Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Unseen (1980)

"The Unseen" is one of those movies I missed on its first few tours of duty; I wasn't interested in it enough to beg my parents to take me to see it at the drive-in, and it didn't run long enough on HBO for me to get the chance to stay up past my bedtime and watch it. Little did I know, "The Unseen" is one of those numerous horror movies where someone has a dreadful family member and locks them away in some remote portion of a large, rambling house.

"Why yes, we've got the nicest old house you've ever unseen!"
Usually when our story joins these sordid lives, it is at the point where the crazy family member has decided to take up a career in homicide. In the case of "The Unseen", the 'monster' is an inbred Downs syndrome boy who is the result of an incestuous relationship between two siblings in an already crazy family. The character ends up being nothing more than a Lenny type who doesn't know any better, but the filmmakers see him as a cross between Frankenstein's creature and Sloth from "The Goonies". "Junior" is kept in the cellar of his family home by his parents, Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick) and his sister Virginia (Lelia Goldoni). Ernest runs a "motel", and he keeps the mummified corpse of his father locked in there and has conversations with it. In case you're the last person on the planet to have not seen "Psycho", that part might seem really original and creepy to you. But maybe not.

I refuse to speak of disgusting things because they disgust me!

Into this cesspool of insanity comes pretty TV news reporter Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach), who is out doing a very important news piece on an ethnic festival full of people of Danish heritage. She brings along a posse made up of her sister, Karen (Karen Lamm), and Karen's 'traveling companion', Vicki (Lois Young). Karen is Jennifer's camera operator, and I had no idea what Vicki had to do with any of it until one moment in the film that seemed to suggest that Vicki and Karen were a couple. Forced to drive out of town to find lodging for the night, they stumble upon Ernest's 'hotel', and when they find out it's just a museum, Ernest offers to let them stay the night in his own house. The girls obviously did not read the script, because they agree, and before they even realize it, they're Unseen-bait. The first to go is the luckless Vicki, who begs off of driving back to the parade because she feels ill and wants to take a hot bath. After Ernest spies on her getting naked in the tub, she is attacked by The Unseen, who remains unseen through the entire ordeal. Vicki is frightened out of her bed, hurled around the room, and then dragged feet-first into a heating vent from which the unseen emerged. On the way down into the vent, the average-sized grate falls on her head and apparently kills her. We don't really understand how she could die from a heating vent falling over onto its side, but that's nothing compared to the fact that the villain is later revealed to be a 300 pound man who somehow climbed through a heating duct up to the second floor of the house and emerged from a shoebox-sized grate in the floor. In "The Unseen", you just kind of go with it.
Vicki's nether regions are totally seen...

....totally seen.

If she was chilly she could have just put on a sweater, geez, who climbs into the heating vent??

Back in TV-reporting land, Jennifer's businesslike demeanor is visibly shaken when her estranged lover shows up unannounced looking for a reconciliation. Having traced her to the Danish folk festival, Tony (Douglas Barr) talks Jennifer into a long walk so they can sort out their differences. Karen goes back to the house to "touch base" with Vicki (heh heh) and fails to notice that her head is now sticking out of the heating vent on the floor. She wanders into the clutches of The Unseen when she happens to drop a bowl of fruit right over the heating vent he's hiding in. Yes, the old heating vent trick happens again, which leads me to believe that this particular big old house must have been built with duct work that was intended to be an alternate living space. This time, his victim might have lived if she had only avoided wearing a long, dangling scarf, which leads to her getting a facelift courtesy of The Unseen.
"Look, I'm trying to find my motivation here but I'm starting to realize my part of the script is padding. Don't you think?"

Karen once asked a fortune teller how she'd die, and she replied "Face first. With fruit."

Virginia, who speaks few words but emotes quite emphatically, is horrified at the murders, even though she seemed to know that this is where it was all heading (she, alas, DID read the script). But Ernest is a sissyboy psycho, and apparently not only does he enjoy beating up on Virginia and The Unseen, but he also gets off on the fact that these pretty young girls are being iced in his own home. A guy's gotta get his jollies somewhere.

"I just cleaned that carpet!!!"
So the finale of the film finally arrives: Jennifer, fresh from her heated debate with Tony, arrives back at the house in time for a thunderstorm, the kind that looks suspiciously like a garden hose being sprayed against the window. Finding no trace of her companions, she ignores all sorts of warning bells that should be going off in her head and follows Ernest's voice down into the basement, where he tricks her into holding a large piece of duct while he runs upstairs and bolts the door, locking her in with The Unseen. We finally get a look at him after he scares the shit out of Jennifer and makes her go all grabby on the house's electrical fuse box, causing a flashing light show in the basement. She also steps on a nail (or something), and here's where things start to get a little hard to follow. At some point, one of these injuries (either stepping on the nail or touching the haywire fuse box) causes Jennifer to lose control of her legs, and she can't even bring herself to stand up through the rest of the film's climax. The Unseen finally gets some screen time when he tries to make her be his little baby friend. When he doesn't kill her, Ernest comes back down into the basement and attempts to strangle her with a belt. Virginia interferes, but Ernest gives her the beat-down while Jennifer drags herself away with her arms, darn those pesky legs that won't work! When Ernest punches Virginia in the face, Junior attacks him. Ernest fights back, though, and whacks The Unseen in the side of the head with a board, puncturing his temple with a long nail. Virginia regains consciousness long enough to see it happen, and she freaks.

"What are you crybabying about, Barbara? Look at my costume!"

Meanwhile, Jennifer has managed to drag herself, useless legs and all, out into the yard, where she hides in a chicken coop. She regains control of her legs long enough to stand and grab an axe, which Ernest wrests away from her. Then she's back to dragging herself, this time out into the mud, where she inches her way along the ground like a Jennifer-sized inchworm. Tony shows up in the nick of time, but alas...his leg injury, the same one that ended his promising football career, stops him from rushing to her aid. Just when Ernest is about to bury the axe in Jennifer's head, Virginia appears on the back porch and blows him away with a shotgun. She's a damn good shot, too.

"The Unseen" is quite lame, quite tame, and nearly bloodless. Without a full-frontal nude scene during Vicki's bath, it would probably never have gotten an R rating. It's hard to get past the similarities to other, better movies. It's got more than a few things in common with "Silent Scream", which came out around the same time but was at least a little more atmospheric, if not fantastic. It also had a more interesting cast. The script has some interesting things roiling beneath the surface, like the hint that Vicki and Karen are a couple, and some politics about Jennifer's unplanned pregnancy, but that doesn't make up for the fact that the story is contrived, silly, and not very scary. The girls are pretty pretty, and Sydney Lassick is excellent as the kookoo Ernest. It might have helped if Barbara Bach's character had been a little more spunky when she needed to be. She doesn't lift a finger to defend herself when she's threatened, and she can't even friggin stand up. A big liability is that we're supposed to be afraid of Junior, played by Stephen Furst, but it's hard to get past the fact that they're asking us to buy a handicapped man as a monster. I kept wondering why Barbara Bach didn't recognize that Junior was a victim. The script wasn't intelligent enough to have her show Junior a little sympathy and maybe, oh I dunno, not be afraid of him after all? If he'd refused to kill her because she didn't turn into a screamer when she saw him, they still could have ended the movie the same way and it would have been much more compelling. Bottom line: "The Unseen" won't make your head hurt, but it ain't gonna scare you so bad you lose control of your legs, either.