The Unseen (1980)
Dir. Danny Steinmann (as Peter Foleg)
Written by Danny Steinmann (as Peter Foleg), from a story by Steinmann, Tom Burman and... Stan Winston?!
Starring Barbara Bach, Sydney Lassick, Lelia Goldoni, Stephen Furst
Welcome one, welcome all, to the happiest time of year! It’s CHAINSAWNUKAH season again at the We Are Cursed blog! What’s that you say? So was literally all of last year? OK, you got me, I fucked up bad last year and got way in over my head writing long ass reviews, and it took so long to get to all 69 movies (technically, 71, but LEPTIPRICA and FEAR X will have to go on the back burner for the time being) that I only posted the last one about a week ago. This year, a solemn promise, I will not spend the entire year writing about shitty horror movies I saw exclusively in October. I’m going to try and be a little more concise this year and only go really deep on movies that warrant the extra effort. Quantity, not quality is the name of the game here, when there is a good possibility that I’ll top 70 movies again. Especially since --let’s be honest-- that philosophy is probably pretty reflective of the ethos of the films I’ll be watching this time around. When you watch in excess of 70 movies in a single month alone, you eventually see most of the good ones. By this point in my career as a horrorphile with severely out-of-whack personal priorities, I’ve seen the acknowledged classics, I’ve seen the hidden gems, I’ve even seen the uneven-but-interesting minor efforts. If a horror movie has avoided my attention so far, it’s probably not because the world unfairly ignored it.
But hey, you never know. Every year I stumble on a couple unexpected winners. You just have to grind through 120 or so hours of punishing mediocrity and unwatchable garbage to get there! With that stirring call to arms, let us dive right into…
THE UNSEEN is a better-than-expected-not-quite-as-good-as-it-needed-to-be minor 80’s psycho-slasher. It’s too richly scattered with intriguing details to ignore, but also not quite interesting enough to make it worth delving deep into. So what are you supposed to do with a film like that?
Describe it, I suppose. The movie begins with intense, escalating sex sounds, as the camera pans around the walls of a nice city apartment to reveal pictures of apparently happy couple Douglas Barr (DEADLY BLESSING) and Barbara Bach (main Bond girl in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, plus a handful of giallos including BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, and plus she’s married to Ringo Starr, who she met on the set of her next film, 1981’s CAVEMAN. Jesus, what a life! Now that Dos Equis retired their former Most Interesting Man In the World, they might consider giving her a call). But as the credits wind down, the camera winds its way over to the source of those sweet lovin’ grunts, and it turns out to be a less amorous situation than is obviously implied: Barr, who we can see from the photos is a pro pigskin player, is working out, and the camera fixates on a mean-looking scar on his leg. Bach, meanwhile, is looking pissed, and storms out while he stares at her intensely. This will not turn out to be important at all, but it will be referenced several more times.
After she walks out, the movie follows Bach, who it turns out is a TV reporter assigned to do a story on what is apparently the single most fucking important news event in the history of mankind, which is some kind of Danish Heritage festival in some bumfuck nowhere California town. This fucking thing is such a world-shatteringly amazing event that every single hotel room within a hundred miles is booked, and after an error with their reservations, she and her trusty crew (camerawoman Karen Lamm, “Girl on Motorcycle” in THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, and worthless hanger-on Lois Young, BOSOM BUDDIES, who says she feels icky-doody and elects to stay home and have a bath while her friends go out and work, not that this works out too well for her in the long run) find themselves without a place to stay. That is, until they travel to a neighboring town and knock on the door of what appears to be the only occupied building, a run-down museum owned and operated by the socially awkward but endearingly friendly Ernest Keller (character actor Sydney Lassick [ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, COOL AS ICE] getting a rare starring role here). When it proves impossible to find any other options, the girls accept Keller’s offer to stay at his faded gothic mansion with him and his unstable wife Virginia (Lelia Goldoni, John Cassavetes’ SHADOWS, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ) and maybe some other mysterious person who lives in a locked basement that he doesn’t mention. Some kind of Unseen person, you might say. You can guess how well that goes for everyone concerned.
