Originally released in 1980, Effects has been missing in action for decades. It’s a low budget horror film that’s of particular interest to fans because it was made by the Pittsburgh movie mafia that hung around with George Romero, and the film stars Joe Pilato (best known as Captain "Choke on ‘em!" Rhodes from Day of the Dead) as a special effects guy who finds himself caught up in the making of a snuff film. Tom Savini stars as well, in full on hyperactive mode.
The movie disappeared for a long time, but it’s now out on DVD thanks to Synapse films, complete with a truly fantastic special edition that includes a commentary and an hour long documentary called AfterEffects. Last week I had a chance to talk to John Harrison, who both produced the film and starred in it as the creepy snuff director. John’s had the kind of career that seems so cool to me – he was Romero’s assistant director; he was the Screwdriver Zombie in Dawn of the Dead; he composed the music for Day of the Dead; he wrote and directed the SciFi Channel Dune miniseries and wrote Children of Dune; he directed the Tales from the Darkside movie – and so much more. Seriously, just check out his IMDB page and prepare to be amazed.
John gave a great interview, and you’re about to read not only his recollections of the old days in Pittsburgh, but also his hopes for the future of the Dune franchise, his upcoming collaborations with Clive Barker, and a very interesting hint about the future of Romero’s Dead films.
Effects is out on DVD now, and you can buy it through CHUD by clicking here!
Q: Why was Effects gone for so long? There are so many other low budget films that are much worse than Effects that keep making the rounds, but this good little movie disappeared for twenty some odd years.
Harrison: It’s ironic that the fact that it has been lost so long has in a way given it a new life because there’s been an urban legend built up throughout the years with people who know the Romero group of us and the whole Pittsburgh scene from back there who wonder what happened to it. That is how it came to fall into the hands of Synapse. They came to me and asked me the question and said they had some people they know and one thing led to the next.
The short answer is that it was partly a bad distribution deal. When we finished the film we made an initial distribution deal with a small company. Through no fault of their own they just didn’t have the resources to promote it properly so it had a very limited theatrical run. Once that was over the company wasn’t able to pursue it in any other way. Back then, if you remember, there really wasn’t a home video industry. This was back in the early 80s and there were battles between VHS and Beta and Blockbuster didn’t exist. It was all little video clubs and stuff like that.
When that particular distribution deal lapsed in the early 90s, we wanted to make another distribution deal with a small company that was going to try to put it out on home video. Again, they were just unable to do it and frankly I couldn’t interest anybody in it for a while. Unless it had big stars or was a big hit in theatrical release – really it wasn’t until the end of the 90s when the DVD market really exploded with all of these more targeted releases, these more cult films, specific kind of genre movies that found their own niche in small release patterns. Companies like Synapse have grown up in their wake and been able to find their own niche as well in distributing these kinds of movies. We were lucky to find Synapse. We were never going to be able to take this to Warner Home Video or Universal – the movie was too old at that point and it didn’t have any big stars in it.
Q: Synapse also gave you guys a great DVD. You have an excellent documentary on the DVD, where all the guys involved in Effects, including George Romero, get back together and talk about the making of it. Had you guys all been in touch over the years?
Harrison: Oh yeah. I was George Romero’s assistant director all through the 80s and I did the score on his movies. Pat Buba was his editor. We always hang out. I go back to Pittsburgh because I still have family there. George and Chris and me and my wife get together out here on occasion. George and I have several projects in development together. We’ve all been friends and keep in touch.
The interesting thing about that documentary is that the fellow who introduced me to Synapse’s Don May, Michael Felscher, is the guy who did that documentary. When Don wanted to put this together he called me and said, ‘We’d like to make this a collector’s edition and put some extras on it, what have you got?’ I said we could do the commentary and I could out to Pittsburgh and here in California I could get people together and we could shoot interviews with everybody who had something to do with it. We dumped all that on Michael’s lap. He came up with the idea of Pittsburgh in the 70s and that whole independent film era and came up with that great documentary. We’ve screened it a number of times – the film and the documentary – and people like the documentary as much as they like the film.
Q: The documentary is really great. It’s just fascinating to see some kind of regional, independent filmmaking turn into a real thing for people. What’s most impressive is that you guys came out of Pittsburgh, which isn’t a film town, and you’ve all gone on to have Hollywood careers since.
