When it comes to B-movies, for better or worse, Larry Cohen is one of the kings. He’s the director of films like Q, It’s Alive, and The Stuff. He’s also written many others including several entries in the Maniac Cop series and more mainstream films like Phone Booth and Cellular. Hopefully he wasn’t being autobiographical with his 1984 film about a movie director turned killer…Special Effects.
The film begins with a woman named Andrea (Zoe Lund) who is desperate to become a movie star but so far has only managed to get jobs posing nude for photography clubs in New York. I’m thinking moving to Hollywood would be a good first step to getting in the movies…but ok. Turns out, however, that Andrea is actually named Mary Jean and her husband Keefe (Brad Rijn) has finally tracked her down to bring her back to her young son in Oklahoma. She tries to convince him she should stay, however, lying that she has a role in director Christopher Neville’s next film. She even pretends there is a message from Neville when she calls her answering service. Unable to convince Keefe she should stay, she sneaks out the bathroom window.
Stealing Keefe’s car, she makes her way to the loft apartment of Neville (Eric Bogosian). She had tried to get into a party there once, and this time she just lets herself in. Neville is in a bit of a funk, having just been removed from his latest picture. However, he quickly takes an interest in the shapely blonde and casts her in his own…shall we say, home movies. He’s got a bedroom decked out with lights, hidden cameras, the works. When she catches on, though, Andrea decides that enough is enough. Neville responds by strangling her to death – all of which he captures on film.
When Andrea’s body is found at Coney Island in Keefe’s car, the police, naturally, go after him. However, he ends up being let out when Neville, of all people, pays the bail. The condition is that Keefe appear as himself in a film version of Andrea’s story. He tells Keefe that he only needs to perform the murder scene if he actually did it. The smooth talking director also manages to get one of the police detectives working the case involved as an advisor. The only thing left is to cast Andrea. After going through hundreds of actresses, Keefe runs across a girl named Elaine (Lund again) who is Andrea’s doppleganger. After all, in the movies everybody has a potential exact double out there somewhere. Soon Keefe has a hard time separating the two women in his mind, and Elaine gets a bit too caught up in her part. Things turn even more sinister when Neville’s footage of Andrea’s murder (which he planned on using in the film) is destroyed and he decides he must reshoot. In other words: film Elaine’s murder.
It’s obvious that Cohen was going to a Psycho feel with the beginning of the film. The first 20 minutes or so gives the impression that Andrea is going to be the main character, but then she is killed off. From there the story certainly has holes. It is understandable that Keefe would be a suspect in the murder, but you’d think the cops would do some real police work and investigate this creepy director who decided to foot the bill to spring the guy. Instead they become starstruck fanboys around the dude.
As silly as some aspects of the film are, it still works on a certain level. I think much of what carries it through are strong performances from Bogosian and Lund. Bogosian has always been good at playing characters you love to hate – just see Talk Radio for more evidence of that. There’s no question in his mind that he can take footage of him actually killing a woman, edit it into a film, and get away with it. Narcissism oozes from his every pore and Bogosian really sells it. His character is just so self-absorbed and arrogant that the audience is easily roped in to wait for his eventual fall. Lund has the challenge of playing two parts. Her first is clearly a take on Marilyn Monroe, even down to the name Mary Jean (pretty close to Norma Jean). Her take on this character is a bit cartoony, but still serviceable. She’s much stronger as Elaine, especially when she starts to become entranced by the whole celebrity mystique.
Special Effects could never be called a “tight” thriller, but it does have enough suspense to make for an entertaining ride. It is an interesting departure for a director known for films featuring winged serpents and devil babies.