1 Hr., 35 Mins.
Special Effects April 14, 2020
pecial Effects” (1984) is a Hitchcock movie made of plastic. Specifically it’s a poor recapitulation of “Vertigo” (1958) in which two identical-looking-but-unrelated women — one murdered at the beginning of the feature, the other appearing toward its middle — become objects onto which a male character projects his fantasies. They are merely bodies to him. Where “Vertigo” is a lush, unnerving
tale of obsession, “Special Effects” is all intriguing ideas and no soul — we can sense writer-director Larry Cohen’s construction at every turn. It’s more concepts and provocative visual cues than movie.
The film stars Zoë Lund as Andrea, an aspiring actress who’s recently transplanted herself from Dallas, Tex., to New York City. She’s clearly been sculpted after the doomed model turned screen performer Dorothy Stratten. She is just barely into her 20s, has a shock of tousled platinum-blonde hair, and is, when we first meet her, posing for cheesecake photographs to be published in a Playboy-style magazine. As the film opens, she is confronted by her husband, Keefe (Brad Rijn), whom, along with their (as Keefe puts it) 31-month-old child, she has abandoned. Andrea has no intention of returning to her old life. To make Keefe jealous, she at one point lies and says that she’s actually been having an affair with artistically flagging film director Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian), and that she’s professionally getting on her feet. In “Special Effects,” Andrea will actually meet and take a liking to Neville. But she will also be murdered by him after a sexual encounter sours.
Neville, we learn, is a hyperbolic reimagining of filmmakers who are obsessed with capturing the “real” for posterity. He’s a not-so-distant cousin of the antagonist of “Peeping Tom” (1960), a photographer who specialized in taking stylized headshots of women realizing in real time that they were about to be murdered by him. Neville captures his strangulation of Andrea, and their preceding romantic interlude, via a hidden camera. Then he decides that he would like to not only recreate it in a movie starring an Andrea dopplegänger named Elaine (or Lund physically in situ) but also dramatize the fragmented relationship between Andrea and Keefe, whom Neville intimidates into behind-the-scenes and on-camera involvement. (Keefe doesn’t realize that Neville is responsible for his wife’s death.)
The movie, in more capable hands, might have been a fascinating parable both on directorial abuse and how, as consumers, we’re inclined to be especially excited by movies that we learn later on feature moments that aren’t as constructed as we think they are. Finding out that certain thrilling scenes were improvised, unplanned, and/or genuinely suffered through begets appreciation more often than it does skepticism.
I thought, when watching the film, of notorious, real-life on-set incidents: the car accident Uma Thurman got into on the set of “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004) because of Quentin Tarantino’s vision-driven negligence; Isabelle Adjani’s consideration of suicide after being pushed to her emotional and physical limits during the shooting of “Possession” (1981) by Andrzej Żuławski; Jennifer Lawrence dislocating a rib on the set of Darren Aronofksy’s “mother!” (2017) after hyperventilating too intensely.
The Tarantino incident was criticized after it was brought to the fore a few years ago. But the Żuławski and Aronofsky instances were often held up as almost-admirable testaments to how intense an experience it would be to see their movies. If actual endangerment helps make fiction seem more real, then it’s deemed worth it, and thus OK, as long as the people in front of the camera can tell the tale. “Special Effects” strips bare this long-running narrative. How far is too far?, the film, which dramatizes the farthest, asks.
The trouble with “Special Effects” is that this question becomes a noisy, primary-colored banner. We can’t lose ourselves in it because its intentions and composition are too obvious. Cohen is a reasonably talented stylist — the locales all have a tangible seaminess to them, especially Neville’s gaudily decked-out-in-red-and-pink flat — but a gauche writer. The performances are labored — these actors are straining to portray these thinly written characters. Andrea is presented to us as a non-thinking bimbo; Neville a nonsensical eccentric; Elaine little more than a brown-haired cipher willing to pretty much transform herself into Andrea. Motivations are unclear: we don’t know why Andrea wanted to become an actress, what has kickstarted Neville’s descent into homicidally backed obsession with realism, why Elaine is so willing to put her blinders up. There’s an inbuilt misogyny to Cohen’s writing — ironic considering the movie seems, in part, an arraignment of artists who treat women as sounding boards for their artistic and sexual ambitions. “Special Effects” brims with good ideas, but a surplus of good but iffily executed ideas do not a good movie make. C