SpecialEffectsThis 1984 cheapie appears to be writer-director Larry Cohen’s answer to PEEPING TOM, a unique and intelligent account of voyeurism and exploitation in the movie business that, as usual with Cohen, is all-but done in by its low budget and uninspired direction.

SPECIAL EFFECTS hails from Larry Cohen’s mid-1980s period, his most prolific timeframe, when he cast his films largely from the New York underground set. See Cohen’s other 1984 effort PERFECT STRANGERS, which starred LIQUID SKY’S Anna Carlisle. The present film featured the late Zoë Tamarlis—a.k.a. Zoë Lund, the star of Abel Ferrara’s MS. 45 and reportedly a “staunch advocate of heroin drug use” (the cause of her 1999 demise)—together with Eric Bogosian, then known primarily as a playwright, in one of his first-ever film roles.

Andrea is a young actress who’s cast aside her family for a career in the movies. She sets her sights on Chris Neville, an unbankable movie director who agrees to cast Andrea in his latest opus, a low budget affair. In an effort to make his film as real as possible, the psychotic Neville murders Andrea on camera.

Andrea’s estranged husband Keefe is arrested for the killing but is unexpectedly bailed out—by Neville. The latter is making a movie around the murder he committed and wants Keefe to play himself. Neville is contacted by one of the detectives investigating the case, and actually talks the latter into serving as a technical advisor on the film.

The problem is Neville lacks a leading actress to play Andrea, and his casting sessions fail to offer up any viable candidates. But then Keefe happens upon a woman named Elaine who looks just like Andrea. Elaine is quickly roped into headlining the movie, even though she’s a lot tougher and more self-assured than Andrea ever was.

The film shoot is a disaster from the start. Neville bars the detective advisor from the set, which only pisses him off, and Elaine and Keefe start up a romance. Yet Neville it seems will come out on top, by placing a rose in plain view of the murder scene in his film, which catches the attention of the investigating detectives—who recall thorn punctures on Andrea’s corpse. Neville informs the detectives that Keefe instructed him to put the rose in the scene, which would appear to seal his fate.

This is a could-have movie. Larry Cohen’s script is strong, and could have yielded a poisoned valentine to the movie business as pertinent as those of MULHOLLAND DRIVE or the aforementioned PEEPING TOM. Among other things, SPECIAL EFFECTS features a sly nod to Hitchcock’s VERTIGO and a concluding intimation that everything we’ve seen may actually be the film Chris Neville is making. There are also what I assume are numerous in-jokes from Cohen’s own filmmaking career, such as a scene where Neville has to clear the set in order to get his leading actors to perform a sex scene.

SPECIAL EFFECTS would have benefited from a more inventive visual style (a la Brian DePalma) and/or some streetwise grit (a la Abel Ferrara), but Cohen’s bland direction has neither of those things. What does register are cut-rate production values, inappropriately glitzy lighting, crummy synthesizer music and largely indifferent performances.

Eric Bogosian is solid as the sleazy Chris Neville but Zoë Tamarlis is miscast in the second half of her dual role, the headstrong would-be actress Elaine. However, she does fairly well as the fatally naive Andrea, a part with which Tamarlis, who’s no longer with us, was probably all too familiar.

Vital Statistics

Hemdale Film Corporation

Director: Larry Cohen
Producer: Paul Kurta
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
Cinematography: Paul Glickman
Editing: Armond Lebowitz
Cast: Zoë Tamarlis, Eric Bogosian, Brad Rijn, Kevin O’Connor, Bill Oland, H. Richard Greene, Steven Pudenz, Heidi Bassett, John Woehrle, Kitty Summerall, Kris Evans, Mike Alpert