The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The thirty-fourth entry into this disreputable canon is the Tom Savini/Joe Pilato-starring Pittsburgh horror picture, Effects…
1978. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Local filmmakers Dusty Nelson, John Harrison and Pasquale Buba went to work on Effects, a tiny thriller that was independently financed, much like the work of area genre godfather, George A. Romero, who many involved with the film counted as artistic “family”. Starring Joe Pilato (who would eventually cement himself as an icon in Romero’s Day of the Dead, playing the infamous Captain Rhodes) and sporting a cast and crew of local talent, Effects was completed on a budget of $55,000 (most of which was raised via friends/relatives) and was ready for theatrical release in 1979. Unfortunately, a botched distribution deal sabotaged the picture’s ability to hit the drive-in circuit it was undoubtedly destined for, and outside of a handful of fest screenings, the movie didn’t see the light of day until 2005, when it was rescued by Don May Jr. and Synapse Films. For nearly three decades, Nelson’s feature debut was a genuine “lost film”.
Directed by Nelson, produced by Harrison and Buba, and featuring grotesque make-up work by Tom Savini (who also appears in a sizable supporting role), Effects revolves around a group of indie filmmakers who set out to make a low-budget slasher at a remote Western PA cabin. Harrison is front and center as the cold, calculated director, Lacey Bickel, who struggles to inspire his cast and crew. Among the worker bees are assistant director Celeste (Susan Chapek), and Dom (Pilato), Lacey’s blue-collar, paycheck-to-paycheck camera operator. We’re tossed right into the mix with these creative misfits, getting to know them while they become acquainted with one another. However, as the crew digs deeper into the atypical work Lacey is attempting to manufacture, it becomes clear that their maverick leader may have a sinister agenda tucked up his sleeve. Surplus cameras have been hidden around the cabin, as he's been videotaping them during their most intimate moments. Suddenly, reality and fiction become intertwined, indistinguishable to both the artists and the audience. It’s unclear where the film ends and existence begins. Once the players start to die in horrific fashion, it’s obvious that the unseen stalker isn’t wielding a blade, but rather a lens as his weapon of choice.
Effects was incredibly ahead of its time, standing tall as a meta-textual document made by a collective who were living the very lifestyle they’re depicting onscreen. This is the original “mumblegore”; thirty-somethings sitting around in rooms, philosophizing about the pieces of pop they love while their conversations are punctuated by brutal violence. The performances are casually naturalistic – Pilato’s relaxed demeanor is sure to surprise anyone who knows him only as Rhodes, while Harrison’s pervy, Cronenbergian intellectual seems to always be observing his comrades from a distance, objectively surveying their souls not too unlike the cameras he’s strategically placed inside the house. If anyone goes a bit too broad, it’s Savini (surprise, surprise), but even his practical jokester/coke fiend seems to fit a distinct mold that all of these folks were familiar with in their working lives, having spent countless hours on local film sets not too unlike the fictional one their characters inhabit. That’s ultimately what renders Effects so effective – its artifice is almost impossible to distinguish from the reality of those who created it, once you take the extra-texual facts into account.
Of course, none of this would matter if the actual horror elements didn’t work, and this is honestly where Effects gets slightly tricky. Dusty Nelson exercises an admirable amount of control behind the camera, building suspense and constantly keeping the audience questioning who is actually in command onscreen (the reveal of a secret media station feels like a direct influence on Cabin in the Woods). This sense of dread is aided in no small part by the score Harrison (who would go on to compose the soundtrack to Creepshow for Romero) slathers over even the most mundane scenes. Shimmering synths manipulate and tease, never allowing any sense of ease to envelop the audience. Does Effects ever truly shock? Not really. Instead, it works better as a doom collage. A hazy fringe freakout, each collaborator is so used to playing multiple roles, both on and off camera, that they’re able to fluidly pool their respective talents and craft a work that’s tonally unique, and would fit nicely on a double bill with one of the more personal pictures Romero churned out in-between Dead movies (think: Martin). Like the “Michigan Militia” that saw the Coen Bros, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell cobbling together a body of gonzo genre staples, these Pittsburgh rebels were perfecting a distinct aesthetic style that’s recognizable to fans interested in exploring beyond the international hit that granted them this expressionistic freedom.
Even during the slower moments (and there are quite a few of those), the “guerrilla” aspects of Effects bring an immediacy to the storytelling that’s invigorating. There’s an electric energy generated amongst these outsider, soon-to-be crowned kings that shines through (Savini obviously became an FX guru after Friday the 13th, and Harrison would go on to direct Tales From the Darkside: The Movie). Utilizing the skills they honed working in Pittsburgh public access television, community theater and documentary/industrial filmmaking, the crew becomes a full-blown unit, overflowing with camaraderie. Yes, the seams show and the finished product is rough around the edges, but that’s what’s so endlessly charming about it. Effects is both an intriguing horror picture and a fictionalization of this creative collective’s private hang-outs, only at the end of each coke party, one of these Iron City-swilling goofs is snuffed out by a lunatic.
*Apologies for the kinda shitty DVD art being used in place of a poster above. Due to the lack of a theatrical release, there appears to be no official one sheet available.
This Week at Weird Wednesday: Rappin’
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She; Dolls; Alice, Sweet Alice; Starship Troopers; Message From Space; Rabid; Child’s Play; Lost in the Desert; Suspiria