The Unseen (1980)

NOVEMBER 12, 2009


I guess my experience watching The Unseen must be like whatever it’s like for someone to sit down with a “Wes Craven movie” and get Music of the Heart, or maybe a guy who really enjoyed LOTR and King Kong going back and seeing one of Peter Jackson’s “early” films like Meet The Feebles. Not that it’s a complete 180 from Danny Steinmann’s other films, but I was pretty shocked that Steinmann would direct a film about a horny mutant baby living in the basement of the home shared by his parents (who are actually brother and sister) and that it would come out so relatively tame.

Of course, he DID take his name off the film due to not being able to finish his own cut, so maybe there was originally some more Steinmann-y touches that were lost. Don’t get me wrong - it’s actually a pretty solid movie, but I was watching it more for the director than the story (which is a Motel Hell/Mother’s Day/Psycho hybrid), and thus was expecting a little more of the sleazy awesomeness that he brought to Friday the 13th Part V.

But that allowed me to be surprised with how the film was focused more on suspense than exploitative gore. The body count is very low (a far cry from F13 V, where characters were introduced solely to be killed 30 seconds later), and they aren’t particularly bloody when they occur. Whether this was by design or the result of the post production troubles, I’m not sure (Steinmann, unsurprisingly, appears nowhere on the 2 disc set), but it doesn’t FEEL like it was edited down to achieve an R or anything.

The writers do a good job of balancing the stories of the victims (three women) and the crazy family, particularly the father, played by Cuckoo’s Nest Sydney Lassick (who has since passed away, as have two other cast members out of the eight in the film. Curse?). There’s a scene just before the halfway mark where we learn that his wife is in fact his sister, information dealt to us by the “ghost” (psychologically speaking) of his father, and Lassick finds the perfect line between crazy and simply pathetic. And Stephen Furst as the titular character delivers a pretty brave performance; he’s caked in fat mutant makeup and wearing a diaper, and his role primarily requires him to roll around on a dirty floor, drink from a puddle on said dirty floor, smack himself in the head, and groan/laugh in typical mentally challenged movie character fashion.

Not quite as successful is the subplot of the main woman’s boyfriend. He serves as the excuse to keep her away from the house for a while so her friends can get killed, which is fine, but the scenes go on for so long and are largely terrible. And he drives away angrily after dropping her off, which of course means he’s going to want to apologize and drive back to save the day. Or not; his “triumphant return” is botched by his bum leg, and it’s one of the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but still not enough to make up for the jarringly placed and largely dull scenes involving his character sprinkled through the narrative.

One strange thing about the DVD - the color timing is all over the place. It shifts from warm to cool to normal and back again as it goes from shot to shot, and it looks like the print was compiled from different sources. It’s very distracting and given the usual care for their releases, I’m surprised Code Red didn’t take the time to try to match it all better.

Otherwise, they put together a nice package here. I didn’t get the second disc, but it apparently includes long interviews with producer Anthony Unger and the writer, as well as some behind the scenes footage. But disc 1 has an interview with Furst as well as another with Douglas Barr (the boyfriend), both of whom share some funny anecdotes amidst the usual “it was great to work with ____” sentiments. Furst tells a great Steinmann story about how he got him to do a particular stunt, the results of which caused Furst to be injured and never speak to him again. Furst and Unger also provide a commentary, which is moderated by Lee Christian, who I am indebted to as he was the one who photographed my Q&A with John Carpenter last year. Some of his questions are a bit more off track than I’d like (to Furst: “Any memories about shooting Midnight Madness?”) but he keeps both men talking equally, which is always good as I hate when someone is on a commentary and never speaks. Of course, such a lively chat means that the one or two drop dead silent gaps are very noticeable, and the dirt-seeker in me begins to wonder what they were saying that the studio felt the need to excise. It’s a shame they couldn’t get Steinmann to at least do a quick interview, but with tomorrow being Friday the 13th and all, I plan to watch his track for New Beginning to even things out.

So as long as you’re not looking for Steinmann’s usual Grindhouse-y approach, I think you’ll dig The Unseen. It’s a nicely paced suspense tale with two terrific villains and an offbeat tone that I quite admired. Also an old woman firing a shotgun.

What say you?

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  1. Thank you for this review. 'The Unseen' is among the lesser remembered movies but definitely better than most.

    'Silent Scream' is another movie from the same era that definitely deserves a look.

  2. I remember this movie when I was about 6 years old. Everytime I walked near a furnace grate in my grandparent's house, I walk around it!
    Funny how watching a movie, can effect your actions in life when you are a child!

  3. I saw the commercials for this and Without Warning when I was a kid, and they, the Unseen, in particular really disturbed me. I went years not even knowing the names of these films and have only recently seen them. I agree with your review on The Unseen, neither as gory nor exploitative as most in the genre, but surprisingly a solid film (though I agree, it pushes it a bit.) It reminded me of another horror film of the era, Tourist Trap, totally different film, but maybe it was the 70s/80s feel.