Effects (1980) Blu-ray Review: Gonzo-Style Meta Horror

Dusty Nelson’s Effects has had quite the unexpected ride ever since its completed stages back in the late 1970s. What was slated to have a theatrical release in presumably 1980, if IMDb is to be trusted, ended up being something that only played at a few festivals and then practically vanished. It wasn’t until 2005 that it was available for the public to view, when Synapse Films got a hold of it for a DVD release. Now, the people at the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) have come together to give the film a proper Blu-ray release.

Effects is a fictional story, but Nelson and crew make it seem like we’re watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary of what is, without a doubt, the worst film in which anyone has been involved. The movie being filmed is appropriately titled Duped: The Snuff Movie. Like Effects, it is also a low-budget horror movie that is being filmed in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Of course, those involved are unaware of exactly how the movie is going to pan out because of the unpredictability of its director, Lacey Bickle (John Harrison). No relation to Travis Bickle. Or, at least, it doesn’t hint at any possible connections to Taxi Driver. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the two were brothers.

Although the filming progress of the movie that Lacey wants to make is at a stalemate, the team still has fun off-camera with their long conversations and coke snorting. In addition, the new cameraman (Joe Pilato) and a gaffer (Susan Chapek) begin to form a relationship. Things change drastically when Lacey shows the crew an old film he claims to have made in college. It’s a black and white short film that showcases what appears to be a woman actually being murdered on camera. The crew is repulsed, thinking they just witnessed what was a snuff film, but Lacey claims it’s fake. As filming continues, things seem to be out of the ordinary, and the film everyone thought they were going to make turns out to be something more diabolic.

The way Nelson crafts Effects by making it about a movie being made within the movie we’re watching, we sometimes get caught off guard by some of the scenes that play out. What appear to be characters in peril are just mere effects, so to speak. But it’s done so well that we fall for the trick, and we are still itching to see what’s in store. The close-up camerawork by Carl Augenstein and Toni Semple, along with Harrison’s ear-piercing and chaotic score, play a major factor in the movie’s eeriness.

The cast is fine. There’s a very casual approach to the movie, and a lot of it just feels like you’ve been dropped into a normal conversation with normal individuals. Harrison is the major standout here. He’s an emotionless human being with only one goal in mind, and that is to make the film a success. It doesn’t matter what the costs are. If it’s a hit, that’s all that he cares about.

The Blu-ray release of Effects comes a little over a month after the passing of horror icon George Romero. While Romero doesn’t have any credited involvement with the project, aside from a special thanking at the end, most of the people here worked with him and also studied his work. Although Effects is not a straight horror film like some would think, its slow-burning technique has a payoff for those that stick with it. At times, it does feel like the pacing is off, with some of the conversations dragging for longer than they should, but it’s still worth checking out to see where Nelson takes the viewer.

Prior to its DVD release in 2005, Effects was considered a long-lost film because of its botched distribution deal. With the way Nelson shot it on 16mm, it does have the feel of something that is being newly unearthed. Its graininess and numerous scratches and dust that appear throughout are appropriate for the type of movie that it is and for the way it was initially handled. That original version is deemed to be lost forever, by the way, but we at least still get to watch the movie thanks to the people at AFGA. The 4K transfer for this release was based on the only 35mm print that is in existence. The superb quality of the Blu-ray makes it clear that a lot of hard work was done to make the image the best they could.

The special features that come with the Effects Blu-ray are the same ones that were on the Synapse DVD. There are two short films called Ubu and Beastie, with the former being along the lines of David Lynch and a grindhouse film. The commentary track with Harrison, Nelson, and editor Pasquale Buba, also from the DVD, is like a group of friends getting together to talk about something that hadn’t been mentioned in years. It’s entertaining to hear them point out some things about the making of the movie, and how they’re surprised that they were able to get some scenes done the way they were.

The new additions that AGFA bring to the Blu-ray are a booklet with an essay by the company’s director, Joseph A. Ziemba, who also works on film programming for Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. There’s also a reversible sleeve with one cover in color and another in black and white.

It may be flawed, but Effects is worth a watch for those interested in checking out what Romero’s friends have created, and also for those who have a knack for under-the-radar horror films.

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David Wangberg

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