Here’s the thing: this is a pretty simple premise, almost as basic a slasher setup as you can get. In fact how it took three people (including Stan Winston?) to come up with the story of “These three ladies go to a isolated house, and there is a crazy guy living in the cellar who kills them” is quite beyond me (maybe the hard part was coming up with a local festival so awe-inspiring that you’d believe every hotel in a hundred miles was sold out and even media couldn’t get in).
But it doesn’t quite play out the way you expect. I mean, in one sense, it plays out exactly the way you expect; yes, Virginia, there is a inbred mutant cannibal manchild living in squalid filth in the locked basement, and yes, he does climb through the house’s many many grates and crawlspaces to murder the girls. But it’s not quite as simple as all that (spoilers follow). See, the real villain here is actually Keller himself, who it turns out is an abusive, sadistic fiend who knocked up his own mentally ill sister and now keeps his deformed adult son locked in the basement. Here’s the weird thing, though: Keller is nuts, but other than perving out on the girls while they bathe, he actually doesn’t seem to have any malicious intent towards them. I think he really offered his home more or less out of the goodness of his heart, and he’s shocked and horrified when he finds two of them murdered. But then he figures he needs to murder the final one to cover it up, and starts to get a little more unhinged in the process. Meanwhile, the “unseen” killer, when we finally meet him for the finale, is pretty frightening, but not entirely unsympathetic. He’s a big, deformed, intellectually disabled man wearing a diaper living in a squalid basement with the door chained shut, and it’s clear he doesn’t really know what he’s doing and you can hardly blame him for it (actor Stephen Furst is so convincing I honestly started to get uncomfortable that they might have brought an actual mentally ill man in to play the role). In fact, when Keller shows up to finish Bach off (spoiler, she’s the final girl) “Junior” actually tries to defend her.
It gets weirder too, because I’m pretty sure this movie has some kind of vague abortion motif. See, we learn in a lengthy heard-but-not-seen flashback over footage of Keller’s intense, sweating face that as a youth, his abusive, imperious father discovered he’d impregnated his sister, and offers as a solution an abortion for her and an on-the-spot castration for him. A short knife fight later and dad is dead, and they’re keeping the baby and getting married, which turns out to not be such a great choice, if I may offer a slice of personal opinion. Meanwhile, in the present, it turns out Bach is pregnant with Burr’s child, but has decided to get an abortion without telling him because he’s obsessed with making sex noises while working out to try to overcome his injury and regain his former glory as some sort of sport player. He’s furious with her when he finds out, but she calmly say they’re not in a position to have a child right now, and that he needs to just admit to himself that his injury is not going to magically go away and find something else to put his energy into. All of which is completely correct, obviously. But then later, she takes the appointment letter out of her purse and crumples it up, as if she’s had a change of heart, even though her boyfriend just got super mad at her for making decisions about her own body and dumped her at some weirdo’s house and roared away in his fly red sports car. It seems like maybe she’s reconsidered and come around to his point of view, but then at the end when he heroically comes running in to save her, guess what, his fucking leg gives out because of his injury and he just falls on his face like a moron and does nothing, proving that she was exactly right (she doesn’t mention it while they’re crawling toward each other in the mud while a psycho with an ax bears down on them, but you know she’s made a mental note to drop a well-placed “I told you so” at a more opportune time).
