Thankfully, Effects falls into the latter.

Once your eyes adjust to the grain, the story quickly enters into the clever territory (scenes from the movie-within-the-movie often arrive without warning, thus keeping us on our toes) before veering into downright prescience. Without directly spoiling the twist, I’ll say that where exactly the story goes with things is familiar to us now thanks to the TV show Big Brother and movies like 8MM, Sliver, and The Game. However, they were doing this back in 1978 and certainly deserve points for their inventiveness.

Joe Pilato as the likable effects man in over his head.

My primary criticism is simply that when the film takes its dark turn and unfolds into a series of confrontations that may or may not be real the effect is one of initial exhilaration giving way to simple confusion. I admire the way Nelson’ s script assault viewers with a steady supply of “Wait, what the heck is happening here?” sequences before going all-in on an action-packed finale that hopes you won’t be able to keep up. However, there’s “gotcha” and “WTF” and Effects doesn’t always toe that line successfully. Plus, a crucial character betrayal happens off-camera, which feels a bit like a weak payoff for what had been the central relationship in the film to that point.

Still, if a movie made for next to nothing gets graded on a curve Effects earns high marks for what it pulls off with so little. More clever than scary, there are plenty of sequences and set-ups/pay-offs that left me feeling floored.

Did It Scare Me?

Not in the traditional “boo” sense of things but maybe a little in the “when one of your co-workers looks like Tom Savini and behaves like a madman maybe get a little more suspicious” kind of way.

Where to Stream

Shudder

Random Parting Thought

This would make for a great double feature with Larry Cohen’s 1984 creeper Special Effects, which I previously described as a “sleazier Vertigo.” In that movie, a director (a young Eric Bogosian) kills an actress and then becomes obsessed with her doppelganger (Zoe Lund, in a dual role). It’s fairly demented, remarkably cynical, and undeniably slapdash, the Larry Cohen trifecta.

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: A detour into seriously bad taste.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for the mention! After we talked about meta-movies, I stumbled onto a Lugosi Poverty Row flick he made after Dracula called The Death Kiss (1932). I’ll probably watch it soon, though it seems more mystery/thriller. Casting a wide net this year.

    I’ve got to see that Cohen film!

    And I’ve had more recs for One Cut and Knife+Heart than anything else (besides Midsummer, which I still haven’t seen).

    Looking forward to what’s next…

      1. Hell, I’ve seen it, and when I named it my favorite film of the year I kept having to double-check if the “m” was lower case of upper. For some reason, I thought it was “midsommar.” Plus, yeah, I’ve caught myself wanting to spell it as Midsummer.

    1. The Death Kiss is in that “vaguely heard of, never seen” category for me. Truthfully, aside from Dracula and his Ed Wood stuff my Bela Lugosi exposure is very limited. That would definitely be an interesting one to read more about.

      I’m also with you on the One Cut and Knife+Heart recs. That’s why I wanted to get One Cut out of the way first. I’ve been in the “wait to be in the right mood” on Knife+Heart, but then I go and watch new episodes of The Deuce – same era, somewhat same industry – every week. I should probably just push it up in my queue now.

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