George Romero is widely recognized as a pioneering and important horror filmmaker but the genre label doesn’t capture the magnitude of his achievements. Just as important is how his independent spirit bred a generation of filmmakers: his defiant desire to do things outside the Hollywood machine led him to nurture a lot of regional talent as he made his beloved indie classics. A lot of those people went on to make their own films, including John Russo, Tom Savini and John Harrison.
Ironically, the most Romero-esque of these films might be the most obscure: Effects suffered from bungled distribution that kept it out of circulation for decades after its production in the late ’70s. It was revived by genre home video labels in recent years – first by Synapse and later by AGFA – and it was revealed to be less of a straight horror film and more of an ambitious arthouse item that uses both horror and arthouse genre conventions to critique the world of indie genre filmmaking birthed by Romero.
Effects takes place during the production of a slasher/psycho item by regional horror king Lacey Bickel (John Harrison). New recruit Dominic (Joseph Pilato) proves his worth as a cameraman as he learns the ropes of Bickel’s filmmaking collective, even striking up a romance with fellow crew member Celeste (Susan Chapek). However, he notices a weird vibe: Bickel’s pretensions extend to more than playing mind games with his crew and Dominic begins to suspect that the film shoot may be serving an additional, more sinister purpose.
The results often feel like the horror genre’s answer to The Stunt Man: writer/director Dusty Nelson structures scenes in a way that makes the viewer question what is real versus what is “reel” and creating a group of characters so besotted with cinema the line blurs. In doing so, Nelson critiques both the obsessions and lifestyles of those involved in capturing fantasy on celluloid: for example, there’s a believable scene where the veterans on the crew coach Dominic on how to do a line of cocaine. The fact that most of the players in front of and behind the camera were living similar lives gives it a uniquely lived-in feel that the usual ‘horror movie on the set of a horror movie’ lacks.
If you’re a Romero fan, you’re likely to have fun with the many familiar names involved here. Pilato is quite good in an early lead role, giving a low-key, naturalistic performance that is the opposite of his more famous and bombastic turn in Day Of The Dead. Harrison is also impressive in a rare acting role, effortlessly capturing the icily arch style of the scene’s charismatic yet elusive leader, and Tom Savini both performs an amusing role as a horny, alpha-male crew member and provides some brief makeup effects. It’s worth noting that the artsy yet sharp-edged editing was done by Romero protégé Pasquale Buba, who also produced.
Horror fans sometimes quibble with Effects because it doesn’t go for the throat in the style of traditional genre fare… but that’s the design here, not a bug. The real fascination here lies in the convincingly drawn portrait of amateurs trying to develop their craft and artistic personas as they feel the tension between their aesthetic dreams and the demands of the commercial marketplace. That said, the final 20 minutes pay off in a manner that delivers some horror/thriller-style excitement and twists while still retaining the film’s reality-tweaking style.
In short, Effects is a nice companion piece to Romero’s indie films because it sometimes feels like one of them: Schlockmania is specifically thinking of Season Of The Witch, which similarly offsets social critique drama with genre stylization. If you’re into Romero’s classic work, Effects is a vital and worthwhile accessory to his classic films.
Blu-Ray/DVD Info: Effects was originally issued on DVD by Synapse. More recently, it received a new transfer on blu-ray from AGFA. Both are worthy options and feature the same excellent hour-long making-of documentary from Red Shirt Pictures.