Larry Cohen’s Special Movie
Special Effects (1984): 6 out of 10: I am starting to think I like Larry Cohen the director and I love Larry Cohen the screenwriter, but I but am not really a particular fan of Larry Cohen the filmmaker.
Larry Cohen movies always have something to recommend them. (The Michael Moriarty method acting in Q, The wonderful anti consumerism (and pro right-wing militia?) plot of The Stuff, The killer baby in It’s Alive. There is always something to recommend Larry. Special Effects is not different. There are some great ideas and bits in this movie.
The Good: The plot is a Hitchcockian mishmash (Cohen had written the script years earlier, hoping the master himself would direct.) There are direct homages to many of Hitchcock’s films, particularly Vertigo. The overall plot is a film director in a rage (Eric Bogosian) strangles aspiring actress (Zoë Lund) while filming a private sex scene (aka an audition).
When her yokel estranged husband (Brad Rijn) is pinned for the crime Bogosian decides to make his comeback movie using the accused husband, a lookalike for the dead wife, and the snuff footage he secretly filmed earlier of her strangulation. He bails the husband out of Rikers to force him to be in the movie, scours the city to find a replacement actress for the dead girl (This is where the Vertigo plot kicks in) and even offers the police lieutenant investigating the case (a delightful Kevin O’Connor hamming it up) a screen credit to help with the movie so he can make sure the husband takes the fall for the murder when all is said and done.
You know what? That is a good plot. There are other things that work well in the movie. Cohen does plenty of location shooting with great street and crowd shots of 1983’s New York, which he captures perfectly. Like C.H.U.D. or Desperately Seeking Susan, it really adds a lot to the film.
Speaking of good plot, fans of well lit nudity also won’t be disappointed. This is practically a Cinemax film for long stretches. (I know I compare Special Effects to Vertigo above, but in reality it is more like that Vertigo copycat Brian De Palma’s Body Double). Larry Cohen (for a change) isn’t shy when the sex scenes start (and considering the story, there are quite a few of them)
The Bad: First and goal and Larry Cohen has fumbled the ball once again. What a disappointment. The crowd seems used to this kind of display, but still it has to hurt Cohen’s fans that once again he couldn’t cross the goal line when he was so close.
Let me give you a set-up of a scene. Yokel husband steals what he believes is footage of his toddler son (Don’t ask) from Bogosian’s plant filled Batman villain townhouse (Which is spectacular and looks exactly like what I imagine Poison Ivy’s lair would be). Instead, yokel grabs the original footage of his wife’s murder.
So here he is about to show the footage of what he believes is his little boy to the actress playing his dead wife. (Why? Again don’t ask) but he is having trouble working the projector because he is an Okie and projectors run on electricity. Meanwhile, Bogosian discovering the theft rushes to yokel’s apartment before he can show the footage.
This is a well set-up Hitchcockian suspense scene. And Larry blows it like an actress late on her rent. He rushes the scene. You have great suspense and have spent a long time setting it up. Let it breathe. Let the audience catch up to your brilliance. Let us see the characters sweat a little. Nope, Larry wraps it up unclimatically within a minute or two.
There are some great sets in Special Effects (Bogosian’s Poison ivy townhome above) and some great directorial flourishes (Bogosian walking in a sea of headshots looking for an actress to match the dead girl) and some unexpected humor (Bogosian getting the headshot of Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie). And yet so much of the film looks cheap. Really cheap.
The opening ten minutes reminds me of an experimental film one would make on day two of owning a camera (It initially convinced one reviewer that it was one of those films within a film gags like the opening of Doug and Bob McKenzie’s Strange Brew). The film seems schizophrenic. With an arty shot of a dead girl in the front seat of a car at Coney Island followed by a scene filmed by your drunk aunt.
The Ugly: Speaking of schizophrenia, we are going to talk about clothing averse actress Zoë Lund’s performance in a minute but first this important message. I have never been a member of the Eric Bogosian fan club, but he is decent here. He seems to be the only real actor in the movie for long stretches. He makes for a good psychopathic killer but Cohen’s script unwisely gives him few opportunities to go full Bogosian and, as pointed out above, the direction undercuts what should be tense scenes.
Then there is our Okie, Brad Rijn. Brad’s IMDb page doesn’t list many credits and only two not related directly to Cohen. It is also filled with lies. For one thing, it calls him an actor. It is as if Cohen wanted him to be his Joe Dallesandro. Alas, Cohen would have been better off hiring Randy Jones. Heck, he would have been better off going to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and hiring the first young guy he saw wearing a cowboy hat.
Somehow Brad Rijn gives only the third worst performance of the film. Zoë Lund easily takes the top two slots. Her performance as a struggling actress is one for the books. Lund is struggling all right. Struggling with a southern accent that came from the same part of the South Jude Law’s southern accent does. Her line reading is atrocious. There are published reports that the southern fried portion of performance was dubbed as Lund couldn’t nail the accent. Well, they apparently hired a voice actor used to playing across from Henery Hawk.
Lund uses her own voice on the slightly better (Only in comparison) role of the actress hired to play the dead wife. Once again though she seems completely lost. As if she wasn’t sure what emotion the scene called for, so she would try all of them. I kept waiting for a punch line involving the actress having multiple personalities or being an alien who never met a human before, but it never showed up. (Being a Larry Cohen film, these are actual possible plot twists).
I think Zoë Lund simply gives the kind of performance that gives Elizabeth Berkley a run for her money. (Like Berkley she looks good without her clothes which seems to be almost every scene but good lord she is all over the place in the acting department to the point of distraction.)
What is strange is unlike Rijn, Lund is an accomplished actor. She was brilliant in Ms .45. One of the better performances of the early eighties. The way she conveyed emotion as a mute rape victim turned predator was amazing. Nobody can play a mute like Zoë Lund… a mute… a mute… Ohhh, I think we found the answer here.
In Conclusion: Larry Cohen movie’s have great memories and time makes one forget what a slog they can actually be. Every ten years I re-watch It’s Alive for some top-notch seventies social commentary and killer baby action, only to remember halfway through the screening that Larry filmed a third of the movie in pitch blackness.
Larry Cohen is hardly the only director to take a can’t miss high concept and fumble near the goal line. (Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond is one that springs to mind) Upon reflection, I wish Larry Cohen had made his comeback in the mid-nineties instead of the early two-thousands. I would have loved to see his take on Batman & Robin. He nailed the Poison Ivy lair.