The 80s slasher craze no doubt got the financial ball rolling for what, on paper, seems like your basic slice-n-dice: a sexy news crew (Karen Lamm, Lois Young, and former Bond Girl/wife of Ringo Starr, 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’s 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. The deal is sealed 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). He 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 the innkeeper’s true motivations, 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 works 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.
Ringo’s wife does what’s required of her: look gorgeous, have heated conversations with 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 - though perhaps fittingly 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 this particular singer takes the stage, look the hell out. To say more would rob you of the most rewarding element of The Unseen. Suffice it to say that the clichéd becomes the unexpected, and the unexpected becomes crazier than a shithouse rat. And it’s these scenes which will have you recommending the film (or at least showing the climax) to your friends.
Aside from the archaically offensive hard turn at the end, the film is positively old-fashioned in its form. This is a good looking film, ambitiously photographed, expertly scored, and with a measured but never boring pace. It feels almost respectable in parts, but the big reveal is just as mean and trashy as exploitation gets. (Not to bring up Grindhouse again, but Edgar Wright obviously 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? Today we can 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). Perhaps his departure is to blame for the film’s dichotomy. 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.
After being out of print on VHS for decades (confession: I offered to buy a well-worn VHS from a local West Coast Video back in 1990; when they refused, I returned the next day and stole it), the film was finally released on DVD in 2008 by Code Red, a boutique label which specializes in unearthing and releasing gems like The Unseen, as well as cinematic ephemera such as Stunt Rock, Beyond The Door and Can I Do It Til I Need Glasses? Get it from Amazon and thank them. They’re a company worth supporting, and my understanding is they’re having a rough go of it these days.