May 27, 2011

Special Effects

The sleazy B-movies of indie horror auteur Larry Cohen have always intrigued me, but I have always found myself equally repelled by them in one way or another. From the venomous anti-Anglo hatred that permeates throughout his pseudo-blaxploitation (it is really an Aryan-ploitation work) flick Bone (1972) to the mind-numbingly blatant satiric anti-consumerism message of The Stuff (1985), Larry Cohen's pretensions towards making quasi-intellectual cult masterpieces is – to say the least – quite silly. The other night I had the opportunity to watch one of Cohen’s less well known works – Special Effects (1984) – an erotic psychological thriller that wishes it was Hitchockian in nature, but instead, it seems more like a rip-off of a rip-off, as if some totally mediocre filmmaker attempted to create a low-budget Brian De Palma clone. Despite the less than spectacular quality and special effects of Special Effects, I can say without straining my honesty that it is now my favorite Larry Cohen film. At the most superficial level, I enjoyed Special Effects because it features my favorite junky renaissance woman Zoe Lund. After first seeing Lund’s performance in Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981), it didn’t take me long to realize that she was the most beautiful woman to have ever grace the torn screens of gritty grindhouse theaters. After all, most exploitation actresses are a dime a dozen with acting talents that fall below that of your average porn star (albeit, many were actual porn stars). Of course, I found Special Effects interesting for other reasons; namely the way in which Cohen seems to glorify the film’s villain; a filmmaker – who like himself – exploits the most archaic instincts of the viewer just to make an extra buck.

During the beginning of Special Effects, the viewer is introduced to psychopathic filmmaker Christopher Neville - a man who cites Abraham Zapruder – the man that accidentally documented the assassination of JFK with his handy 8mm camera – as his greatest influence as a filmmaker. Saint Christopher describes Zapruder as “honest Abe", but the filmmaker is not so honest himself. Neville – a man whose filmmaking career is on the steady decline – decides that killing a girl from the country (who he certainly sees as disposable white trash) and making a borderline Cinéma vérité film about the murder (replacing the girl's husband as the killer) will reboot his plummeting filmmaking career. Neville kind of reminds me of John Landis, as he also put people’s lives in jeopardy for the sake of making sensational smut. During the filming of Twilight Zone (1982), horror/comedy hack Landis caused the death of Vic Morrow (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s father) and two small Asian children due to his negligence while directing the film. Of course, in Larry Cohen’s Special Effects – the murderous filmmaker is fictional, yet it is quite apparent that Larry Cohen seems to sympathize with his anti-hero, as if he is living through his invented character. After all, Cohen surely does not identify with the intellectually handicapped female protagonist nor her idiotic (yet well meaning) Southern husband. Like Larry Cohen, the killer film director featured in Special Effects is also of the Jewish persuasion. In fact, Cohen equipped the film with insider Judaic dialogue. For example, the deadly director states at one point of the film (out of nowhere) to one of his film actresses, “Tell them you went to Israel to work in a Kibbutz or something.” Although Jerusalem is technically the Judaic capital of the world; the setting of Special Effects – New York City – is no doubt the unofficial Jewish capital of the world. The film also features a variety of Jewish stereotypes that would put most Nazi propaganda to shame. Filmmaker Christopher Neville demoralizes and enslaves every person that has the misfortune of crossing his conspiring path. Neville believes that the “glorification of a nobody” is what is hot in Hollywood and he plans to capitalize off of that trend. Neville also does not shy away from saying “murder, madness; that is what stars are made of nowadays.” As you learn in the film, Neville not only murders an ambitious actress, but he also frames the victim's husband – a good ol’ southern goy boy – into inheriting the blame.

Despite being a sub-par horror work, Special Effects – a film with a somewhat misleading title – still manages to titillate and invigorate the viewer. Thankfully, Special Effects lacks the intellectual pretensions that are so commonly associated with conman Cohen’s work. It is not often that one gets to see a film where Hollywood hack filmmakers are portrayed as parasitic pimps and enthusiastic murderers, thus, Special Effects makes for a fairly therapeutic and equally liberating work. In fact, Special Effects features a story worthy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Although Larry Cohen never obtained the real-life prestige that fictional psychopath filmmaker Christopher Neville acquired; he at least got the opportunity to live through that character via Special Effects. Unfortunately, Bone does not pay a visit to Christopher Neville, but, of course, he is a fellow defiler of white women, thus a man after his own heart. If you’re looking to watch a smashing and equally trashy kind of horror film, Special Effects will provide one with a special (albeit incriminating) experience for those that still doubt that lack of nobility that is the norm in Hollyweird. 

-Ty E

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