This 1984 cheapie appears to be writer-director Larry Cohen’s answer
to PEEPING TOM,
a unique and intelligent account of voyeurism and exploitation in the
movie business that, as usual with Cohen, is all-but done in by its low
budget and uninspired direction.
SPECIAL EFFECTS hails from Larry Cohen’s mid-1980s
period, his most prolific timeframe, when he cast his films largely from
the New York underground set. See Cohen’s other 1984 effort
STRANGERS, which starred LIQUID SKY’S Anna Carlisle. The present film
featured the late Zoë Tamarlis--a.k.a. Zoë Lund, the star of Abel
Ferrara’s MS. 45 and reportedly a “staunch advocate of heroin drug use”
(the cause of her 1999 demise)--together with Eric Bogosian, then known
primarily as a playwright, in one of his first-ever film roles.
Andrea is a young actress who’s cast aside her family
for a career in the movies. She sets her sights on Chris Neville, an
unbankable movie director who agrees to cast Andrea in his latest opus,
a low budget affair. In an effort to make his film as real as possible,
the psychotic Neville murders Andrea on camera.
Andrea’s estranged husband Keefe is arrested for the
killing but is unexpectedly bailed out--by Neville. The latter is making
a movie around the murder he committed and wants Keefe to play himself.
Neville is contacted by one of the detectives investigating the case,
and actually talks the latter into serving as a technical advisor on the
The problem is Neville lacks a leading actress to play
Andrea, and his casting sessions fail to offer up any viable candidates.
But then Keefe happens upon a woman named Elaine who looks just like
Andrea. Elaine is quickly roped into headlining the movie, even though
she’s a lot tougher and more self-assured than Andrea ever was.
The film shoot is a disaster from the start. Neville
bars the detective advisor from the set, which only pisses him off, and
Elaine and Keefe start up a romance. Yet Neville it seems will come out
on top, by placing a rose in plain view of the murder scene in his film,
which catches the attention of the investigating detectives--who recall
thorn punctures on Andrea’s corpse. Neville informs the detectives that
Keefe instructed him to put the rose in the scene, which would appear to
seal his fate.
This is a could-have movie. Larry Cohen’s script is
strong, and could have yielded a poisoned valentine to the movie
business as pertinent as those of MULHOLLAND DRIVE or the aforementioned
PEEPING TOM. Among other things, SPECIAL EFFECTS features a sly nod to
Hitchcock’s VERTIGO and a concluding intimation that everything we’ve
seen may actually be the film Chris Neville is making. There are
also what I assume are numerous in-jokes from Cohen’s own filmmaking
career, such as a scene where Neville has to clear the set in order to
get his leading actors to perform a sex scene.
SPECIAL EFFECTS would have benefited from a more
inventive visual style (a la Brian DePalma) and/or some
streetwise grit (a la Abel Ferrara), but Cohen’s bland direction
has neither of those things. What does register are cut-rate production
values, inappropriately glitzy lighting, crummy synthesizer music and
largely indifferent performances.
Eric Bogosian is solid as the sleazy Chris Neville but
Zoë Tamarlis is miscast in the second half of her dual role, the
headstrong would-be actress Elaine. However, she does fairly well as the
fatally naive Andrea, a part with which Tamarlis, who’s no longer with
us, was probably all too familiar.
Hemdale Film Corporation
Director: Larry Cohen
Producer: Paul Kurta
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
Cinematography: Paul Glickman
Editing: Armond Lebowitz
Cast: Zoë Tamarlis, Eric Bogosian, Brad Rijn, Kevin O’Connor, Bill
Oland, H. Richard Greene, Steven Pudenz, Heidi Bassett, John Woehrle,
Kitty Summerall, Kris Evans, Mike Alpert