Color, 1980, 83 mins. 36 secs.
Directed by Dusty Nelson
Starring Joe Pilato, John Harrison, Susan Chapek, Tom Savini, Bernard McKenna, Debra Gordon
American Genre Film Archive (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Synapse (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)


Arguably Effectsthe defining urban Effectslegend of the 1970s, "snuff" films captivated the imagination with terrifying stories of innocents murdered in front of a camera for the entertainment of some fictitious, smut-jaded underground audience. The concept broke through to "mainstream" cinema with the arrival of Snuff, a savvy con job and marketing coup, while the basic idea managed to weave through films as diverse as Emanuelle in America, Last House on Dead End Street, Larry Cohen's Special Effects, My Little Eye, and at the dullest end of the spectrum, 8MM. Adding a different wrinkle to the snuff concept is the long-shelved Effects, a film comprised of alumni from George A. Romero's 1970s productions that barely showed outside of a few festivals and became a faint blip on the radar for most horror fans. After decades languishing in the vault, it finally emerged on home video and serves as a slight but fascinating transitional film for many of its participants.

In the Pennsylvania countryside, low-budget filmmaker Lacey Bickle (Creepshow and Day of the Dead composer Harrison) arranges an eccentric crew of technical and thespian personnel for his latest opus, a thriller. Everyone parties hard, perhaps a little too much, while cameraman Domenic (Day of the Dead's Pilato) finds his eye drifting towards gaffer Celeste (Chapek). One evening after shooting, Lacey ushers Domenic and some of his cohorts into a screening room Effectswhere he shows them a grainy, black and white film of a scantily clad woman being tortured and murdered. After Domenic protests, the director passes off the film as a stunt and Effectsgoes back to business as usual... but soon the cameraman notices that another production seems to be underway behind the scenes, chronicling every move on the set with a sinister outcome in store for everyone involved.

Despite the presence of splatter king Tom Savini in the cast and a potentially hardcore premise to rival Cannibal Holocaust, this one-shot feature outing for director Dusty Nelson (a future Tales from the Darkside helmer) plays it surprisingly subdued, going for psychological chills rather than blood-spraying mayhem. (Probably a wise move, given that Last House on Dead End Street already went about as far as legally possible.) Clearly displaying influences from the likes of Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, the film starts off with a slow but atmospheric first act and gradually ratchets up the tension, finally paying off with an unsettling climax that takes the illusion vs. reality concept to disturbing lengths. Romero fans in particular will enjoy seeing several familiar faces, with Pilato (who briefly appeared in the extended cut of Dawn of the Dead shortly beforehand) making a strong and sympathetic protagonist. The future director of the Dune projects for the SyFy Channel, Harrison shows strong acting chops as well and composed this film's score, which sometimes bears a curious Effectsresemblance to the music for Ms. 45 two years later.

For a "lost" film, Effects fared quite well on Synapse's solid DVD presentation from 2005. The grainy but colorful transfer looks appropriately film-like, and the compression does a fine job of dealing with a potentially difficult source. The mono audio sounds clear enough all around. The truly creepy animated menus also lead to a number of worthy extras, starting with a feature audio commentary by Nelson, Harrison, and editor Pasquale Buba, all of whom have fond memories of the film and cover its history thoroughly enough to cover any lingering questions about its mysterious distribution woes. Equally illuminating is a lengthy featurette, "AfterEffects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking" Effects(59m38s), in which the cast and crew reunite (along with Romero) for a discussion of the film's creation and the state of indie Pennsylvania filmmaking during the 1970s. It's candid and entertaining, making for a swift-moving and often humorous hour. Also included are two odd but intriguing short films, Harrison's "Ubu" (12m11s), which actually bears some peculiar visual similarities to the later Saw, and Nelson's "Beastie" (15m39s), along with a still gallery.

In 2017, AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) inherited the film and brought it to Blu-ray from apparently the only existing 35mm print in existence from a fresh 4K scan. Unlike Effectsthe DVD, no attempt has been made to do any digital cleansing here; what you see is what you get with scuffs and scratches in evidence. Oddly enough, this does nothing to detract from the film's ambiance and often enhances it, so no worries there. Detail is obviously stronger with the darker scenes in particular faring well, and the framing adds more info at the bottom while correcting some significant squeezing that distorted the actors' faces on the prior transfer. The DTS-HD MA English audio track is about par for the course for an indie '80s title. The audio commentary and both shorts are carried over (with "Ubu" getting a fresh scan with somewhat different color timing), while "AfterEffects" is included with a new audio commentary by Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher. It's an affectionate and interesting track as he discusses tackling this, his first long-form bonus feature, before embarking on a lengthy career turning out substantial extras for a wide variety of labels and films as well as the great Just Desserts: The Making of Creepshow. Don't miss the hilarious cocaine-heavy main menu, too! The packaging also comes with new liner notes by AGFA and Bleeding Skull's Joseph A. Ziemba noting the film's odd little place in the often unsung history of Pittsburgh genre filmmaking.

SYNAPSE (DVD)

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Updated review on November 10, 2017.