So what are we to make of all that? I genuinely have no fucking idea, but obviously something was on the writer’s mind here, or at least floating around in his subconscious. Hollywood movies are usually so squishy about abortion that it’s hard to imagine this was genuinely intended as a pro-abortion film, but then again, 1980 was a pretty different time. Roe v. Wade was only 7 years old when the movie was made, and I’m not certain the issue had quite become the staple political wedge issue it has since metastasized into in the American political sphere. It’s possible that the filmmakers simply considered it a fairly settled issue, and included the theme not so much as a political statement but just as an interesting parallel between the two groups of characters. Considering the somewhat confused nature of the way the issue is inserted into the narrative, I think that the most likely explanation.
|If you're offended by this unexpected discussion of abortion, I urge you to spend a few minutes staring into Barbara Bach's perfect, transfixing eyes and chilling out.|
But of course, in 2016, there’s basically no way of mentioning this issue without things becoming inherently political, so let’s do this, fuck it. Regardless of whether it was intended or not, I don’t see any way of reading the film’s subtext in any way other than as a cautionary tale of what happens when you force young mothers to have babies they don't want and are completely incapable of caring for, especially when those mothers are already mentally unwell, and double especially if it's an inbred cannibal mutant baby. I mean, even though it’s shown that Virginia loves “Junior,” I can’t imagine an interpretation of this movie where it’s supposed to have been a good idea to birth an Unseen, who then lives in the basement and murders houseguests. And besides, Bach is shown to be a mature adult who is thinking seriously about her relationship, and, indeed, is shown to be exactly right in all her concerns. So I’m not sure what to make of her apparent change of heart. Maybe the point is that after talking to her meathead boyfriend she was feeling sentimental and considering reconciling with him and starting a family -- in which case, it seems like the only possible way the story could read is as a repudiation of that decision, since the family that parallels the one she’s imagining for herself is so completely fucked up and murderous. So maybe this is some kind of REAR WINDOW situation, where the murder story represents a possible future that she’s considering, and hopefully she changes her mind again immediately upon reflecting what a shitty night she’s had, courtesy of people who did not get abortions when they obviously should have.
Anyway, yes, I am starting this year’s horror-fest off with a lengthy rant about abortions. I too like to live dangerously.
As a slasher, THE UNSEEN isn’t a whole lot more focused than it is as a commentary on modern abortion. There are only two deaths, and one is pretty weak sauce (the other --where a woman gets her neck snapped by a falling grate deathtrap-- is solid, but certainly not enough to anchor the whole movie). The final chase scene, which is the true meat of any self-respecting slasher, is workable enough, and even sporadically intense, but they hold off on revealing the title character until the finale, and then, especially since he’s played by beloved star of stage and screen Stephen Furst (ANIMAL HOUSE, CHRISTMAS VACATION 2: COUSIN EDDIE’S ISLAND ADVENTURE), they feel the need to really get some milage out of him, resulting in a turgidly protracted conflict which repeats the same beats too many times without significant escalation, and starts to run out of steam. The horror bits are well-executed, but there’s no getting around that there just aren’t enough of them, especially in an overlong 94 minutes (IMDB claims this is actually the reason director Steinmann --SAVAGE STREETS, FRIDAY THE 13th: A NEW BEGINNING, nothing else-- used a pseudonym; the studio edited out all the scare scenes. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but someone left them out)
Fortunately, what it lacks in slashing, the movie mostly makes up for in that most unlikely of places: acting. Bach is pretty solid as the lead, and has these amazing blue-green-gray eyes which are frankly transfixing and make everything she says seem more intense. Seriously, this chick should start a cult. Or at least play Charles Manson in a brazen gender-bending drag version of HELTER SKELTER. Lelia Goldoni also gives a real strong, very committed performance in her underdeveloped role as the beaten-down Mrs. Keller. But the real VIP here has to be Sydney Lassick, as the friendly, dumpy little maniac at the story’s dark heart. On the surface, Keller isn’t all that different from any standard slasher or giallo killer, driven by a barely-hidden madness rooted in psycho-sexual frenzy. But Lassick builds the character with a real commitment to his twisted humanity, playing him, I think, as essentially a stunted child in a man’s body, fiercely mimicking half-remembered ideas of how an adult should act imparted to him by his own fucked up childhood, which ended abruptly in the murders which ushered in his adult life. He is not, perhaps, fundamentally an evil man; despite his cruelty and his late-in-the-game affinity for ax murders, I read his awkward offers to help as a genuinely well-intentioned (though disastrously ill-considered) effort to aid someone in need, and I think his affection for both his bullied sister-wife and mutant son are also genuine. But of course, he’ll never completely escape the psychological destruction of his past, and even if he was once the victim, by the end he will become the victimizer, perpetuating the cycle (unless someone, hint hint, aborts it). Some of that is in the script, but much more of it is written on Lassick’s desperate, feverishly grinning Ernest Borgnine face. It’s Lassick who manages to take Keller’s contradictions and craft them into a character who seems internally consistent and somewhat tragic, all without dialing back on the crazy at all.