Harrison: That is the great thing about what that documentary portrays. Back then, as we say in the documentary, you didn’t come out of film school or any industry training. Pittsburgh was a steel town, not a film town. If you wanted to be in that business, you found like minded individuals and you got together almost like a band – you’ve got a guitar so you’re the guitarist, you’ve got a bass so you’re the bassist, you got a camera so you’re the cinematographer, you can act so you’re in it – and you basically just did everything. It was a wonderful training ground.
And you know the thing is, that was going on all over the country back then. There were no credit card movies because credit cards didn’t exist to do that kind of thing and there weren’t little DV cams where you could just make a movie on your computer. What you found were these little clusters all over the country of people who just wanted to make movies. There was us in Pittsburgh with George; Wes Craven was doing his thing in New Jersey before he moved out west; Tobe Hooper down in Texas; Sam Raimi up in Detroit; and there were all these clusters of people just basically saying, ‘We can do that!’ Really just on a hope and a prayer and faith we’d go off and do these things, and have a great time.
Q: One of the interesting things about the film is that it feels really modern. While it definitely looks and feels like it was made in the late 70s and early 80s, storywise and thematically it’s incredibly current.
Harrison: I’m really pleased you say that because I have always felt that way. I don’t want to sound pretentious but I think to some extent the film was ahead of its time. You look at reality television now and what’s going on with television shows, with the internet, with mobile casts on your cellphone. What they’re talking about in the story of the movie is very much what’s going on now – what’s the reality between reality and fiction, and if you don’t know the difference, is there a difference?
At the time we were also talking about that in relation to special effects. Director Dusty Nelson says this so articulate in the documentary – effects were getting so good (and this has been completely proven with CG and everything else) that you really can’t tell the difference. I just saw Saw II, I know Emanuelle Vaugier, and that scene where she’s trying to get the syringe and she puts her hands up through the glass – there’s no way that isn’t real. Of course I know it isn’t real, I just saw Emanuelle and she’s still alive! But you get to the point where the line is so thinly drawn, and you’re right, the issues and themes are still contemporary.
Q: Hollywood is so into doing remakes now – how would you feel about a remake of Effects?
Harrison: The thought has crossed our minds. Right now what we’d love to do is see this get out there so that everyone who is a fan of the genre could see and enjoy what we did.
But no, I would consider remaking it. Dusty and I were having a great laugh about this the other day, because there are those scenes where they pull the pictures off the wall and you see the hidden cameras. Of course back then the cameras were huge, and you’d have to circle the globe with your hidden cable to do what is supposedly being done. Right now you could do the movie and record it with your cellphone, or your little DV cam. The reality today is that it would be very easy [to make that snuff film]. I think we’ll have to see how it does.
The other thing is that, for all of its creepiness, it’s not a really gory movie. I don’t know how the audience would take to it these days with Saw II and Land of the Dead and very graphic kinds of movies. I’m not sure how it would do.
Q: It’s not really graphic, but that snuff film scene still has a real punch. It looks real.
Harrison: That’s the idea. And we’ve had people tell us we’re lying when we tell them it’s not real.
Q: That’s a compliment.
Harrison: Yeah! We’ve had a lot of controversy about that. We were lambasted at certain film festivals. At the US Film Festival, which became Sundance, we were almost ran out of town on a rail – for a lot of reasons, but that particularly offended people. But it’s there for a very good reason.
Q: You wrote the first two Dune miniseries for SciFi Channel, and directed the first. Is there more Dune in the future?
Harrison: I would love it if there were. Richard Rubinstein, the producer, and I would love to keep the franchise going. I have a great relationship with the Herbert family and they love what I’ve done.
I’ve tried to talk the SciFi Channel into doing a series, which would take place during what I call the lost years, which are between the books Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune. There’s a vast area of time that we could create an original series around use the original characters that everybody loves. There are also the prequel books, but SciFi doesn’t want to do it, by the way.
Q: Is it a cost thing?
Harrison: I don’t think it’s the cost at all. I think it’s just creative. They have Battlestar Galactica and they don’t want to be branded as the in space kind of SciFi Channel. Although I don’t think that’s what Dune is. Talk about material that reflects contemporary issues – if Dune isn’t that thing, I don’t know what is.
So we’re talking about maybe doing it as straight to DVD and going straight to the fans. People could collect these like books, which would be great. We’re also talking about the prequel books which Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson created. There has been some talk about remaking the original book, and I guess you would call it remaking David Lynch’s movie. But I wouldn’t be particularly interested in that – I think I’ve done that.
So yeah, the short answer is that I hope there’s more Dune in the future. I love the books and I’ve read them all, and I have all kinds of ideas for how we could continue to keep that material alive.
Q: You’ve also been working with Clive Barker.
