EFFECTS (1980) Blu-ray
Director: Dusty Nelson
AGFA (American Film Genre Archive)/Something Weird Video/MVD Visual

Low-budget Pittsburgh-area filmmakers get "duped" in the making of a snuff film-within-a-film in the obscure and criminally underrated EFFECTS, on Blu-ray from AGFA and Something Weird Video.

After his wealthy parents are killed in a plane explosion, aspiring filmmaker Lacey Bickel (composer turned director John Harrison, TALES FROM THE DARK SIDE: THE MOVIE) decides to shoot a low budget possession horror movie called "Something's Wrong" at his country estates with a one man crew in DP/make-up effects artist Dominic (Joseph Pilato, DAY OF THE DEAD) in which a housewife Mona played by neurotic actress Rita (Debra Gordon, SORORITY ROW) experiences hallucinations and comes to believe that her husband – played by Rita's real life husband Barney (Bernard McKenna) – is going to murder her. There is plenty of tension on the set with Rita unsettled by an increasingly unstable Barney, Dominic's infatuation with gaffer/would-be actress Celeste (Susan Chapek) who uses and is used by Lacey, as well as the disruptive and rowdy antics of crew members Nicky (effects artist Tom Savini, FRIDAY THE 13TH), Lobo (Charles Hoyes, HOME SWEET HOME), and Scratch (Blay Bahnsen). Little does Dominic know, Lacey has outfitted his house and the immense grounds with hidden TV cameras and is making a second film called "Duped: The Snuff Movie" and Dominic is about to become a star.

Long unavailable until its 2005 DVD release, EFFECTS was not a George Romero production as popularly believed, but a production inspired by the Pittsburgh independent film maverick made by people he had worked with in television and in some of his late seventies pictures, most notably the trio that formed the television documentary/short film company BuDuDa – writer/director Dusty Nelson, actor/composer Harrison (who had played the screwdriver zombie on DAWN OF THE DEAD and would score DAY OF THE DEAD), and editor Pasquale Buba (who would edit all of Romero's films from KNIGHTRIDERS through THE DARK HALF) – with which Romero's Image Ten had collaborated on a number of documentary projects including the sports profiles THE WINNERS. Despite the simplicity of the scenario, the emphasis on character until the climax is stimulating as Celeste is aware of Lacey's camera voyeurism but seemingly does not believe it is anything more than part of their psychosexual dynamic, and the even the filmmaking clichés of neurotic actors and control freak directors are scaled to the film's deglamorized milieu of low budget filmmaking while the central conceit of the film anticipates more recent recursive genre trends. In the middle of the film, Dominic ties cocaine and makes some candid remarks about the weak points of Lacey's script while the director tells Dominic that his effects will be the star of the film. While Lobo and Scratch namecheck NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE OMEN, and THE FURY as examples of how viewers only care about how victims die while Dominic insists that it is the events leading up to it that matter, leading to Lacey pulling out a film intended for "a very particular kind of audience" (the stone-faced reactions to the snuff film at times echoing Laura Gemser's reaction to the snuff sequence in EMANUELLE IN AMERICA).

Although the film is titled EFFECTS and it features make-up effects work by Tom Savini, EFFECTS lacks a "moral" but does not aim to illustrate the theorem of Lacey and company. Savini's effects are largely confined to the aforementioned snuff film and the film-within-a-film's hallucination scenes, with the brutality of the abrupt "real" death scenes in the reactions of perpetrator and victim, be it the genuine shock of Rita and Barney or the aftermath of pacifist Dominic's act of self-defense. That the title of Lacey's real film "Duped" appears on a theater marquee in the final shot seems to suggest both the views of Lacey and Dominic, that a viewing audience might not care about actual deaths (even if they are under the belief that it is a fictional snuff film along the lines of SNUFF and THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET) so long as the film is dramatically entertaining since the hours upon hours of surveillance footage leading up to the deaths is surely used to establish setting, story, and character. Shot in 16mm on fast 200 ASA film stock in largely available light, EFFECTS is at once gritty and dreamy thanks to the contrast between the kitchen sink behind the scenes realism of the filmmakers and the pastoral setting with is autumnal leaves, green hills, and placid streams to the accompaniment of the acoustic and electronic scoring of Harrison. Romero fans familiar with Pilato's definitive portrayal of authoritarianism as DAY OF THE DEAD's Captain Rhodes will be surprised here with his performance as a spectacled, love-struck, introverted, intellectual film technician in an intriguing love triangle with Chapek's outspoken, opinionated artist and Harrison's effectively low key amoral voyeur filmmaker. The sound recording was by Nick Mastandrea who would graduate from key grip to assistant director on Romero's films followed by a cycle of Dimension Pictures productions including the SCREAM trilogy while Buba's wife Zilla Clinton as associate director here would serve as production manager on Romero's next three productions.

