1 Hr., 35 Mins.
Special Effects August 14, 2020
pecial Effects (1984) is a plasticky Hitchcock movie. Specifically it’s a so-so rewrite 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 very much alive — become objects onto which a fanatical male character projects his fantasies. But where Vertigo is a lush, unnerving tale of obsession, Special
Effects is all intriguing ideas with little soul — we can sense writer-director Larry Cohen’s construction at every turn.
The movie stars Zoë Lund as Andrea, an aspiring actress who’s recently left everything behind in her native Dallas, Tex. to pursue a career in New York City. She’s clearly been sculpted after the doomed glamor 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. Shortly after the action starts in the film, Andrea 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 lies and says 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 coincidentally meet and take a liking to Neville. But she will also be murdered by him after a sexual encounter between them sours.
Neville, we learn, is a hyperbolic reimagining of filmmakers who are obsessed with capturing the “real” on camera 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 the very man apparently innocently capturing their image. Neville records his strangulation of Andrea and their preceding romantic interlude on a hidden camera. Then he decides that he would like to not only recreate both things 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 know Neville is responsible for his wife’s death.)
In more capable hands, Special Effects might've been a fascinating parable both on directorial abuses 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 intense breathing gave way for hyperventilation.
The Tarantino incident, which long went unreported on, was criticized after it was brought to the fore a few years ago. But the Żuławski and Aronofsky instances have often been held up as almost-admirable testaments to how intense an experience it would be to see their movies — injury as a promotional tool. If actual endangerment helps make fiction seem realer, then it’s frequently deemed worth it, and thus OK, as long as the people in front of the camera can tell the tale and don't explicitly complain about it. 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 gaudy,
decked-out-in-red-and-pink flat — but a graceless writer. The performances are labored — these actors strain to convincingly give life to 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 a homicidally-tinged obsession with realism, why Elaine is so willing to put her blinders up. There’s an inbuilt misogyny to Cohen’s writing, too — ironic considering the movie seems, in part, an arraignment of male 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