Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Unseen (1980)

After a ridiculous staring contest with her boyfriend (Douglas Barr) that sets the tone for all human interaction in the film, TV journalist Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach) packs her two (and I quote) "girls", which is supposed to mean "her all-woman mini TV crew", into her car and drives off to the town of Solvang to film a puff piece about the Danish festival there with their magically appearing and disappearing camera.

Alas, since they are working for TV and aren't used to foreign concepts like planning or thinking, they forgot to reserve a hotel room beforehand and now find out that a small town with a popular festival does not have infinite space for "journalists". Fortunately, a rather bizarre older gentleman (Sydney Lassick) invites the trio into his old dark house where he lives alone with his sister (Lelia Goldoni). Virginia, as sis is called, is rather frightened by the presence of strangers in the house. She has her reasons, too. The old dark house has a terrible secret that manifests itself in form of something or someone crawling through its ducts and crawlspaces, and beginning to kill off the trio of visitors until only Jennifer survives to learn the oh so terrible (which is to say, hilarious) truth everyone has expected.

One's satisfaction with The Unseen will probably be coloured by how much one is willing or able to laugh about a film made in complete earnestness and meant to be dark and frightening that only achieves the dubious heights of the unintentionally funny. It is a little sad when a film is made with such obvious conviction of its own creepiness, yet never manages to get any other reaction than laughter.

On the other hand, this is a movie whose "monster" turns out to be a mentally disabled guy in shabby underwear and his incestuous, scenery-chewing dad, so you can't say it doesn't deserve what it gets.

There is just so much wrong with the film. Firstly, there are the little running-time filling soap-operatic discussions between Jennifer and her boyfriend which would probably be more effective if we'd give a toss about those people. Too bad we don't.

Secondly, there's Jennifer herself. Sure, Barbara Bach is nice to look at, but she plays the sort of horror film heroine who spends the last half hour of her film crawling around on her belly although she isn't hurt or tied up. Perhaps the view is nicer down there? She's also the sort of heroine who rather escapes into a chicken coop than into a well-maintained car, I suppose in the hope of the Big Chicken In The Sky's protection.

And then there's the scenery chewing competition between Stephen Furst (who plays The Unseen aka Junior), Sydney Lassick and Lelia Goldoni. Lassick and Furst are just dreadful, having never met an emotion not worth shouting and mugging about, robbing any scene they are in of even minor chances to work as advertised.

Not that director Danny Steinmann (here going under the pseudonym Peter Foleg, supposedly because the producers ruined his film by leaving out all the good material, leaving me with the horrifying thought of a version of the film that's even longer and slower) isn't responsible for a lot of wrongness even without their help. He really has a hand for the telling detail, if "telling" means something that pulls everything down into the realm of the dumb and ridiculous. See the "clever" way the death of a chicken is intercut with the first murder! Marvel at how the fat killer gets into an airduct! Watch the cherry death squish! See Junior hide in a heap of rags! Try to puzzle out the physics of the murders!

If there's a way to ruin a perfectly good scene, Steinmann will surely find it.

Still, while I like my unintentional humor just fine, I could never really warm to The Unseen as much as to other movies of its species. The film's obvious conviction of its own quality, scariness and possibly even importance might sound funny in theory, but at times I also found it grating, getting on my nerves as if it were a self-important high-schooler or one of Jehovah's Witnesses.


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