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review added: 11/23/05



Effects
1980 (2005) - Image Works/International Harmony (Synapse Films)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Effects

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B+

Specs and Features

Moviemaking in the 1970s and early 1980s was a very different animal than it is today. At the time, most local TV news organizations gathered all of their remote footage on film, so nearly every major metropolitan area had film processing labs, equipment rental houses and local production talent to support their work. As a result, thriving independent filmmaking communities developed in a number of seemingly unlikely places outside Hollywood - places like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It was there that the likes of George Romero, Dusty Nelson, John Harrison, Tom Savini and Joe Pilato got their start. When they weren't making their living in news or on commercial or industrial films, many of them naturally turned their interests and production skills toward more narrative and experimental work. Inspired by Romero's Dead films (on which many of them had worked as crew members), a number of these talented young individuals conceived their own genre efforts. One of the first and most interesting of these... though seldom seen even at the time... was Effects.

Directed by Nelson, produced by Harrison and Pasquale Buba, and with special make-up effects by Savini, Effects tells the story of a group of indy, guerilla-style filmmakers who set out to make a low-budget slasher in a remote cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. Harrison also stars as the film's enigmatic director, Lacey Bickel, who struggles to get his cast and crew on the same page. Among them are assistant director Celeste (Susan Chapek) and Dom (Joe Pilato), Bickel's in-it-for-the-paycheck camera operator. As the cast and crew get used to one another, however, and gradually work their way through Bickel's script, it becomes clear to a few of them that their director might have a hidden agenda. It seems that he's got additional cameras hidden around the cabin, and he's been videotaping many of them in private moments. Is Bickel just a pervert, or is he secretly making another movie? Which movie is the REAL one? As you might expect, not until it's far too late do some of them begin to suspect what Bickel is actually up to.

The first thing you realize upon seeing Effects, is that it holds up surprisingly well, even by today's standards. Based on a novel by William H. Mooney, the film was actually ahead of its time in many ways. There have been a number of efforts at non-traditional storytelling in recent years, playing with such things as fragmented time, reverse narrative, etc. Effects' film-within-a-film storyline was decidedly high-concept for indy horror filmmaking back then, particularly when you consider that so many similar genre films at the time were basically just blood-and-gore fests. Effects also toys with the urban legend notion of "snuff" filmmaking, which was a hot-button issue and a relatively new idea back in the 1970s. Only recently has mainstream Hollywood attempted to tackle the subject (in such films as Joel Schumacher's 8MM).

Unfortunately, the very things that made Effects ahead of its time also worked against it commercially. Most distributors then were looking for blood-and-guts, Friday the 13th-style slashers. High concept horror just wasn't selling. In addition, the film's snuff-themed story proved controversial with audiences at the screenings that were held at the time. As a result, after a few film festival appearances and a very brief, limited run in a handful of theaters, Effects effectively disappeared... until now. Thankfully, after being locked away in storage for some 25 years, Effects has been resurrected by Don May, Jr. and his indy DVD company, Synapse Films.

The first thing you need to know about this DVD, is that the film on it looks fantastic. Synapse, with the help of Nelson and Harrison, has mastered its anamorphic video presentation from the film's original 16mm negatives. Ironically, the fact that it was seldom seen back in the early 80s means that Effects is wonderfully preserved today. There's moderate film grain visible as you'd expect from a 16mm presentation, but the color, contrast and overall clarity are amazing given the film's age (and the fact that so many film stocks from the 70s and 80s haven't held up over the years). Even on a large projection screen, there's little to complain about on the video side. The film's audio is presented in the original English 2.0 mono in Dolby Digital, and it too has been nicely remastered. Dialogue is clear and the film's minimal score works nicely in the mix.

You can usually count on Synapse to deliver a nice batch of extras on their DVDs, and Effects is no exception. To start with, you get an audio commentary track featuring Nelson, Harrison and Buba (who was also the film's editor). They have the easy camaraderie of long-time friends, and they deliver plenty of interesting history and anecdotes. Also available on the disc are a pair of very early, experimental films by Nelson and Harrison from the 1970s (UBU and Beastie). You also get a gallery of vintage photos taken during the film's production.

By far the best of the supplements, however, is an hour-long documentary by Michael Felsher (of Red Shirt Pictures and Anchor Bay Entertainment fame) called After Effects. Not only is it a fascinating look at the making of the film, it's also a time capsule of sorts on the filmmaking community in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Nelson and Harrison reunite in L.A. with George Romero, Buba and Pilato, to look back and discuss their work, their years of friendship, and what it was like to work on films together back in the Burgh, back in the day. The documentary crew also visits Pittsburgh to interview Savini, Chapek, stunt supervisor Marty Schiff and many others who were involved in this film, and the community in general. After Effects is a great retrospective piece. If you're a fan of any of these filmmakers, it's a wonderful bit of film history. And if you're just interested in film in general, it's fascinating to see what independent production was like back in the 1970s and 80s... and how things have changed today.

Effects is a fun little unseen gem, that's held up surprisingly well despite the passage of time. Horror fans have been talking about it for years, but haven't had the chance to actually see it until now. Thankfully, Synapse's long-awaited DVD release features solid presentation quality and also offers a great look back at the early careers of a number of your favorite filmmakers. Effects deserves to be seen, and this disc deserves a place in the video collection of every genre film fan. Recommended.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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