Unreleased theatrically after a conflict with the distributor but fortunately not before a 35mm print was struck from the original 16mm negative, EFFECTS also remained available on home video. Had it been distributed theatrically or at least had a home video deal, one could imagine it being released at the dawn of home video by Cult Video, Wizard, or United Home Video (possibly with the original poster art) and then reissued by the likes of Magnum Entertainment or Continental and presumably trying to pass it off along the lines of THE LAST HORROR FILM. The film remained inaccessible to horror fans who might have read about it in Phil Hardy's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HORROR MOVIES reference guide until 2005 when Synapse Films released it on special edition DVD utilizing that surviving 35mm print which was also the source for AGFA's 4K-scanned 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen encode. The newer transfer remains soft and grainy in keeping with the original available light/low light photography and the preservation aims of AGFA while revealing slivers of additional information the top and bottom over the Synapse master (the sides appear to be the same). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track boasts clear dialogue, effects, and showcases Harrison's score effectively while optional English SDH subtitles have also been included.

Ported over from the Synapse DVD is an audio commentary with Nelson, Harrison, and Buba who reveal that they were not so much inspired to make a film by the success of Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD but by MARTIN (which was filmed in the Buba family home). The production was shot in the home of investor John Sutton while some sets were doubled at TPC television studio for the control room setup and the rooms in which the hidden TV cameras are seen. The lack of camera moves other than pans and tilts is due to the lack of availability of dollies and other traditional cinema equipment at a time when Pittsburgh had film labs geared towards processing news footage, TV documentaries, and home movies. The film utilized available light and only three working lights (a fourth non-working one was a prop), and the shots had to be MOS when the Nagra tape recorder doubled as a prop onscreen. They also discuss the differences between the film and the source novel by William T. Mooney, how the lab ruined some footage and they ended up reshooting the wrong scenes because they had not script supervisor to record the edge numbers, as well as Romero's defense of the film when it was shown at the Salt Lake City film festival that would become Sundance when he was on the judging panel (MARTIN having shown there the year before).

Also ported over from the DVD is "After EFFECTS" (59:38), a 2004 reunion featurette featuring Nelson, Harrison, and Buba, as well as Pilato, Chapek, Gordon, Savini, McKenna, Dave Belko (who plays one of the TV crew), and stunt coordinator Marty Schiff. The main trio cover much of the same ground as the commentary with more information on their television company, clips from their documentaries and shorts, and George Romero showing up to discuss how they became involved with one another. The actors discuss the script, the shooting experience, nudity, sex scenes, Chapek's fear that prank-playing Savini would burst in on her in the middle of the night, and Gordon's terror at waking up one night and stumbling upon the shooting of what turned out to be the snuff film seen in feature. New to the Blu-ray is an audio commentary by featurette editor/director Michael Felsher who discusses how the project came at the end of his involvement with Anchor Bay where had worked as website administrator as well as acquiring titles and promoting them while yearning to get into extra features production.

Also ported over are the short films "Ubu" (12:11) by Harrison – an adaptation of Alfred Jarry's surrealist play in which a despot assassinates King Wenceslas of Poland and then every aristocrat, lawmaker, and financier in the vain belief that he can do everything himself while his subjects remain allegiant to him as their numbers thin – and Nelsons' "Beastie" (15:39), a seemingly flowery boy-meets-girl love story with a cynical edge, although they are scanned here in HD. AGFA's Joseph A. Ziemba contributes an eight-page booklet with a short essay on the film. The cover art is reversible, although neither choice is really that effective, but do not let that prevent you from discovering or rediscovering this underrated independent horror film. (Eric Cotenas)