Larry Cohen Collection: “Special Effects”

Special Effects

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Next up in the Larry Cohen Collection is 1984’s “Special Effects,” a murder thriller starring Eric Bogosian.

“Special Effects” was both written and directed by Larry Cohen, his twelfth feature to both helm and write.

One of the producers for “Special Effects” was Paul Kurta, who frequently produced Larry Cohen movies such as “Q: The Winged Serpent” and “It’s Alive III,” and has more recently produced the hit television shows “Hell on Wheels” and “Veronica Mars.” Another one of the “Special Effects” producers was Barry Shils, who also produced “The Stuff,” “A Return To Salem’s Lot,” and the notorious Nicolas Cage movie “Vampire’s Kiss.”

The score for “Special Effects” was provided by Michael Minard, who also contributed music for “A Return To Salem’s Lot” and a film called “The Mutilator.”

The cinematography on “Special Effects” was provided by Paul Glickman, who also worked on Larry Cohen films “God Told Me To,” “The Stuff,” and “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.” He also worked on a handful of other productions, such as “Frankenstein vs. Dracula” and the incestuously-named “Sex Family Robinson.”

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The editing for “Special Effects” was once again done by frequent Larry Cohen collaborator Armond Lebowitz,  who cut “Full Moon High,” “The Ambulance,” “The Stuff,” and “Q: The Winged Serpent” among others.

“Special Effects” assistant director Jenny Fitzgibbons was a regular Larry Cohen collaborator as both an assistant director and as an accountant / auditor. As the latter, she has also worked on such movies and television programs as “The Tree of Life,” “Limitless,” and the remake of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”

The cast of “Special Effects” includes Eric Bogosian (“Talk Radio,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Wonderland”) in his first major role, Brad Rijn (“Perfect Strangers,” “A Return To Salem’s Lot”), and the late Zoe Lund (“Bad Lieutenant”) in two roles. Zoe Lund sadly died very young due to a drug-related heart issue, which isn’t particularly surprising given her advocacy of heroin use. Bogosian is now a recognizable television character actor as well as a regular stage performer, whereas Brad Rijn mostly only appeared in Larry Cohen movies in his brief film career.

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The story of “Special Effects” centers around the murder of a young actress by a declining director, who appears to get away with the crime. The director, seeing an opportunity and the inspiration to right his sinking career, decides to make a movie about the murder, going so far as to enlist the aide of of the deceased actress’s husband, the lead investigator on the murder case, and a doppelganger of the victim.

“Special Effects” is not a particularly well-remembered movie, and there aren’t a whole lot of reviews of it out there. It currently holds a 5.2 rating on IMDb, as well as an average rating of 2.9/5 on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Despite the mixed reviews, I found a lot to like about “Special Effects.” Bogosian in particular is great, and portrays a thoroughly manipulative and very creepy character. I’m a big fan of his acclaimed performance in “Talk Radio” (which he also wrote), and it is clear in “Special Effects” just how talented of an actor he is. He has bounced around between crime movies, comedies, and even action movies over his career, and I can’t say that I have ever seen a performance of his that I wasn’t impressed by. All of that said, this is one of the best performances of his that I have seen, next to only “Talk Radio.”

“Special Effects” is a very slow-paced movie, particularly for a thriller, which I am sure turned a lot of people off. I do wish it moved a little quicker, but the pacing didn’t bother me all too much. It seemed to fit with the atmosphere, which is more like a dark, looming presence than the conventional high-strung tension found in thrillers. The tone is really off-putting and unconventional, but I am tempted to say that it is that way by design.

Of the problems with “Special Effects”, the most notable are the weak performances from many in the accessory cast, which is not particularly deep. I also wasn’t particularly impressed with Zoe Lund, though a lot of that probably has to do with the way her characters are written. In particular, I found the character of Mary Jean to be nearly unwatchable. The review of “Special Effects” over at “The Obsessive Movie Nerd” captures my thoughts on her pretty well:

Unfortunately, Elaine is a very wishy-washy character. She proceeds to kinda-sorta fall in love with Keefe (even though she thinks he’s guilty), she kinda-sorta flirts with Neville (even though she thinks he’s a jerk), and she fully commits herself to playing the part (even though she doesn’t want to be an actress). I suppose Cohen felt that giving Elaine such contradictions would make her a more fully formed character in less screen time–after all, her character is introduced nearly halfway through the film. Maybe in the hands of a better actress, these character turns would have made more sense, but Tamerlis (famous in certain circles for her amazing performance in Abel Ferrara’s disturbing revenge flick, Ms. 45) just isn’t very good this time around. While she’s more comfortable as brassy New Yorker Elaine, she completely misses the mark as Mary Jean, playing these early scenes like the world’s funniest Cat on a Hot Tin Roof spoof.

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This isn’t so much as complaint as an observation, but all of the character in “Special Effects” are just awful people, there isn’t anyone to pull for. The whole movie is generally cynical, which oddly reminded me of Larry Cohen’s comedy “Full Moon High.” Despite the two movies being polar opposites of each other tonally, they both share a certain cynicism about the world that occasionally rises to the surface in Cohen screenplays.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about the score for “Special Effects.” The synthesizer-heavy background feels like it is aiming for a John Carpenter style, but comes off feeling like an obvious knock-off. Michael Minard doesn’t have a whole lot of film music credits, and there might be a reason for that. At the same time, the style fits the movie in a lot of ways, but it certainly could have been pulled off better.

“Special Effects” undoubtedly has a really cool and interesting concept behind it, and has flashes of being Hitchcock-esque. That said, they are definitely just flashes. Overall, I can definitely see why it didn’t resonate with a lot of people, and why it is one of the many obscure entries in Larry Cohen’s filmography. Still, there are some very redeeming elements that make it worth checking out, not the least of which is Bogosian’s performance. If you are a Larry Cohen fan, look into digging this one up. Otherwise, “Special Effects” probably won’t have much draw for general audiences.

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