“Murder, madness, suicide. That’s what stars are made of today. It’s the glorification of the nobody”.
Larry Cohen and social commentary are as inseparable as yin and yang, and while the prolific New Yorker peppered the majority of his films with varying degrees of finely crafted observational discourse, it was perhaps in the eighties that his screenplays shed the shackles of subtlety with greater regularity.
For example, in It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987), we saw the media, abortion and Cuba as the subject of Cohen’s biting wordplay, while a few years prior to that he gave us The Stuff (1985), rich in its condemnation of an increasingly consumption obsessed society that’s so often at the mercy of big business.
Although SPECIAL EFFECTS (1984) is an examination of the fragility of fame, Cohen also became fascinated with the fall of many of his contemporaries from the pedestal of Hollywood directorial royalty. Always an outsider, Cohen had the vantage point of seeing the careers of Michael Cimino and Peter Bogdanovich blossom with acclaim and awards for films like The Deer Hunter and The Last Picture Show, before high profile disasters like Heaven’s Gate (1980) and At Long Last Love (1975) made them, in some cases, unemployable.
Cohen translated this fall from grace into the character of Chris Neville (Eric Bogosian), an ambitious young director who after a handful of under-performing feature films finds his career in the doldrums and desperately in need of revitalisation. One night, after murdering a wannabe young actress who he lures back to his apartment, he hits upon the idea of making this heinous deed into the storyline for his next movie, and casting the dead woman’s clueless husband to boot.
Registering as one of Cohen’s strangest movies in an impressive resume, it’s one he describes as one of his favourites. While that may cause a tilted head of quizzical bemusement among the legions of Cohenistas, if you break down two key aspects of the picture, it’s easy to see why the maestro holds it in such high regard.
As with any Larry Cohen film, the casting is the secret to its success, and typically the wily auteur used his finely-honed instinct to offer a first leading role to Eric Bogosian, a part that the Massachusetts born actor tackles with aplomb. For the femme fatale however, Zoe Lund may have been seen as more of a gamble. The waif-like actress only had one role under her size six belt, albeit an iconic one at that, in Abel Ferrara’s Ms.45 (1981). But, her drug dependency was well-known, although Cohen is quick to point out that it was a problem free shoot; “Nothing manifested itself during the picture”, he recalls during the commentary on this Olive Films Blu-ray.
Aside from her painfully thin figure, there’s very little to indicate Lund’s addiction, as she turns in a dual-role performance that’s part-Audrey Hepburn, part-Dorothy Stratten, and throughout her tragically short career, she’s rarely been better. Her on-screen husband is played by Brad Rijn, who to Cohen’s complete bemusement never went on to achieve the cinematic success he deserved, racking up a mere five feature film credits over the course of his career, while completing the foursome of eye-catching acting ability is Kevin O’Connor as Detective Delroy. It’s a real scene-stealing turn from the diminutive actor, whose probing into the murder leads to him to assume a role as technical advisor to Neville’s movie; “Delroy. Homicide” utters the raspy voice as he introduces himself to the filmmaker, “Perfect casting!” is the directors wonderfully meta retort.
Despite the fine cast of characters that populate Special Effects, there’s one star that appears in almost every Larry Cohen film that’s impossible to outshine, and that’s New York City. As always, Cohen takes his camera to a plethora of unique locations around the city, but perhaps there’s none more compelling than Lowell Nesbitt’s living space in West 12th St. Decorated to the max with some of the artists most eye-catching work, it’s a dwelling of dizzying visual splendour, and provides the film with an identity that’s completely unique.
While a John Carpenter / Kurt Russell commentary may get the populist nod for entertainment value, I defy anyone with cinephile tendencies not to sit in awe of the husky tones of Larry Cohen. Knocking out scripts for American television in his late teens, and creating The Invaders, one of the most iconic Sci-Fi shows of all time by the time he was twenty-six, this maverick – now seventy-five – is one of the last great independent filmmakers, so to listen to this newly recorded yack track, moderated by King Cohen director Steve Mitchell is one of the highlights of my film watching year.
His self-sufficiency is inspiring, as is his disdain for the suits, ensuring that a Larry Cohen film is an organic experience that sometimes goes in an unexpected direction; something that under the watchful eye of a studio would be nigh-on impossible. “If I wanna do a new scene, I just do it!” he stresses to Mitchell, emphasising his control, “No one looks at my dailies or my script!”.
Originally written under the title The Cutting Room, Cohen reveals that Special Effects was shot with one of the lowest budgets he’s ever worked with, yet in his opinion has the some of the greatest production values he’s ever put on film. It’s hard to disagree, and although a cynical eye may view this early eighties feature as Hitchcock-lite or perhaps lo—fi De Palma (Cohen makes reference to Obsession in his commentary), it’s too much an embodiment of Cohen’s own particular style to be so easily pigeon-holed.
SPECIAL EFFECTS is available now on region A locked Blu-ray from Olive Films
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