If Judge Christopher Kulik had written and directed this film, he would prefer to be unseen too.
Our review of The Unseen (1981), published July 12th, 2013, is also available.
Three beautiful women. An old museum. And an unspeakable terror hidden in darkness…until now!
I was hoping beyond hope The Unseen was something different in the horror genre. I mean, hey, it's a horror film that got a two-disc DVD treatment courtesy of Code Red, so it's gotta have something, right? Well, appearances can be deceiving my friends and the red carpet has been rolled out for completely unnecessary reasons.
Facts of the Case
Read the Charge again. Now, for some clarification: the terror (or "unseen") is not in the darkness of the museum, but in the basement of the owner's country home. The three women, agree to spend the night there after getting screwed out of a hotel room (the contrivance offered is utterly incomprehensible), and soon they find themselves at the mercy of the murderous unseen.
As far as additional plot complications, there are almost none. The lead girl is reporter Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach, The Spy Who Loved Me) and her relationship with her boyfriend Tony (Doug Barr, The Fall Guy) is on the rocks. The museum's owner Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) has an eccentric personality and his sister Virginia (Lelia Goldoni, 1978's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) never utters a word. And, the unseen isn't revealed until the end, hardly a cinematic revelation.
The production history of The Unseen is actually more interesting than anything in the movie. The genesis has conflicting reports, with some saying it began with director Danny Steinmann (Friday The 13th Part V: A New Beginning), who wrote the story with two then-unknown make-up artists: Tom Burman & Stan Winston.
According to Burman, however, the story originated with Nancy Rifkin and Kim Henkel, the latter of whom co-wrote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it was originally about a couple who raised a child in a cage and fed it raw meat. Burman thought the project was too horrendous, declined to participate, but was then pressured to re-write the story (with Steinmann) to his satisfaction. Burman wasn't given onscreen credit, and Steinmann opted to remove his name, and thus the pseudonym Peter Foleg was utilized.
Regardless, the movie offers no surprises, lacks imagination, and is about as original as a dog urinating on a tree. Ultimately, The Unseen borrows a lot from Robert Bloch's Psycho, Henkel's Massacre, and many other low-budget horror films. The three women are all-too-typical horror heroines: they are pretty, have very little character and motivation, and are required to scream more than once; one of them even gets nude for no particular reason, barely earning the film its R-rating. Worst of all, the narrative moves at a snail's pace and goes exactly where you expect it to go, thus eliminating any genuine suspense or shock moments. I was groaning through most of the film and certainly relieved by the time it was over. I'm not saying this is a terrible film (there is much worse out there), just an uninspired and forgettable one.
Someone at Code Red would beg to disagree, however. While the DVD doesn't boast a "special edition" title, it provides enough extras to warrant two discs. However, let's first take a look at the visual quality, which seems like someone decided to take an old VHS copy, transfer the print, and call it a day. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is littered with scratches, lines, and cigarette burns; in addition, the dull, drab colors seem to fade in an out more often than not.
Sonically, things are even worse. Let's put it this way: when there's no music, it sounds like a blank LP is being played on a phonograph. Hisses, pops, and cracks simply dominate the mono soundtrack, almost overcoming the sound effects themselves. The dialogue is reasonably heard most of the time, but there are times I wish the disc had subtitles or was closed captioned. Needless to say, Code Red's technical presentation downright stinks, even more than the film itself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What rescues the movie from total annihilation are some solid performances. The late Sydney Lassick is creepily committed to this role, and even manages to generate some anxiety on the part of the viewer; it's not enough to improve the viewing experience, but it's noteworthy enough for a mention. His on-screen mate Goldoni is restricted in terms of dialogue and time, but makes the most of it. And as for Bach, she is really nothing to shout about acting wise, but supplies some much-needed eye candy.
SPOILERS AHEAD (if you care)
Matching Lassick is the title menace, played surprisingly well—considering the make-up job—by character actor Stephen Furst (Animal House). As the couple's diseased-stricken son who wallows away in the basement, he looks like a live-action version of a garbage pail kid with the voice of Mongo from Blazing Saddles. Again, not very original (or scary), but I applaud Furst for his energy and effort.
Finally, we get to the best part of The Unseen: Two-Disc Set: the extras. Before the film starts, we have brief intros from actors Doug Barr & Stephen Furst, with the latter enthusiastically warning you to brace yourself for "one frightening movie." Both give separate interviews (each running almost 9 minutes), and provide some info on the shoot. Even better is a feature-length commentary with Furst and producer Anthony Unger, which is moderated by Lee Christian, who is supplied with questions and trivia. Although they all stray from talking about the film itself (particularly in the second half), there is much to relish here, making it an enjoyable listen. One tiny complaint, however: the recording seems to have a slight delay, as Unger points out something which doesn't appear until three seconds later. Rounding out the extras on Disc One are a still gallery, the original trailer, and previews for other Code Red titles.
The material on the second disc is, obviously, a little less substantial. What we have are two extended interviews with make-up effects wizards Craig Reardon & Tom Burman. Film buffs may get more out of this than average viewers, but they both prove to be charismatic speakers with plenty of history to shed light on when it comes to the films they have worked on. Finally, we have a series of make-up test slides, sketches, and stills from Reardon's personal collection. Good stuff, but not enough to overcome the DVD's shortcomings.
Earlier this year, I reviewed So I Married An Axe Murderer: Special Edition. I liked the film a lot and was looking forward to what it had in the way of special features; in a blatant case of false advertising, it had zilch. After watching The Unseen: Two-Disc Set, I think Code Red makes Sony look not only extraordinarily lazy but also completely incompetent, as least on the bonus front. Still, the movie itself is recommended only to the dedicated, as the two-disc set is really much ado about nothing.
The film is found guilty and banished to the Keller's basement to join the unseen itself. As for Code Red, while their extras are truly impressive, they are found guilty of a dreadful video/audio presentation. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
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