Real death has haunted film itself since it’s inception. With the ability to capture actual events as they happen, it was only a short time before cameras were turned towards the face of death, whether it be war footage or Edison’s “Topsy” execution. And given that ability, the evolution of the concept of the “snuff film” (whether in reality or as urban legend) prodded its way into the popular consciousness through films like SNUFF (1976) and HARDCORE (1979).
The former, notorious in its day, claimed to have been filmed in South America (“where life is CHEAP!”), but it was all a nasty put-on, built around a bad Mansonesque exploitation film by Michael and Roberta Findlay which then had a fake ending slapped on it to deliberately outrage the public (as for a short sequence in HARDCORE, I had an unfortunate run in with it at too young an age, during its HBO showings). And while modern films like the Nicholas Cage vehicle 8MM (1999) or the recent S&MAN (2006) weave the public’s awareness of such films (or their sordid possibility in underground film production) into their narratives, the success of the initial SNUFF inspired an enjoyable and little seen horror/thriller film called EFFECTS, which had a small release in 1980.
Cinematographer Dom (Joseph Pilato) and actress/gaffer Celeste (Susan Chapek) begin a relationship as they work on location at a remote home, filming a cheap horror film called “SOMETHING’S WRONG” that stars Barney (Bernard McKenna) and Rita (Debra Gordon) under the direction of wealthy producer Lacey Bickel (John Harrison). But the viewer (if not initially the characters) becomes aware that Lacey has a second crew, with better technology and hidden cameras, filming the first unwitting crew under a separate production title of “DUPED,” and some of the crew of “SOMETHING’S WRONG” may be in on this as well…
“(EFFECTS is) a taught little thriller that deserves a wider audience”
With the recent death of Pilato (who passed away on March 24th and was most famous as Captain “Choke on ’em” Rhodes in Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD from 1985), I decided to revisit this film. Produced and shot by a gaggle of George Romero’s friends and associates following the production of MARTIN (1978), this shares that film’s low-budget and small-scale charm. Supposedly based on “William H. Mooney’s SNUFF” (a book which doesn’t seem to exist, as far as my research shows – so EFFECTS also shares a lineage with any number of Jess Franco movies based on unreal texts), indy films of this period (as I’ve often mentioned) feel more “real” to this viewer, simply because they lack the slickness and production budget of mainstream films.
As directed by Dusty Nelson, EFFECTS straddles the line between thriller and queasy horror. Technically, there’s only one scene (in which Lacey and his crew deliberately show Dom a possibly real/possibly fake snuff film, in order to gauge his reaction) that tips the film into actual “horror”, but it’s a strong one – effectively capturing the poorly lit, small set, single camera, grungy b&w production budget such an awful artifact might actually possess.
There’s also an involving chase sequence through a forest (which also makes us personally question Lacey’s earlier assertions about “what audiences want from a film”), but EFFECTS is mostly a movie of interpersonal drama, which also captures a solid feel for the time period (especially during an early bar sequence, the “cocaine” scene, and a discussion of film shock FX that name checks THE OMEN, THE FURY and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD). Pilato does a solid job as a smart but moral average Joe, and Harrison (who also provided the excellent, shimmering opening and closing musical themes) is strong as the amoral and reptilian manipulator Lacey. Tom Savini (who needs no introduction) appears as sleazy crew member Nicky, while Susan Chapek essays Celeste as a talented actress slumming as a gaffer (who has secrets of her own). It’s a taught little thriller that deserves a wider audience and if you’re looking for something to remind you what real, indy film-making looked like in the 70s, while presenting a suspenseful story, you should check out EFFECTS.