Colour, 1980, 87m. / Directed by Dusty Nelson / Starring John Harrison, Joe Pilato, Susan Chapek, Tom Savini, Bernard McKenna, Debra Gordon / Synapse (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)


Arguably the defining urban legend 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, 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 by far the shoddiest and most dishonest of the lot, 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's finally surfaced on DVD and, though imperfect, offers a novel take on a seemingly shopworn idea.

In the Pennsylvania countryside, low-budget filmmaker Lacey Bickle (film 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 where 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 goes 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=time 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 surprisingly strong and sympathetic protagonist. The future director of the Dune projects for the Sci-Fi Channel, Harrison shows strong acting chops as well and composed this film's score, which often bears a curious resemblance to the music for Ms. 45 two years later.

For a "lost" film, Effects fares quite well on Synapse's solid DVD presentation. The grainy but colorful transfer looks appropriately film-like without appearing damaged, and the compression does a sterling job of dealing with a potentially difficult source. The mono audio sounds fine - 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 new featurette, "AfterEffects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking," 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" and Nelson's "Beastie," as well as a still gallery.


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