The Unseen 1980 Review
The Unseen 1980
Directed by: Danny Steinmann
Starring: Stephen Furst, Barbara Bach, Sydney Lassick
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
With the process of a studio backed film to go from pre-production to post production taking quite a while, I’m amazed that so many early slashers managed to ‘borrow’ so much from Halloween so quickly. Carpenter’s hit was released on October the 31st 1978, but within a few months, there were already titles like The Demon that were definitely trampling the borders of creative inspiration. That isn’t the case so much with The Unseen though, because despite being labelled as a stalk and slash flick everywhere you look, it really doesn’t play by the rules of a typical genre piece.
It was one of the first films that I came across on big box VHS, but back then, I never rated it as a favourite. I hadn’t bothered with it for at least twenty-fve-years before I sat down to write this review and I was keen to see what I’d make of it now.
After a mix-up with the bookings at their hotel, three female journalists are forced to seek somewhere else to stay. Due to there being a celebratory festival in town, rooms are impossible to come by, but they find salvation in a jovial museum owner. He lives with his wife in a hotel that has been closed for ages, but after considering their panicked situation, he allows them to stay there. What he doesn’t tell them is that his son that lives in the basement doesn’t know how to play friendly…
I was reminded of this feature recently after completing my review of Silent Scream for the site. The two films have more in common than just an almost identical synopsis, because they both suffered fairly troubled productions. Whilst after an extensive reshoot, ‘Scream ended up close to what Denny Harris had envisioned, director Danny Steinmann was so disappointed with the final print of The Unseen that he asked to have his name removed from the credits. His justification was that the producers had edited out the majority of the big scares and left his feature unrecognisable. This intrigued me no end, because I wondered how a director’s cut of the footage might look. Steinmann never pursued the opportunity outside of a few interview comments, but it’d be interesting to know how much was removed or replaced.
The Unseen has its fans amongst slasher critics, but I must admit that I’m not really one of them. Whilst there is a lot to be credited that I’ll happily tell you about, I feel that in its entirety, it’s just a bit too odd for its own good. It spends the majority of the runtime building up an antagonist in the traditional fashion, but his revelation throws a swerve ball at us that’s just, well, alien. Without giving too much away, the bogeyman turns out to be more clumsy than creepy and then in a truly bizarre move, the script gives him an incomprehensible layer of pathos. He then makes a swift exit in a scene that’s as mushy as the death of Bambi’s mother, only to pass the mantle to another villain that is nowhere near as scary. I understand that they were trying to keep us on our toes by giving us something new to fear, but the idea is lost in its execution. We had waited so long for a glimpse of what we expected to be a hulking menace, only to be forced to change our perception at the last minute.
Another thing that you’ll notice is that the film is extremely slow paced. It plods along like a soap opera for large chunks, but then launches into an outrageous nudity scene that feels out of place. It does manage to build enough of a tone to keep us interested though and we do get a couple of creatively planned murder scenes. The first sees a young woman have her neck broken in a steel trap door and it’s juxtaposed with shots of a chicken being decapitated in a back garden farmhouse. This is one of a number of slightly off-kilter, yet effective moments, with the majority of the rest coming courtesy of an eccentric portrayal by Sydney Lassick.
I mentioned that I’d be interested in seeing a director’s cut of The Unseen and that’s because from a pure filmmaking perspective, it is simply a SLASH above. As I have already said, Lassick’s erratic characterisation really has to be seen to be believed. He shared top billing with Barbara Bach, who is also superb as the hapless heroine. One could be forgiven for thinking that the former Mrs Ringo Starr had been hired only for her looks, but she is totally believable as the woman in peril. My favourite performances though came from Lelia Goldoni as Virginia, Lassick’s long-suffering wife, and Stephen Furst who played his son. It’s not an exaggeration to state that if awards could be given for horror film dramatisations, Furst would have at least walked away with a nomination. It’s a totally different person from his comedic turn in Animal House and he’s quite brilliant with the level of his conviction. We also get some classy cinematography in and around the gothic Victorian mansion that helps sustain an uneasy atmosphere that manifests itself credibly during the climax.
This is a tough film to review, because in many ways it embodies everything that I usually spend paragraphs criticising the lack of in other features. The thing is, you can photograph a crystal with the best lens that money can buy, but it’ll never be a diamond. There are certain rules of horror that can’t be broken and what we’re left with is a film that over promises and under delivers. It’s a shame that we will never see what Steinmann really intended, but there are those that like it, so check around before you take my word as gospel
Final Girl √√√