Harrison: I adapted his Abarat books for Disney, which are currently stuck in contract negotiations, so I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. He and I really enjoy working with each other and I’m about to start an adaptation of one of his Books of Blood stories for a series of movies that they’re making.
Q: Which story?
Harrison: Book of Blood. I’m going to do the first one. We’re going to turn that into a movie which I hope to direct. Clive and I have been looking for ways to keep working with one another. He was very happy with the adaptation of Abarat, and I was happy that he was happy.
Q: Is that live action or animated?
Harrison: It would be a combination of both, and that’s why it’s tricky. It’s going to be ba hugely expensive movie and I don’t know if Disney is ready to plop down the money at the moment. We took the first Abarat books – there are four of them, or there will be four of them – and I took the first two and created the screenplay. It’s wonderful. It’s magical, it’s fun, it’s got great characters. All the paintings of the great characters Clive imagined come to life in this.
Q: You mentioned that you had some projects you were working on with George Romero. Can you talk about them?
Harrison: I can’t talk about them too much because they’re in the nascent stages. He’s got a wonderful adaptation of Dracula which we would love to do. It’s the original book completely as Stoker wrote it. We had that set up at ABC. I don’t know what we’re going to do with that now.
There are a couple of smaller projects, including one that could be really fun. I can’t talk too much about it, Devin, unfortunately, but what I can say is that it remains in the world he is known for and it would be a new DVD franchise.
Q: Very interesting! And it’s interesting that you keep mentioning direct to DVD stuff. A couple of months ago I interviewed Joss Whedon and he said that they had come to the conclusion that they would probably continue his Buffy and Angel franchises as direct to DVD films. I think that’s there a change going on, isn’t there, in how that direct to DVD stuff is viewed.
Harrison: Definitely, and it’s not just DVD. It’s what I call on demand. What it means to me is we now have got the technology whereby people can get material directly for themselves, whether it’s TiVo’d off some telecommunications device by cable or by satellite or by the big broadcast networks; whether it’s buying a DVD out of a store like you’d buy a book; whether it’s downloading it to your computer – the whole way we consume entertainment is completely changed. I don’t think people realize how much it’s already changed and how much it will change.
People like my kids, they don’t look at the way I looked at. It’s not about going to a facility and being delivered it; it’s when you want it you go get it. For Joss’ stuff, there’s a fanbase there, why shouldn’t he continue to feed it? Why does he need the intermediary of Universal Pictures or NBC to have to pony up the money? Why not just make it and sell it directly to the fans?
Q: And with George’s stuff you could aim something right at the fans, not having to worry about appealing to larger audiences, and you could get around the censorship.
Harrison: Yeah. I think the economics are different – you have to be able to make it for the money. It’s not like you’ll have 150 million dollars for King Kong. You’ll have to be able to make it for a price.
Q: That’s 207 for King Kong now.
Harrison: I was being charitable! [laughs] If you have a brand name, so that you cut through the noise, or if you have an established fanbase, like Joss does with Serenity or Buffy, then why not just continue to make them? Until the fans tire of it or don’t want to see it anymore. I would think we could do that with Dune. Here’s the biggest selling scifi book in history, with millions and millions of copies in every language in the world – why wouldn’t we be getting those DVDs out there with whatever advertising we can? I think that’s a business!
Q: Would you miss the cinematic experience though? Do you think movie theaters would be phased out?
Harrison: I don’t think that will ever happen. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive ideas. Has television ruined the movie business? No, but when television came out, everyone said, ‘Whoops, that’s the end of the movie business.’ It wasn’t so.
The movie business will change, I think. It already has over the last thirty something years. It’s become blockbuster-driven. Yet there are still venues for modestly budgeted pictures. People will always love to go sit in a movie theater. I don’t see that ever changing. I don’t see it as one killing off the other.
Q: Is there anything else you have coming up?
Harrison: I’m ever hopeful that my Painkiller Jane series at SciFi will go. We just don’t know at this point. The pilot will air on December the 10th, and it’s very good. Emanuelle Vaugier is in it, one of the stars of Saw II. A wonderful young actor named Eric Dane is in it, and Richard Roundtree, Shaft.
It’s a wonderful cast and it’s a great concept. What we have in mind for the series, in terms of the themes and the issues we’re going to get into – it’s not just a kick-ass La Femme Nikita superhero, it’s going to deal with scifi now in terms of genetics and evolution and biomechanics and nanotechnology, and all of the things that are happening now. All in the form a great superhero TV franchise!