Special Effects (1984)

Brian De Palma wasn’t the only director who released a sleazy version of Vertigo in 1984 that used a film industry term as its title; everybody’s second favorite weirdo workhorse (after Roger Corman, natch) Larry Cohen also churned Special Effects, which takes all the debatable class of Body Double and wrings it dry. Unfortunately, what you’re left with isn’t much to write home about.

Andrea Wilcox (Zoë Lund) is having a merry time in sleazy eighties New York. It may be Christmas outside, but it’s Independence Day on the set of a fake Oval Office where she rides a rotating platform in a star-spangled top hat and not much else. Trouble brews at the arrival of Keefe (Brad Rijn), the husband that she left behind in rural Texas to care for their toddler son. He’s arrived to take her home, and he won’t take “no” for an answer; despite some chicanery and attempted escapes, he manages to catch her and they go back to her apartment. While he rests, she escapes through the bathroom window and flees. Unsure where exactly to go, she ends up at the home of Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian), a hotshot young director whose most recent picture was a complete flop, leading him to consider moving into making high-end porn instead. After sleazily setting up a camera behind a one-way mirror, he sleeps with Andrea, then kills her. When her body is later found, Detective Delroy (Kevin O’Connor) immediately suspects the jilted husband, but Neville pays Keefe’s bail and hires an attorney, claiming that he saw Keefe’s arrest and is fascinated by his story. Although Keefe is initially reluctant, he allows himself to be convinced to sign over the rights to his and Andrea’s narrative to Neville in exchange for being a consultant on the film. Detective Delroy is similarly distracted by the allure of the silver screen and likewise signs on to production.

While trying to track down Andrea’s possessions, Keefe ends up at the Salvation Army, where he meets Elaine Bernstein (Lund again), a woman whose resemblance to Andrea is uncanny. Neville hires her to portray Andrea in the film; and after an on-set altercation between the actor playing Keefe and the real Keefe, brought on by the realization that Andrea had slept with the actor, Keefe ends up playing himself. After murdering one of techs who processed the film negatives of Andrea’s death “scene,” Neville recreates his own bedroom on set and even includes certain touches, like a white rose, which lead to the perfect emulation of the day he killed Andrea, apparently in an attempt to frame Keefe for her murder by splicing together the two films. Keefe becomes suspicious and manages to acquire the film on which her murder occurs, but is unable to show it to Elaine before the footage is destroyed. But when Elaine is lured to Neville’s home so he can recreate the original footage of Andrea’s death, Keefe must save her despite Delroy’s suspicions.

The plot of this one is as thin as the celluloid it’s printed on. Rijn is obviously doing his best with the script that he’s given, but there are moments where he seems utterly lost, and it seems like the confusion is more Rijn’s than Keefe’s. Lund manages to make Elaine feel different from Andrea at first, but by the time Elaine dyes her hair to look like Andrea, Elaine seems to completely lack the street smarts that initially made her a separate character. Bogosian tries his best to balance malicious menace with approachable eccentricity, but his motivations are so unclear that not only is he completely unsympathetic, he’s also generically nonthreatening. Ten years before making this film, director Cohen sold a few ideas to Columbo; given that this film’s primary murder happens near the beginning and there’s no mystery about who the perpetrator is,this film feels like a feature-length episode of that show, but with sleazy nudity and an overlong denouement. All of the sets are ugly, including Neville’s house, and the cat-and-mouse in the dark after Keefe figures out the truth is more tedious than thrilling. All in all, unless you’re a Cohen completist, this is one to avoid.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

5 thoughts on “Special Effects (1984)

  1. Pingback: Special Effects (1984) — Swampflix – neweraofhorror

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