In this rather odd horror film from 1984, dumb-as-mud Keefe Wateran (Brad Rijn) travels from Dallas to New York City, hoping to bring his wife back home. Andrea (Zoe Tamerlis, the star of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45) abandoned both Keefe and their son because she wants to be a star. When the film opens, she’s posing topless in a replica of the Oval Office. Keefe is not too happy when he discovers that his wife is apparently appearing in politically-themed nude photo shoots.
And the thing is, you feel like you should feel sorry for Keefe, seeing as how his wife abandoned not only him but also their child. But Keefe is just such a self-righteous know-it-all that you really can’t blame Andrea for leaving him. As soon he starts going on and on about how she’s abandoned her family just to be a tramp in New York, you’re pretty much automatically on Andrea’s side.
Unfortunately, when Andrea turns up dead at Coney Island, the police automatically suspect that Keefe’s responsible. When they show up to arrest Keefe for the murder, he’s only wearing his boxer shorts. One of the detectives comments that, if he was going to commit murder, he would at least wear interesting underwear. And, again, you may want to sympathize with Keefe but the detective has a point. You need to dress for the job you want, not the one you have. I have an entire drawer full of murder thongs, just in case I ever decide to go for a career change.
Keefe is bailed out of jail and provided a high-priced attorney by Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian). Neville is a big-time Hollywood director …. or, at least, he was until he directed a huge flop. (Apparently, the film had over $30,000 worth of special effects, which I guess was a lot back in 1984.) Neville, whom Andrea was supposed to have a meeting with on the night that she died, says that he’s fascinated by Keefe and Andrea’s story. In fact, he wants to turn it into a movie and he wants to hire Keefe as a special consultant.
However, what we know (but what Keefe doesn’t know, though he’d be able to figure it out if he wasn’t such a total and complete freaking moron), is that Neville murdered Andrea! He strangled her when she objected to him filming them while they were having sex. Now, Neville wants to make a movie about the murder. He even hires Elaine Bernstein (Zoe Tamerlis, again) to play Andrea in the film, despite the fact that Elaine has no acting experience. What’s important is that Elaine looks like Andrea. Neville also manages to manipulate the rather stupid Keefe into playing himself in the film. Soon, Neville is suggesting that perhaps they need to film a scene of Keefe and Andrea having rough sex and maybe Keefe should choke her during the scene….
And it just gets stranger from there. Special Effects is Hitchcock-style thriller from director Larry Cohen, one that’s got a bit more on its mind than just murder and a few heavy-handed jokes about the film industry. Neville may be smooth and manipulative while Keefe may be loud and a bit on the dumb side but, ultimately, they’re both obsessed with turning Elaine into Andrea. Neville wants to transform Elaine into the Andrea that he victimized while Keefe wants to turn Elaine into his idealized version of Andrea, the version that never wanted anything more than to be his wife and the mother of his children. In the end, they’re both creeps. (Admittedly, only one of them is murderer.)
Adding to the film’s strange tone are the three memorably eccentric lead performances. All three of the actors do unexpected things with their characters. Bogosian is wonderfully smug and smoothly manipulative as Neville while Brad Rijin goes all out in making Keefe one of the stupidest characters ever to appear in a leading role in a motion picture. (He’s like Bruce Campbell, without the comedic timing.) And finally, Zoe Tamerlis does a great job playing four different characters — Andrea, Neville’s version of Andrea, Keefe’s version of Andrea, and finally Esther.
Special Effects is an intriguing mix of thrills, horror, and satire with an undercurrent of anger. One gets the feeling that Neville is a stand-in for many of the soulless directors who had the type of career that Cohen felt he deserved. Track it down and check it out.