Thanks to Lassick and the other actors, the movie is reasonably compelling even when it’s not exactly a thrill a minute. But there’s no getting around it, there’s a distinct lack of whammy here. Even when it gets to the “good stuff” at the end, it really struggles to escalate the way the best slashers need to (particularly in terms of gore, but also just in terms of a general ratcheting of stakes). It’s an interesting movie in some ways; all the talk about abortion, the discussion of the jock’s injury and his inability to admit he won’t heal, and the odd circumstances of who the actual villain is all seem to beg to be analyzed for meaning, even if nothing clear quite seems to emerge when you sift through it. Does it have a message, or is it all this just subconscious stuff boiling to the surface? I dunno. But the fact that I spent most of the movie thinking about that is a pretty good sign that the horror isn’t working the way it should. This is a movie which spends more time at the fuckin’ Danish festival than it does at the actual murders. And while I agree that colorful traditional Danish costumes and a local marching band make for such riveting watching that I can understand how this event drew what is apparently the entire population of lower California, I’m not sure that’s what we came here to see. We came to see the Unseen. Which we do, eventually, but despite the name, we could stand to see a little more. The end result feels unmistakably padded, but sporadically too intense and interesting to entirely write off.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
Three Beautiful Women. An Old Museum. And An Unspeakable Terror Hidden In Darkness ... Until Now!
For These Many Years It Has Been Down There… Breathing, Eating, Growing, Hiding, Waiting, Waiting... Until Now It Has Been (Smash Cut to Title)
It is true that mutant inbred manchildren hidden in basements are rarely seen. It’s not like he’s invisible or anything, though. Maybe the title is referring to the unseen hidden psychological trauma which motivates the action? Seen in that context, I wonder how to interpret the leg wound --an outward sign of being crippled-- juxtaposed with the unseen psychological wounds which Keller is better at hiding but just as powerless to heal?
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Slasher (though Dan P doesn’t think it quite qualifies), and wikipedia dubs it a “Horror-of-personality” film, which I’d always called “Psycho Rip-off,” but their way is classier so I think I’ll switch to that. Possibly also a monster movie, with the mutant killer in the cellar.
Bach had starred in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE just a few years earlier, but by 1979 she had already backslid to Italian trash like ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN and ALLIGATOR, so I can’t really claim she was A-list in good conscience. She did marry Ringo, though, and they’re still together, so that makes her A-list as fuck in my book.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Barbara Bach probably counts. Hello? ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN? Director Steinmann also did FRIDAY THE 13th: A NEW BEGINNING, but he only did three movies total, so no dice there. Weirder is the involvement of practical monster maestro Stan Winston, getting an on-screen story credit. He would direct PUMPKINHEAD within the decade, for which he also has a writing credit, but other than a 1997 short he seems to have had no other efforts in writing.
Yes, the sick girl goes full frontal and bathes before getting killed, while Keller watches through the keyhole like a total creep and we’re really disgusted by his behavior and then do the exact same fucking thing.
While it’s possibly implied to have happened in the past (and maybe Junior has some vague sexual interest in his victims?) there’s nothing on-screen
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Yeah, Keller pervs out on the bathing blonde before she gets killed
MORAL OF THE STORY
Small town Danish Festivals are a delight for the eyes and the heart, but they almost always result in a few murders.