Monday, August 25, 2008

Breathing, Eating, Growing, Hiding...Waiting

THE UNSEEN is a sleazy and strange horror film made in 1980 on a five-week schedule for about $1.2 million. Shot on location in and around Solvang, California, THE UNSEEN alternates between suspense and unintentional hilarity so frequently that the DVD should come with Dramamine enclosed.

Beautiful Barbara Bach stars as Jennifer, a TV reporter sent to Solvang, along with her sister Karen (the late Karen Lamm, who was the gorgeous wife of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson) and Vicki (Lois Young), to cover some sort of festival. Stranded without lodging, Jennifer makes the acquaintance of an eccentric but kindly little man named Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick), who invites the trio to stay with him and his wife Virginia (Leila Goldoni) at their huge old house in the country. Movie fans know better than to enter a creepy old house owned by Sydney Lassick, since rarely in his career did he play anybody even close to a normal human being, but not being regular filmgoers, Barbara and her buddies carry their bags upstairs to their room at the Kellers. Before long, it becomes clear to Vicki, home alone to take a relaxing bath (Young provides some frontal nudity) while Jennifer and Karen shoot some video and have a fight with Jennifer's football-player boyfriend Tony (Douglas Barr, soon to join THE FALL GUY), that someone else besides the Kellers is in the house. And to director Danny Steinmann's credit, he/she/it does remain "unseen" for most of the picture.

Considering the stories from those who worked with him about what an unpleasant and troubled man Steinmann (who later directed SAVAGE STREETS and FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING) apparently was, it's surprising THE UNSEEN packs as much tension as it does. He's not at all an incompetent filmmaker, squeezing memorable performances from the actors playing the Keller family, while collaborating with cinematographer Roberto Quezada to shoot the stunning Miss Bach from the perfect angles every time, even while she's wallowing on the floor of a chicken coop. Many of his shots are ripe with anxiety, and the final half-hour or so, when Bach first comes face-to-face with the "unseen" antagonist dwelling in the Kellers' cellar, is a prime mixture of absurd violence and sleaze. Steinmann appears to realize this, deftly foreshadowing events and then tossing a neat twist into our expectations, so that we're always on edge. It's too bad that much of what happens is so damned funny though. It's difficult to believe that many of THE UNSEEN's most outrageous scenes were intended to be taken seriously, but with Michael J. Lewis' raucous score pounding away in such overblown, sincere fashion, I'm afraid we have no other choice.

While THE UNSEEN certainly offers its share of distasteful moments and uncomfortable horror, I found it to be quite a pleasant surprise. Its biggest fault is that its story and characters are too thin to sustain its hour-and-a-half length, causing the pacing to flag a bit right when we should be on the edges of our seats. However, I didn't mind very much, as the narrative is just crazy enough, as is Lassick's performance, to keep my eyes wide open and my jaw on the floor.

Code Red lavished two discs to THE UNSEEN’s DVD release, which is a surprising yet much appreciated nod to the popularity of the film within cult-movie circles. However, even with so much supplementary material, the DVD disappointingly fails to adequately tell the story behind what appears to have been a troubled, difficult and often frustrating production. Steinmann walked out or was fired during the post-production process when he disagreed with producer Anthony Unger over the editing process; those who worked with Steinmann on his FRIDAY THE 13TH confirm that the mercurial director could be terribly hard to work with. Despite off-mike prompting, Code Red’s Lee Christian obviously runs out of things to talk about with the commentary’s guests, Unger and co-star Furst, falling back on asking them questions about what so-and-so was like to work with on their previous films. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, except there is so much more about THE UNSEEN left uncovered. For instance, the film’s marketing and 1981 distribution (by World Northal) is completely ignored, as is the name Michael L. Grace, whose name is all over Code Red’s packaging as the screenwriter of THE UNSEEN, but who remains uncredited on the print itself. Steinmann, under his pseudonym of Peter Foleg, receives sole screenwriting credit, as well as story credit with makeup artists Tom Burman and Stan Winston. Likewise, Kim Henkel (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) and Nancy Rifkin receive story credit on the DVD box, but none on the film. Their involvement with THE UNSEEN is briefly mentioned in the commentary, but not to the extent it should have been.

Several trailers, interviews with Furst, Barr, Burman and special makeup effects artist Craig Reardon (who says more about Burman’s falling out with Steinmann than Burman does), and backstage stills and makeup tests round out Code Red’s package. In all, it’s a decent package and far more than one could ever could expect for a fringe title like THE UNSEEN, which is certainly a bold picture that takes a lot of chances—a slow buildup, little gore, a potentially silly “monster”—that mostly pay off.

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