Joe Pilato (Day of the Dead) stars as Domenic, the D.P. of a low-budget horror movie shooting outside of Pittsburgh. It's a small, strange, and frequently drug-addled crew, but Dom seems to be having an alright time on the set, especially as he falls for Celeste (Susan Chapek). Domenic spends some time one night getting to know director Lacey Bickle (John Harrison) and a couple other crew members, and they introduce him to cocaine as well as something considerably more disturbing. Dom's horrified as the grainy, black-and-white 8mm film unspools, showing a topless woman being butchered on camera, but Lacey laughs it off as a make-up effect. Domenic doesn't find that particularly reassuring, convinced that the murder he witnessed on film is real and suspecting that there's more to this production than Lacey's letting on. He's right to feel uneasy -- a second crew of Lacey's is filming in secret as the director's taste for snuff filmmaking grows increasingly ambitious...
Effects' twenty-five years of languishing in obscurity has nothing to do with the quality of the film. Like Richard Rush's similarly underappreciated The Stunt Man, Effects toys with the perception of reality, keeping both its characters and the audience uncertain as to what's really happening. Much of its first hour is a slow burn, as the film spends its time building an unsettling atmosphere rather than spouting off plot point after plot point, successfully building tension and suspense without resorting to using chase sequences or bombastic music as a crutch. It's an approach that makes the abrupt shift to a higher gear in its last half-hour that much more effective. That shift is when the pieces in the puzzle start to become more clearly arranged...when the pacing becomes more frantic and when it's not just stage blood being spilled. (And despite what you might think from a movie titled "Effects" with Tom Savini on the payroll, there's really not that much of the red stuff being sloshed around; it's not that kind of movie.) Effects admittedly has its rough edges, and viewers accustomed to something more overtly visceral probably won't be interested. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, though -- I like it when a movie isn't afraid to keep me off-balance or to repeatedly take these sorts of uncompromisingly dark turns, and I'm left with the impression that Effects plays even better the second time through. It's been overlooked for decades, but Effects is a clever, effective thriller that's worth discovering on DVD.
Video: Effects was shot with whatever 16mm stock and lights the crew could get their hands on, so the movie is understandably grainy and not exactly razor-sharp and immaculately detailed. Those usual side-effects of a threadbare budget aside, this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks fantastic, in keeping with the usual quality of Synapse's releases. Effects' film grain is presented properly, not smoothened out or DVNR-ed within an inch of its life, and the authoring is handled deftly enough that the grain doesn't exhibit any signs of artifacting. Crispness and clarity can be somewhat variable from shot to shot, but both are generally strong, as are the film's color palette, black levels, and contrast. I don't think I spotted a single speck for the entire length of the film either. The limitations of the low-budget photography are unavoidable, but I can't imagine Effects looking any better than this on home video until the high-definition formats roll around.
Audio: The monaural Dolby Digital audio (192Kbps) is pretty straightforward: the film's dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout, and John Harrison's spare score comes through reasonably well. For anyone who's curious, there are no subtitles or closed captions.
Supplements: An audio commentary with director Dusty Nelson, producer/actor/composer John Harrison, and editor Pasquale Buba is available under the 'Set Up' menu. It's a great commentary, and the three of them keep a lively discussion going for the entire length of the film. It's kind of a mini-film school -- they cover numerous technical details, but they're careful to define the terminology they use, and they speak in great detail about overcoming some of the obstacles of low-budget filmmaking and even some of the advantages of shooting the movie with the limited resources they had. They cast a pretty wide net and tackle a variety of topics, including how a proto-Sundance film festival argued that Effects isn't an independent movie and how the same cut of Effects that passed with an R rating 25 years ago would be unlikely to do the same today.
The real highlight of the DVD is the comprehensive documentary "After Effects", an hour-long collection of interviews that cover every facet of producing Effects. The reunited cast and crew are joined by fellow Pittsburghian filmmaker George A. Romero, and together, they speak at length about the state of the film industry in the 1970s, how they got involved in filmmaking, and how different the business of independent filmmaking is now versus where it was a quarter-century ago. "After Effects" covers every conceivable angle from financing to post-production, but as informative as the documentary is on those sorts of details, the personalities of the cast and crew are what make it truly great. Even twenty-five years and change later, their enthusiasm for the movie and camaraderie are infectious, and I really enjoyed hearing stories about Tom Savini's gory pranks and how the cast wondered if they were being secretly filmed like the characters they were playing. Even though "After Effects" clocks in just shy of an hour, it breezes by so quickly that it feels like a tiny fraction of that. "After Effects" is an absolutely fantastic documentary and easily ranks with the best docs I've seen on any DVD. A clip from the documentary is available on Red Shirt Pictures' website, if you want a taste.
Two of Nelson, Harrison, and Buba's shorts from 1974 are also packed onto this DVD: John Harrison's profoundly trippy "Ubu" (full-frame; 12 minutes), adapted from the Alfred Jarry play, and Dusty Nelson's "Beastie" (1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen; around 15:30). "Beastie" is about a romance between a young hitchhiker and the man who picks her up, and even if that TV Guide-flavored summary and the somewhat ominous sounding title make you think of The Fog or Hitchhike to Hell, it's a lot more innocent than that. Honest.
A still gallery with a couple dozen photos rounds out the extras...the documented ones, at least. There's an awesome Easter egg on the 'Special Features' menu -- highlight the "Beastie" short and press left on your DVD remote for the full version of the disco-fried shampoo short excerpted in "After Effects". The DVD includes a set of attractively animated 16x9 menus, and the provided insert lists the movie's sixteen chapter stops along with a set of liner notes by Michael Felsher commenting on both the film and the direction towards which it indirectly steered his life.
Conclusion: Effects is a great package, pairing a clever, well-made, indescribably overlooked movie with a solid presentation and a collection of remarkably high-quality extras. It's a film that really cries out for a second viewing, and that additional replay value makes the modest asking price seem even more worth it. Recommended.