EFFECTS (1980)
Director: Dusty Nelson
Synapse Films

“Snuff films”: do they exist or not? While all evidence points to no, there are still plenty of people who think that there’s still an underground film industry that caters to sick perverts who want to see real murders presented on film or video. The frenzy surrounding this urban legend began with rumors of the Manson Family shooting 8mm home movies of ritual murders on the Spahn Ranch, which never surfaced, and was further fueled by Allan Shackleton’s release of SNUFF, a Michael & Roberta Findlay film from 1971 with a newly-shot segment showing a “real” murder. Other films began popping up exploiting this headlines-grabbing phenomenon, the most famous being the insane, gore-soaked LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET. The forgotten entry in this bizarre subgenre is EFFECTS, a Pittsburgh-lensed independent shocker that basically faded into oblivion after selected festival appearances. Synapse has rescued the flick from obscurity and released it to DVD in a special edition welcoming the film to home video for the first time.

A low-budget horror film is being shot in a secluded mountain area by a hard-working crew and a cast of bewildered actors. However, it soon becomes apparent that another crew is shooting the making of the horror film…and their intentions are not a simple behind-the-scenes documentary. They intend to make the ultimate horror film, with real victims, real blood, and real death. Newcomer Dominic, serving as the cinematographer for the low-budget production, begins to discover the ulterior motive for the shoot and is soon targeted for extermination. Or was he intended to be the snuff film’s star all along?

There is a good reason for EFFECTS to have remained unseen for so long: it’s not an easy film to recommend, and ultimately doesn’t work. The film was picked up for distribution by a company that promptly filed bankruptcy. So why didn’t another company pick it up? Because it would have been a major pain to try to market this movie! The multi-layered script must have been good for everyone to jump on-board with good intentions, but what results on-screen is only half-successful. Approaching subject matter like a snuff film, which is surefire exploitation material, writer/director Dusty Nelson seems instead interested in creating a “what is real, what is fantasy?” mindfuck for the audience. Unfortunately EFFECTS is paced so languidly that it never grabs hold of the viewer until at least 45 minutes into the running time. That’s 2 ½ reels of footage and around half of the film before anything of interest happens. Unfortunately, while this time could have been spent building up suspense, the audience is treated to klunky attempts at sparking a romantic interest between Dominic and gaffer Celeste, with a few throw-away bits of dialogue alluding to the snuff film aspect of the script. Joe Pilato gives a typically good performance as Dominic, the geeky cinematographer, but isn’t much of a hero, and no one else registers as a likable presence enough to root for. Of the cast, only John Harrison really shines as the cold-hearted director, Lacey Bickel. His deadpan delivery of dialogue and complete lack of morals creates a memorable character amidst a sea of unsure characterizations. Harrison’s piano-driven score is also quite exceptional. It’s interesting to see Tom Savini in another acting role around the same time as DAWN OF THE DEAD and MANIAC, but he’s basically here in an extended cameo.

Once the film kicks into gear, there are some interesting moments to be found: Lacey showing an 8mm snuff film to his astonished crew; Dominic being shot and pursued through the woods by two crew members; the quite startling twist ending which really packs a wallop. Many viewers will have checked out by then, though, as the final 20 minutes don’t justify the sluggish preceding 60. As an arthouse film, EFFECTS almost works, with its metaphysical film-within-a-film script throwing viewers for a loop several times. As a horror film, it never gels, and that's unfortunate considering the talent and the potentially good script. Possibly the best film dealing with the “snuff film” phenomenon is the Spanish horror film THESIS, which was doomed to home video hell. A recent film, MY LITTLE EYE, which tackled similar territory, was equally bone chilling. It’s too bad Synapse didn’t decide to revisit THESIS in a special edition instead of this disappointing obscurity. EFFECTS is worth at least a rental for the curious, but probably isn’t one for the permanent collection.

Synapse’s release of EFFECTS marks the first official home video release of the film, so right off the bat it’s going to look better than any other version previously available through the gray market. However, it’s not one of the company’s better transfers, probably because of the rarity of good materials. The widescreen anamorphic transfer is consistently grainy, albeit with some nice detail, bright colors, and very deep blacks in some sequences. Because of the film’s low budget origins, shot on 16mm, most of the film is very dark, thus the grain. The image is reasonably clean and bright during daytime scenes. The mono audio seems muted, so the volume must be cranked throughout the running time.

Much better than the feature film on the disc is the 60-minute documentary “AfterEffects”, edited and directed by Michael Felsher, covering not only the making of EFFECTS but filming low-budget films in Pittsburgh. Writer/director Dusty Nelson, producer/composer/actor John Harrison, sound man/editor/producer Pasquale Buba, actors Joe Pilato, Tom Savini, Susan Chapek, Barney McKenna, Debra Gordon, David Belko, and stuntman Marty Schiff are all interviewed, as well ad Pittsburgh’s #1 talent George A. Romero. The first 15 minutes give background on where Pittsburgh filmmakers like Nelson and Romero began their craft, how they branched out into feature films, and the guerilla aspect of shooting on such low budgets. The remainder of the documentary focuses exclusively on the genesis of EFFECTS, the casting and shooting of the film, and relates a multitude of behind-the-scenes tales. It’s a shame the documentary isn’t split into chapters, but it’s a small caveat for this wonderful look at Pittsburgh moviemaking. Watching these filmmakers discuss shooting the film and their affection for the production is much more satisfying than the finished product itself. Footage is also shown of a cheesy 70s hair commercial with McKenna and the current locations used in the film!

Returning for an audio commentary are Nelson, Harrison and Buba, three best friends who relate their memories of shooting the film in 18-20 days on-location. They discuss the budget, casting, approaching the script based on an obscure book, the film-within-a-film aspect of the production, the various receptions the film received from reviewers and audiences, and the distribution snafu that kept the film on the shelf for 25 years. It’s a great commentary, and helps to clarify some of the more confusing moments in the film.

Rounding out the extras are two short films, “Ubu” and “Beastie” by Dusty Nelson, and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery. “Ubu” is an overly arty version of an Alfred Jarry play, with some striking visuals, but that will probably only impress the “theater crowd”. “Beastie”, on the other hand, is a great 70s time capsule following a young hitchhiking girl who meets a nice working-class guy and their relationship in the space of two days. There’s nice footage of a local supermarket, and it’s an interesting little film reminiscent of Romero’s THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA. (Casey Scott )