Reviewer's note: This review is based on a screener disc sent to us by Scorpion Releasing. Our policy here at DVDTalk is to offer no ratings or comments on screener video or audio elements until we receive the title's final product, at which time the review will be amended.
"I see you've met Junior."
You know, someone really should change that diaper. Scorpion Releasing, through their Katarina's Nightmare Theater line, has re-released Code Red's 2008 special edition of The Unseen, the 1981 horror/suspenser indie starring Barbara Bach, Sydney Lassick, Doug Barr, Karen Lamm, Lelia Goldoni, and Stephen "Flounder" Furst. Despite a problematic production (particularly during pre) and a limited, unsuccessful domestic release here in America, there is apparently a small-but-doggedly-loyal group of horror enthusiasts who think The Unseen is a cult classic--a tough sell for this reasonably well-made, but unfortunately narrow-focused, horror outing. Most of Code Red's previous bonus items are included here, as well as a new interview with producer Anthony Unger, for anyone tempted to double-dip.
Beautiful L.A. newscaster Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach), newly-pregnant and despairing of her former pro football player boyfriend, Tony Ross (Doug Barr), ever growing up, has had enough and she's moving out. Heading up to the small, quaint, Danish-inspired village of Solvang, California to cover their annual festival, Jennifer, her sister/cameraman Karen (Karen Lamm), and p.a. Vicki Thompson (Lois Young), discover their hotel reservations have been lost, and there's not a bed available in town. Traveling 20 miles to Los Alamos, they spot an ancient frontier hotel owned by smiling gnome, Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick), who informs them that although the hotel is now a museum, they are welcome to stay at his large farmhouse outside of town, where he lives with his shy wife, Virginia (Lelia Goldoni). Well...you can pretty much fill in the rest...particularly when the women discover that something lives down in the basement.
As an adolescent during that golden age of late 70s and early-to-mid 80s schlocky exploitation slasher/horror pics, I was lucky enough to have a nearby second-run house (an old Jerry Lewis Cinemas twin) that was managed by a guy who never checked I.D. If you had the buck fifty in change to get in, it didn't matter if Frankenheimer's laughable Prophecy was playing, or a re-release of Hooper's horrific, life-changing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre--you got in. So I saw most of the horror titles, big and small, that came out back then, up on the big screen...but I can't for the life of me remember seeing The Unseen (nothing about it even looked familiar when watching this disc). So, I came to The Unseen with no expectations, and while I found the final confrontation scene between Bach and Furst appropriately unsettling, that was about all I could out-and-out recommend for this good-looking but disappointingly empty horror exercise.
According to all the interviews and comments included as bonuses on this disc, The Unseen had its fair share of pre and post-production troubles (not to mention a too-short, too-cheap shoot typical of such indie efforts), including make-up wizs Tom Burman and the Stan Winston originally scripting, only to leave the pic early on (while retaining copyright on their original "Junior" design, which caused the producers to scramble for something else), and director Danny Steinmann getting fired during post by his own father, who had money in the movie. According to reports, Steinmann wanted his name off the finished movie because he felt all the good scare moments had been hacked out, so he chose the fictitious "Peter Foleg" screen credit instead...although it's equally plausible that the name change came from the firing. Who knows. Steinmann may not have won any friends on the set (Burman, in his interview, sneers about the "rich boy director" with no experience, while Furst claims Steinmann almost electrocuted him), but serious producer Anthony B. Unger (Don't Look Now, Heston's Julius Caesar, Force 10 From Navarone), slumming here in exploitation horror, knew how to put together a polished product, even on the cheap. And apparently, even though it didn't do much business during its initial run, The Unseen has garnered some kind of minor notoriety, fueled by repeated airings on cable over the years.
That being said...there's not much "there" there in The Unseen to recommend. This kind of horror movie doesn't have to put a lot out there to be deemed "successful" in terms of delivering on its genre conventions: all it really has to do is scare us throughout the movie, preferably with a big wrap-up at the end. So if the characters can't be three-dimensional, fine, as long as the body count is high and the kills are inventive. The Unseen, however, delivers neither. Only Lassick creates anything close to a faceted character, but the effect comes more from the actor's inherent (and eccentric) interest rather than from anything in the script. Bach and Barr are ciphers, with the two blondes even more disposable, so we have absolutely nothing to root for when all are endangered (it doesn't help, either, that Bach and Barr have no chemistry together). Director Steinmann reaches for some moments that at least indicate he's trying (the cross-cutting with the chickens slaughtered and one of the blonde kills; the opening with Barr groaning, suggesting either death or sex, only to have it be a joke as Barr works out). However, too often, the movie's concerns are laid out with a sledgehammer (the clunky voice-over exposition from Lassick's father explaining everything is the worst kind of A-B-C storytelling). Interesting parallels that might have born fruit (Bach's pregnant, after all, and the monster is in essence a giant, murderous baby), are unfortunately ignored, as well.
So, if Steinmann can't deliver an interesting script, or intriguing characters, or some problematic thematics, then at least how about some straight-up horror thrills? The final confrontation between Bach and "Junior" down in the cellar works exceeding well, creating a frightening encounter that's largely achieved through Furst's superior physical control and Bach's genuine looks of horror (Furst apparently studied severely mentally challenged patients for several days to get the physical dynamics right--dedicated preparation that's pretty much unheard of for this kind of low-budget shocker). This scene is what The Unseen should have been all along: nasty and terrifying and unpredictable. Unfortunately, that scene is a relatively short amount of The Unseen's total run time; the rest is padded out with unconvincing straight drama filler (we really have to have a scene here where Bach and Barr discuss aborting their baby?), corny suspense red herrings, and frankly lame slasher kills (Young's death occurs off-camera--my guess is they couldn't afford to rig the gag of having her neck broken--and Lamm's kill is laughably inept as she's pressed face-first into a heating grate). Topping it off, once Bach escapes her cellar chamber, fleeing from Lassick, the movie wraps things up in a most ridiculous fashion, with a slo-motion close-up of Barr's football knee (will it fail or won't it???) eliciting from me the biggest laugh I've had this week. Whether The Unseen was flawed from its inception or messed up in post, doesn't really matter when the end result is laughter, not screams.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.