RIP Stephen Furst, The Secret Weapon Of THE UNSEEN

Remembering the comedic character actor's bizarre contribution to the horror genre.

Actor Stephen Furst passed away this week at age 63. While best known for his comedic work in Animal House, The Dream Team and countless TV gigs, here at BMD we immediately recalled Mr. Furst's singular, indelible title role in the criminally underseen (if appropiately titled) The Unseen. If interviews on DVD special features are any indication, he enjoyed this role quite a bit as well, and was happy it was being rediscovered. In honor or Mr. Furst, we're reposting this review from 2011 (and spoiling the film a bit, but it's hard to talk about his role without doing so). Rest in peace, Mr. Furst. You were appreciated.

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With story credits by FX pioneers Stan Winston and Tom Burman (with further uncredited story work by, among others, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre co-writer Kim Henkel), horror aficionados might expect an gore-heavy piece of slasher trash when sitting down to view 1980's The Unseen. They'd be wrong, and that misconception is more than half the fun of viewing the film. The movie's strange juxtaposition of restraint and uncomfortably sleazy content, aided by a trio of memorable performances and capped by a mind-bendingly problematic climax, elevate this film to something unique - or at least something else.

The '80s slasher craze no doubt got the financial ball rolling for what, on paper, seems like your basic slice-n-dice: a sexy TV news crew (Karen Lamm, Lois Young, and former Bond Girl Barbara Bach) travel to Solvang, a quaint California village, to cover a Danish festival. (It’s literally impossible to watch the b-roll of this festival and not think of Eli Roth’s faux trailer for Thanksgiving.) When the festival sells out every hotel in town, the ladies are forced to accept an offer to stay in a spooky old Victorian farmhouse, owned by an unsavory museum owner named Ernest Keller (the late, SO great Sydney Lassick). Once inside, something in the house’s basement stalks the ladies, one by one.

So far, so what. But the difference is in the details. At every turn, the film finds ways to deliver much more (or less, depending on your point of view) than its formulaic setup suggests: there’s no gratuitous sex (or even non-gratuitous sex; pervs in the audience get precisely one nude bathing scene). There are no hordes of horny teens who exist to serve as machete fodder. There are no Savini-esque gore effects; in fact there are surprisingly few murders in the film (though beware, animal lovers - you will see an actual animal death onscreen, as one of the film’s few killings is quite effectively cross-cut with the slow-motion beheading of a chicken).

Avoiding the standard “vice and violence” ingredients of the genre, The Unseen instead draws its suspense from (and is elevated by) a narrative and aesthetic approach which ties its lineage straight to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, sealing the deal with some truly impressive acting. Sydney Lassick plays Ernest Keller like a drunken, sweaty, fat relative of Norman Bates (coincidentally, Lassick is a perfect physical match for the Norman Bates described in Robert Bloch’s novel). Like Anthony Perkins’ seminal momma’s boy, we know there’s something off about Ernest the moment we see him. Like Norman, Ernest enjoys himself a nice keyhole peepshow while a lovely lass disrobes and bathes. And like young Master Bates, the alcoholic, constantly perspiring Ernest is prone to the occasional disagreement with the dessicated corpse of his parent (in this case, the dusty husk of his dad, in one of the film’s better sequences). 

Ernest also has a BIG secret in his basement, but unlike Norman, his mummydaddy is not that secret. In fact, the film does a nice job of stringing along viewers about what's in the basement, and why the nubile news crew’s stay at the old house is seriously upsetting to Ernest’s wife Virginia.

Virginia is played by Leila Goldoni, eyes filled with tears in every single scene, a million miles from her film debut in John Cassavetes’ Shadows. Ernest bullies and torments Virginia throughout the film, and their scenes are heavy with that big, dark mystery in the basement. As the layers of their shared secret are revealed, our appreciation for Lassick and Goldoni’s work grows. One is almost caught off-guard by the effectiveness of these performances: this is supposed to be a sleazy piece of shit, and here’s Sydney “I want my cigarettes NOW, Nurse Ratched!” Lassick, doing career-best work! The oddball intensity of his and Goldoni’s acting goes a long way toward thwarting our puerile expectations for this kind of film, even as the news crew is predictably stalked and offed.

As this film's Final Girl, Ms. Bach does what the role requires: look gorgeous, stand up to her boyfriend (Doug Barr) about an impending abortion (over a drink, while smoking), and scream on cue. It’s not exactly a rewarding gig, but again, her presence alone seems an attempt to raise the film up above its sleazy roots, giving the thing a subversive, “this shouldn't be happening” air. In a somewhat fitting bit of subtext, her character spends much of the third act being dragged by her ankles and hair down toward the muck of the basement, and toward a filthy revelation. 

You’ll guess what’s in the basement before the film tells you, but it doesn’t matter: this is one of those “it’s the singer, not the song” type deals here. And when Animal House's Stephen Furst takes the stage as that metaphorical singer, portraying the eponymous thing in the basement, you'll feel a much wider array of emotions than this film's sleazy exploitation trappings would have indicated. To say more would rob you of the most rewarding element of The Unseen, but suffice it to say that the clichéd becomes the unexpected, and the unexpected becomes discordant lunacy. And it’s these third-act scenes which will have you recommending the film (or at least showing the climax) to your friends.

The film's “wrongness” blends with its relative prudishness in a strange, pleasing way. Aside from the hard, weird turn at the end, the film is positively old-fashioned in its form. This is a good-looking movie, ambitiously photographed, expertly scored, and with a measured but never boring pace. It feels almost respectable in parts, but the reveal of Furst's character is just as mean and trashy as exploitation gets. (Not to bring up Grindhouse again, but Edgar Wright almost certainly saw this film before making his fake trailer for “Don’t”.)

So what do we call this thing? Is it a genuine achievement or an accidental gem, created by throwing together smart filmmaking with the ickiest of 42nd Street sensibilities?  We can really only guess at how close the film came to succeeding in its goals: the director (Danny Steinmann) was fired during post-production, took his name off the film, went on to direct Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, and vanished (from IMDB, at least). What remains is a film full of character if not class, weirdly compelling performances and some third act developments which take the whole thing someplace hysterical, transgressive, and unforgettable.

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