Film has always been about illusion, or rather about projecting an illusion meant to fool the audience with a hopefully immersive experience. It’s all sleight of hand in the end, and a film’s success depends on the wits of the magician. But what happens when the illusion becomes real and crosses the line? This is a question raised by Effects (1980), a compelling treatise on snuff films, the responsibility of filmmakers, and where the line is drawn.
Made in 1979 by comrades in arms of George Romero, Effects was made for $55,000 but was never officially released except for a couple of one night screenings and festivals. It never even made it onto home video until decades later. Was the film deemed too taboo for the market? Hardly; some films just get lost in a mix of poor distribution and apathy. A pity then, as Effects has a lot to say about low budget, guerilla filmmaking and those desperate enough to see their vision through, regardless of the consequences.
Director Lacey Bickel (John Harrison – Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) heads for the Pennsylvania woods with his small cast and smaller crew to film a low budget horror movie in a farmhouse; moral is low from the start as Lacey is an icy and distant director, a fact not lost on new grip Celeste (Susan Chapek – Lorenzo’s Oil) and cinematographer/special effects guy Dominic (Joseph Pilato – Day of the Dead). But filming continues, night and day, as the troupe tries to get their film made through tiring set ups and tear downs.
When Lacey shows some of the crew an alleged snuff film during a coke-fueled breather, the atmosphere on set changes – is Lacey planning on making the cinemagic…for real?
The most fascinating aspect of Effects is the questions it raises (echoed by conversations in the film): Are filmgoers desensitized by horror, and if so, can they be made to feel by actually capturing murder on screen?
Personally, I hold no truck with snuff; most of it has been dismissed or debunked, and frankly the further I stay away from the dark web the better. (My anxiety sends me ‘thank you’ cards all the time.) But horror has played this card before, with Michael Findlay’s Snuff (1975), in which new, supposedly real deal kill footage was added to a desperately dull flick to attract attention. (Of course it worked.)
This plays right into one’s perception of horror; horror fans see the trick but still appreciate it, those that loathe it look for the purveyors of perversity for condemnation and the occasional lawsuit (just ask Ruggero Deodato, who was hauled before Italian courts for Cannibal Holocaust and charged with on screen murder - that is, until he provided the actors allegedly killed. No mention of the animals he actually killed on screen, though).
Horror fans are also mostly considered and sane in their perceptions; we would never knowingly watch a snuff film made for the express purpose of taking a life. And I’m not counting the Faces of Death series either, which fakes mostly everything seen, mixing true TV news carnage with staged attempts at same. We simply know.
Voyeurism, however, is a completely stickier wicket; we watch films, and by that metric alone we’re somewhat complicit. Horror then, often doubles down by showing the antagonists point of view, or rather forcing it upon us and making us participate in the act. Yes, sometimes it’s just a coin saver (showing your monster can be cost prohibitive), but it can effectively be used to put the audience at unease; Psycho and Peeping Tom in 1960 alone proved the disturbing psychological effects when we’re shoved, as Clarence Williams III so eloquently stated, “in the shit”. The voyeurism of Effects however has a prism-like mechanism that amplifies its ambitions.
What appears to be a film within a film slowly reveals itself to be a film within a film within another film, as we’re frequently interrupted by a blue hued POV with voice over giving instructions; the “real” activities are seemingly being guided by an off screen presence instructing certain characters what to do - a sort of Survivor for horror geeks. This gives the film a certain grandeur belied by its meager budget; it also has a discombobulating effect – purposeful, and not due to any continuity or story issues one would normally associate with a low budget effort.
Most of the credit should go to writer/director Dusty Nelson, producer Pasquala Buba, and co-star/composer Harrison, who have put together a fairly tight 83 minutes; Buba and Harrison were already Romero alum, and got their inspiration for Effects from seeing him in action on Martin and Dawn of the Dead. Clearly attention was paid, as the film flows well despite some folks’ objections to the slower pacing of the first half, which deals mostly with the filming of the inner film. (The first inner film, not the second. I have it written down somewhere.)
But due to a strong cast and a first hand knowledge of film set life, Effects’ first half is not only an entertaining behind the scenes, but peppers throughout its message of cause and uh, effect between creator and consumer in a way that isn’t overbearing or distracting from the story at hand. Harrison, who would come up in the Romero ranks as a composer before switching very effectively to directing (besides Tales, he helmed the best episodes of the new Creepshow series), gives a chilling performance as the cold and methodical director, and if you’ve only seen Pilato as Rhodes in Day of the Dead, you’re in for a treat as he presents a decent and kind man quite unlike his most famous role. Tom Savini also has a solid part, keeping the Romero clan close and comfy.
Ultimately, Effects can’t possibly answer all that it proffers; that is completely up to the viewer’s purview. But that it even asks the questions of our culpability towards art is refreshing; whether we admit it or not, we all participate in the illusion.
Effects is available on Blu-ray from AGFA.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: PICTURE MOMMY DEAD (1966)