Written and Directed by Larry Cohen
I first saw Special Effects in the early ‘90s when I was still discovering my affection for Larry Cohen’s films. At the time, I had only seen the “big” Cohen films (It’s Alive, Q). I found the film to be interesting, but something felt off about the tone that made me uncomfortable. There was a sleazy feel to the film that kept it from being truly enjoyable. I was interested to return to the film to see if age and a better familiarity with Cohen’s style would make me feel differently.
The short answer is yes, but in different ways than I expected. Read on for the long answer.
A truly twisted and bizarre satire of the film industry, the film follows naïve Oklahoma country boy Keefe (Brad Rijn, a Cohen regular in the ’80s) as he travels to New York City to retrieve his wayward wife, Mary Jean (Zoë Tamerlis). Much to his moral disgust, he finds her posing nude for pornographers and using the false name of Andrea Wilcox. Determined to convince her to return to Oklahoma, he shows her home movies of their son, but Mary Jean wants nothing to do with any scenario that finds her returning to her old life, no matter how depressing her current life may be. She quickly lies that she’s been contacted by hotshot director Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian) to take a part in his next film. Keefe doesn’t care and Mary Jean runs away, determined to contact Neville and make her lie a reality.
But Neville is down on his luck–a bad boy known for his love of special effects and soft-core sex scenes, he has gone over budget too many times. His last film bombed and he was just fired from his latest production. Drowning in self-pity, he takes Mary Jean into his bed, letting her think she’ll have a part in his new film. But when she realizes that he’s secretly filming her in bed, she unleashes a string of angry insults about his faltering career that enrage him to such a point that he strangles her to death while his camera catches all the action.
Initially panicked, Neville pulls himself together long enough to clean and abandon the body at Coney Island. When the police find her, they immediately zero in on the spurned and hotheaded Keefe as the prime suspect. With a boatload of circumstantial evidence pointing him toward a guilty verdict, things look bad for poor, dumb Keefe.
But then Neville intervenes, hiring Keefe a high-priced attorney who is immediately able to get him released on bond. Why would Neville do this? Perverse movie psycho that he is, Neville wants to make a movie about Mary Jean’s tragic life and he wants Keefe to play himself. Of course Keefe wants nothing to do with the film, but Neville has him under his thumb, threatening to pull the lawyer and his bond, sending him back to jail.
In a show of almost superhuman efficiency, this labored plot setup is accomplished in less than thirty minutes of running time. Even more impressive than the sheer volume of exposition that Cohen throws at the audience in the first act is the level of characterization he gives to Keefe and Neville in the opening scenes. We know Neville’s creepy right from the start because he enjoys parsing over the details of Lee Harvey Oswald’s face when Jack Ruby shoots him. But he is also sort of pitiable with his easily bruised ego and hint of self-loathing as he stoops to sleeping with the trashy Mary Jean. Even after the murder, he’s still relatable as a human being through his initially freaked out reaction. Interestingly, Keefe is just as off-putting as Neville, if not more disturbing. He comes across like a stalker and a religious zealot in his early scenes before settling into a brooding, potentially violent thug for the rest of the movie. His eventual emergence as the hero of the film is less about any positive qualities he may have and more about the fact that compared to Neville’s arrogant murderer, he’s a saint.
Helped along by a typically sardonic Bogosian performance, the cat-and-mouse game that Neville and Keefe engage in is the most entertaining part of the film. Cohen seems to recognize this and capitalizes on that dynamic until the twist in the second act that finds Keefe discovering a look alike for Mary Jean named Elaine (also Tamerlis). Neville immediately casts Elaine as Mary Jean, forcing Keefe to the breaking point by making him recreate scenes from his decidedly unhappy married life.
Unfortunately, Elaine is a very wishy-washy character. She proceeds to kinda-sorta fall in love with Keefe (even though she thinks he’s guilty), she kinda-sorta flirts with Neville (even though she thinks he’s a jerk), and she fully commits herself to playing the part (even though she doesn’t want to be an actress). I suppose Cohen felt that giving Elaine such contradictions would make her a more fully formed character in less screen time–after all, her character is introduced nearly halfway through the film. Maybe in the hands of a better actress, these character turns would have made more sense, but Tamerlis (famous in certain circles for her amazing performance in Abel Ferrara’s disturbing revenge flick, Ms. 45) just isn’t very good this time around. While she’s more comfortable as brassy New Yorker Elaine, she completely misses the mark as Mary Jean, playing these early scenes like the world’s funniest Cat on a Hot Tin Roof spoof.
But even if Tamerlis’s performance hadn’t been a drag on the film, just the shifting of focus to Elaine’s point of view for the duration of the film kills most of the momentum that had been gained. As the film moves into the third act, Cohen asks us to not only care about Keefe as Neville subtly moves the pieces in place to frame him for Mary Jean’s murder, but also to care about Elaine and her chances for survival as the final fifteen minutes of the film begin to mirror the opening.
While the thriller aspects of the film may falter down the home stretch, Cohen still mines the material for plenty of amusing moments that satirize the lack of empathy or decency in many exploitation films. Not only is Neville cashing in on a murder he committed, people who were only tangentially related to Mary Jean try to turn her murder to their advantage: A young woman angles for the part of Mary Jean by claiming to be her best friend, the police detective (Kevin O’Connor) investigating the murder gloms on to the production as a technical advisor, a technician at the lab where Neville has his film processed tries to blackmail the director when he discovers his guilt. It’s a cynical world that Cohen paints and the film is improved by this dark view.
Surprisingly, considering Cohen’s usually reliable eye for casting, the other major problem (outside of the miscalculated third act) with the film comes as a result of the cast. Bogosian is fine in one of his earliest film roles, playing the same cynical character we’ve seen him do many times in the two and a half decades since. But Tamerlis has her already discussed problems and Rijn is lackluster in what could have been a great antihero role. Keefe is supposed to be as disturbing as Neville, but Rijn’s attempts at playing the slow-burn intensity of a man barely containing his rage fall flat, leaving a huge vacuum in the charisma department when he and Tamerlis are alone on screen.
What is also somewhat surprising is the improved technical aspects of the film over a normal Larry Cohen production. The editing is consistently sharp and the cinematography more fluid than expected. This leads the film to look a little more cinematic than Cohen’s usual vérité approach. Oddly enough, this actually detracts from the power of the film’s central idea of giving the audience a peek behind the egos and bullshit of a feature film production. The film needs that documentary look that Cohen normally uses so well to ground his outlandish ideas in reality. Adding the polished look of a studio film only serves to shield the audience from the ugliest behind-the-scenes aspects of film production, inadvertently forcing Cohen to pull some of his punches.
I mentioned that on my first viewing, Special Effects felt sleazy and uncomfortable. I didn’t get that queasy feeling this time around. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m more familiar with Cohen’s satirical intentions, but the idea that he was trying to make a movie cashing in on a movie (Star 80) that had cashed in on the real-life murder of model/actress Dorothy Stratten, adds a certain warped honor to his intentions. Where Stratten’s real life lover not only wrote a book about her murder but also married her younger sister, Cohen sought to skewer a film industry that attracts, exploits, and spits out naïve young women. In that comparison, Cohen’s film definitely holds the moral high ground.
Despite the ambitious attempts to be both a thriller and a film industry satire, Special Effects falls firmly in the middle of the pack when it comes to Cohen’s films. It’s worth a look for Cohen completists and fans of pointed satire, but it may come off as a tad too ridiculous for the general viewer.
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