you're counting, include Michael Weldon (The
Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film): "underrated and perverse";
Chas Balum (Deep
Red): "Slick, dirty little film nonetheless holds a degree
of interest for the horror-sleaze crowd."; and John Stanley (Creature
Features): "takes one of the hoariest cliches of horror movies -- the
animalistic 'unseen' entity living in the cellar -- and gives it a new sense
of mystery, even compassion."
Unseen is another of my personal favorites, outstanding on every
level. Yes, the story is basic Horror Film 101. Three TV newsgals
drive to Solvang, California to do a puff piece on a folk festival.
All the local hotels are booked so, while searching for a hotel outside
of town, they stumble upon one run by Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick).
out the hotel is a museum. No matter. Ernest invites the newsgals
to stay at his house, with him and his wife, Virginia (Lelia Goldoni). Unbeknownst to the newsgals, husband and wife are also brother and sister. And lurking in the basement, crawling through the air ducts, is the spawn
of their unholy union ... unseen!
you'll see him eventually. But before you do, the body count mounts! (You know how those mutant spawn-of-incest retards get when they see nekkid
women passing by their air ducts.) Actually, the body count doesn't
mount by all that much. There are only three newsgals, after all. But there's enough in The
Unseen to make up for the low score.
Unseen's premise and story are easy to mock. They sound
so formulaic. Yet the film's execution raises it to a masterpiece
of the formula.
Bach (still the best Bond girl -- The
Spy Who Loved Me) is the lead newsgal, Jennifer Fast. Granted,
Bach's acting range is limited (Leonard Maltin once opined: "Bach does her usual walk-through."), but she is stunning
to behold. And she improves in the final half hour, when all that's
required is to scream and cower. Bach can deliver if a script is
within her range; she was dead-on as the smart, stoic Soviet spy in the
for Bach, she spends the first hour surrounded by poor performers, so she
looks fine by comparison. Bach's love interest, Tony (Doug Barr),
is the sort of jejune Ken doll that Mary Richards always dated on The
Mary Tyler Moore Show. The other two newsgals, Karen Lamm
and Lois Young, are no better.
often the case in horror, it's the villains that show range, depth, and
emotional strength. Sydney Lassick is wonderfully creepy as Ernest. Smarmy with the newsgals, babbling giddy nonsense. His unstable volatility
with his family pivots from giddy to cold to cruel to violently hysterical. Dark emotions simmer beneath Lassick's assumed demeanors, erupting when
Goldoni's Virginia is an aging mouse of a woman. Yet she too can
erupt into hysteria, or show tender compassion to her mutant son.
is Stephen Furst (Animal
House) who shines as Junior Keller ... the unseen. Weldon describes
Junior as a "murderous, retarded, overweight, full- grown baby." That's kinda what Junior looks like, but not really what he is. Having
Unseen a dozen or so times, I suspect he kills the women by
accident. He merely wants a closer look (at Lamm's golden hair, for
instance), and pulls too hard. A child who doesn't know his own strength. And he's not a "full-grown baby," he just looks like one because he's fat,
dressed in soiled diaper-like rags, and he can't talk. He can only
Okay actors. Here's an assignment: Portray a sympathetic mutant retard killer, while
wearing soiled diaper-like rags, in makeup that makes you look like some
ugly incestuous spawn from Deliverance. And all you're allowed to do is grunt. Grunt and stomp and pound
and grunt. And oh yeah, try and be nuanced and subtle.
is ugly and frightening, yet we detect his motivations beneath his grunting
and stomping. His frustrated ineffectual attempts to communicate
with Bach and recruit her for his playmate. His love for mom. His fear, then anger, at dad. However repulsive and scary and unsympathetic
Junior initially appears, his demise is poignant. I hesitate to equate
Furst's Junior with Karloff's Monster, but I also hesitate to dismiss the
comparison out of hand.
is tightly structured, its elements falling neatly together despite more
complexity than cursorily appears. You can view The
Unseen many times, and still discover new things to appreciate.
Jones, in his Monsters From the Id:
The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film, interprets all horror as a
monster (nemesis) spawned by a transgression of God's (sexual) moral code. The
Unseen easily allows for that interpretation. Junior is
born of incest, most likely rape. Bach contemplates an abortion because
she is not ready to marry Barr until he matures. She is rescued moments
after Barr returns (having changed his mind), thereby affirming their mutual
love (and by implication, obviating the need for an abortion).
is a social conservative. But a left-feminist could interpret The
Unseen from an opposing view: as a condemnation of patriarchy. Junior is (most likely) the result of rape. Goldoni's father had
wanted Junior aborted, so perhaps it was Goldoni's "choice" to birth Junior
(although maybe it was the domineering Lassick's choice). Lassick
oppresses both his wife/sister and son, until her self-liberation. It is Goldoni who saves Bach (Barr tries, but fails).
are justifiable. Indeed, the deceptively simple story elements mesh
so nicely, one could fill a lecture hall with politically diverse academics
and spend a semester conferencing on The
Unseen's "real meaning."
forget to invite some Freudians. Lassick's dad tried to castrate
him for raping sis. So Lassick killed dad, then married sis and had
Junior. The mummified dad is kept in the museum (shades of Norman
memories of that fateful day is a nice example of pragmatic
aesthetics. The actor playing the father is not present, just
his voiceover within Lassick's guilty conscience. It's not only cheaper
to film with one less actor, it works within the story. Lassick sits
on a chair, talking to a voiceover of his dad. The camera pans and
crosscuts as dad's "character" is created by mementos, voiceover, and
Lassick's frightened responses.
aesthetics, I mean when a filmmaker puts budgetary
production compromises to aesthetic effect. Forced to compromise
on location, lighting, whatever, the filmmaker uses that limitation in
a way that enhances the theme or story. I first used the term in my essay,
"The Pragmatic Aesthetics of Low-Budget Horror Cinema," published under
another title in Midnight Marquee #60. For a fuller explanation, see my book, Horror Film Aesthetics.)
lighting, and editing are all stellar in The
Unseen, even if at times obvious and by-the-book. A sudden
rainstorm when the story darkens. The crosscutting between Goldoni's
killing of a chicken and Junior's killing of a woman. The flickering
electrical light upon our first seeing "the unseen" Junior. The quickening
cross-cutting about the museum (and cat) leading to a slow revelation of
the mummy. The murky atmospheric lighting in the museum in contrast
to the cheerful brightness of Solvang.
is a nice touch. Low-budget horror films are forever seeking ways
to separate themselves from the pack. Solvang is an actual town founded
along old Dutch lines, with Dutch folk festivals and all. This locale,
while not integral to the story, provides a fresh backdrop to horror. I told you The
Unseen succeeds on every level.
Peary, count me as one of the film's defenders.
Review copyright by Thomas
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