Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Y Is For Yay! Almost Done!

This Blogging From A to Z Challenge post returns us to our regularly programmed Census Bloodbath, as I attempt to remember the fact that I originally intended to do this chronologically but was thwarted by my Nightmare marathon.

Year: 1980
Director: Danny Steinmann
Cast: Barbara Bach, Sydney Lassick, Karen Lamm
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Let us begin by saying that old slasher films had the absolute best marketing people in the business. That poster up there is dagummit fantastic and it's equally as good as the alternate poster. So much so that I almost just included both of them at the top of this page.

If posters and videocassette box designs were an adequate judge of a film's quality, this entire series of slasher reviews would unearth masterpiece after masterpiece. Needless to say, the publicity is misleading. Although The Unseen is certainly a unique entry in the slasher genre, it would take an Olympian stretch of the imagination to be able to call it "good."

The Unseen is one of those slasher films that was released in the twilight period during the few months after Friday the 13th came out, unable to rip off that film because they were already shot before it became popular. These films largely ripped off Halloween or Psycho and had a tendency to break the rules largely because they hadn't been invented yet.

The Unseen with its low body count, utter lack of gore, and sympathetic killer is one of them. Now, remember this does not make it good. Slashers tend to be graded on a curve and part of that curve is assessing what new or interesting things the film does within the confines of the genre. If it can't even follow the paradigm (through no fault of its own, considering that the paradigm didn't exist yet), it becomes something else entirely and that something else is usually just no darn good.

Think of this man as an early slasher: Dressed up real nice but untrustworthy.

The Unseen follows a trio of female reporters as they cover a Danish festival in the California town of Solvang (it's great to see a slasher set in a real life location that I've actually been to - it feels like they knew I was coming). The lead anchor, Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach, the Bond girl from The Spy Who Loved Me), has just gotten out of an unfulfilling long term relationship with a pro footballer (Doug Barr, who would appear in Wes Craven's Deadly Blessing just one year later) who was benched permanently due to a knee injury. 

Her sister Karen (Karen Lamm) and their coworker Vicki (Lois Young) are interchangeable blondes so you know they're not going to live to see the closing credits. In fact, Vicki doesn't even get a name until after she dies, in the grand tradition of oh so many expendable Friday the 13th teens (several hundred of which were slaughtered in director Danny Steinmann's universally despised Friday the 13th: A New Beginning).

When their hotel reservations in Solvang fall through, the trio makes their way out of town until they stop at a secluded hotel. This hotel turns out to be out of service as it has been converted into a museum, which makes it the perfect location for a slasher film. Unfortunately the proprietor, Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick) does not understand the opportunity that is being wasted and instead invites them to stay at the stately home he shares with his wife Virginia (Lelia Goldoni). 

Luckily for us, this home is well furnished with polished oak furniture, a full service restroom, and mysterious grates in the floor that lead to a cellar from which mysterious clanking noises emanate. When the sick Vicki is left alone to relax and take a bath, she learns all too well what those grates lead to as an unseen (geddit?) assailant drags her underneath, leaving behind her head. Because this is an 80's horror film after all, we get a glimpse of some full frontal before everything goes down.

And we're not the only ones.

As the girls begin to recognize the danger in the house and succumb to it, it is slowly revealed that the Kellers aren't all that they seem to be. I mean, obviously. They have a crazed killer in their basement. It turns out that Virginia is Ernest's sister, whom he has been abusing sexually and physically for years. The creature in the basement is their illegitimate child, a large mutated man who is essentially a giant baby who doesn't understand that his strength is hurting people.

In an interesting twist, it becomes clear that Ernest is the true villain despite never murdering a single person as has been tormenting Virginia and their son for decades. This storyline as well as several side plots about attempted castration, abortion, and shattered career dreams make The Unseen an unusually dark member of the proto-slasher family. Although the film that holds their story is tremendously boring at times, it's hard not to connect with the victimized Kellers and their plight.

Although watching the cycle of abuse being carried out is harrowing, much of the movie is spent on Jennifer and her dull exploits as she traipses around being the single least effective horror movie heroine of all time. In fact, her entire Final Girl sequence could have been wrapped up in a solid minute if she was smart enough to realize that the kindhearted but scaryfaced Junior didn't want to hurt her.

Honestly, the best performance of the film. He's surprisingly adorable.

Or if she thought to grab the axe that's just sitting there in the chicken coop she hides out in. Or if she understood the fact that a couple bags of chicken feed aren't going to kill a man. Or if she could crawl at more than .01 miles per hour. Jennifer is the worst. But luckily her lack of prowess allows Virginia to empower herself in an attempt to save herself, her baby, and his potential victims.

It's satisfying in an unusually resonant way for a film of this pedigree, although it's still not enough to lift the film up from being a muted slog. The best I can say is that it's halfway decent. For every good element like the slinky jazz score that actually sounds like its own entity and not just a John Carpenter riff like all other 1980 horror, there's an equal and opposite negative element like the roar of white noise that fills in the space between every line of dialogue, making it sound like the house has an unusually persistent janitor using a Dyson.

It's endlessly frustrating and the film stops and starts too many times to get any real momentum going, all of which is killed during the final twenty minutes where the entire plot gets stuck in the mud for all but two or three shimmering moments. All in all, I don't regret having watched The Unseen because the story it told was interesting, even if it was mega depressing. But I would never ever ever watch it again.

Killer: Junior Keller (Stephen Furst)
Final Girl: Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach)
Best Kill: Karen is killed when her scarf dangles above the grate and is pulled through, slamming her face against the metal.
Sign of the Times: The very first scene opens with this guy.

Scariest Moment: The way Ernest treats Virginia when they're alone together is a disarmingly blunt look at incest and domestic abuse.
Weirdest Moment: Ernest has an angry conversation with Virginia while he attaches an increasingly absurd number of clothespins to his face.
Champion Dialogue: "Blow your nose, my sweet little honey bunch."
Body Count: 4; including the killer but not including the decapitated chicken.
  1. Vicki is pulled into the grate and is crushed in the process.
  2. Karen's scarf is yanked into the grate and her face is smashed into the metal.
  3. Junior is hit in the head with a nail stuck through a board.
  4. Ernest is shot through the chest by his sister/wife. 
TL;DR: The Unseen is an interesting and dark early entry in the slasher genre, but it's not good enough to merit a rewatch.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1376

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