The Trigger Effect (1996) from Johnny Web

A film more notable for what it might have been rather than what it was.

One of the most brilliant things about that famous TV series "The Twilight Zone" was that people were often afraid of nothing. And that was more frightening that the reality of any plastic monster. As an example, filled with unexplained dread, people would walk through empty streets. When in the right mood, people are terrified by every curtain blown by the wind in an upstairs window, by what might be hidden by every approaching corner. The fear would be fueled by paranoia.

I can't remember anybody since then who was as effective at exploiting unfounded or unrealized fear as Mr Serling, but this movie tries to recreate that sense of palpable tension that Serling loved.

It starts in the normalcy of everyday irritations. People cut in front of other people in line, spill coffee on other people, carelessly bump into people, talk too loud in the theater. People get irritated, they scare other people, or they are scared by other people. Kyle Maclachlan is terrified of two tough-looking black guys who call his wife a bitch for saying "shh" to them in the theater. The couple moves to different seats. We can tell that the black guys have forgotten the whole incident by the end of the movie, but Kyle is afraid to walk by them. Kyle walks to his car, and there is no reason for him to be afraid, but fear is in the air. The shadowy underground garage is filled with tension. Why? Do they think the two black guys will attack them? What the hell are they afraid of ? The answer is nothing. Nothing happens.

The irritation and fear demonstrated in the prologue at these miniscule things is the director's way of introducing a question. How irritated would we get at each other, how fearful would we be, if something really bad happened?

It does.

A mysterious blackout occurs, and for reasons nobody understands, it affects phone lines, and all radio and television stations, so there is no communication. Nobody understands what is going on. Rumors travel like spreading brush fires. It's the commies, the martians, whatever ..... The social fabric starts to decay. People start to ignore the normal conventions of society. There is some looting, some excessive gunplay, some more paranoia. The nights are particularly frightening. People don't trust each other. Is their fear founded? Is it paranoia? Because there are some legitimate reasons to be afraid, the fear builds upon itself, and people find more reasons to be afraid and distrustful.

Great set up, abetted by spooky and imaginative directorial techniques. This was the first film that David Koepp ever directed, but he shows some tremendous polish. The guy has some knock-out talent, and a wonderful sense of what is ominous.

  • The POV shot. But whose POV is it?
  • The shadow barely glimpsed behind the curtain. Or was it there at all?
  • The innocent knife. But whose hand is it in?

Koepp is the master of the red herring! In fact he shows almost too much polish at this, as if every scene were too slick and too contrived. Koepp has been a writer, and a good one (Carlito's Way, e.g.). He's worked with most of Hollywood's top directors, Spielberg more than once, and he has studied them well. On top of the rich pictorialization and lighting skills he learned from them, he adds his own sense of mood and symbols. It's a great looking film and maintains the tension throughout.

Only one problem. He just doesn't know how to get out of it. His own script falls apart in a ho-hum conclusion to a rich set-up, like a ball team loading the bases then failing to score. So it's not an especially good film, but it is a very promising one.

Koepp later directed Stir of Echoes, which also impressed me in a lot of ways, but which also just barely missed the mark. I hope he doesn't get discouraged by his lack of a big hit, and keeps at this sort of film, because I think he's going to get it just right pretty soon, and it's going to be a great ride when he does. I wonder what he could do with a good Stephen King story?

No nudity, but a see-through bra. See below for additional comments.

Box Office: $4 million

IMDB summary: 5.8 out of 10.

DVD info from Amazon. There was a big disappointment in the DVD. There is a scene where Elisabeth Shue takes her nipple out of her bra, and the nipple could be seen in the 4:3 video tape. The anamorphic 1.85 widescreen DVD is absolutely stunning, but the nipple got cut off the bottom of the screen!

There are no major extras, just the usual bios, brief production notes and a trailer.

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