Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Unseen (1980) dir. Danny Steinmann

Logline: After arriving to cover the local holiday parade, a freelance reporter, Jennifer (Barabara Bach), and her two gal pals find themselves stranded in a small town with no vacant motel rooms. By chance they run into an over-friendly museum owner, Ernest (Sydney Lassick), who-- upon hearing their predicament-- all too eagerly invites the trio to spend the night in the home he shares with his sister, Virginia (Lelia Goldini). Thinking they've caught a break, the three young women have in fact caught their own collective doom, courtesy of something Ernest and Virginia have been keeping locked in the basement for twenty years...

Crime in the Past: A brother and a sister love one another, or perhaps they just got bored one day twenty years previous. Brother + Sister = Mutant baby. In some small towns, it is exactly this equation that basements are constructed in preparation for. "Rural playpens," they're called, or so I've heard.

Bodycount: 4, never to be seen or unseen again.

Themes/Moral Code: It's a film about parenting, both good and bad, and how our actions as parents and our genetic predispositions warp our poor offspring into terrible mutant beasts. Obviously, the film is critical of Ernest and Virginia Keller's incestual relationship, as we see from the fact that it results in the birth of a horrifically deformed child. But, on the other hand, the film isn't exclusively shaming backwoods mating habits: the Kellers's monstrous son is essentially a loving and obedient child towards his parents, and it can be argued that only their lifelong neglect of him and his emotional needs drives him to twisted behavior. Though his is a twisted behavior that is, not coincidentally, much like that of his perverted father's. Consequent of this uncertainty over the killer child's behavioral origin, we've got threads of the "nature vs. nurture" debate running underneath the film's action throughout, all of which come to a head in Jennifer's predicament: she's pregnant with the child of her violently abusive boyfriend, and she must decide whether or not she wants to keep the child and risk seeing what sort of person that child grows up to be. Prior to her harrowing encounter with Ernest and Virginia's offspring, Jennifer appears resolved to carry her child to term (witness her crumpling up her abortion prescription), but the last act of the movie gives her an experience in the trials of parenting that should raise some doubts in her mind. Placed in seclusion with the film's childlike killer, Jennifer attempts to become a surrogate mother to him in order to save her own hide, and she finds her trial run at parenting to be a mixed bag. Her stern, motherly affection can hold the childish monster in place momentarily, but not forever, as eventually the bestial instincts win out. Jennifer learns that raising children is , well, tough and that-- despite all of one's efforts to the contrary-- the kid still might grow up to be a fiend. Neither genetic parentage nor careful parenting are any guarantee. Abortion at least provides some certainty.

Killer's Motivation: One of slasherdom's more sympathetic villains, our mutant killer, "Junior" Keller (Stephen Furst), can't help his murderous predilections. A deformed, mentally impaired child in a watery-eyed adult's body, Junior acts on impulse, and unfortunately those impulses result in him collecting and handling the bodies of human women as if they were dolls (we see that the boy loves stuffed animals, but he's obviously never been taught how to care for his possessions, particularly those that writhe around and scream in protest). As for a deeper subconscious motivation, it's apparent that Junior has been physically and emotionally abused through his lifelong imprisonment in the Kellers's basement, so that might be one cause of his psychosis. But a second explanation seems both simpler and more poignant: Junior displays that he's a Momma's Boy through his actions in the final act, but, because he's been ignored and neglected by his traumatized mother throughout his existence, his desire for love manifests itself only as simultaneous violence and affection against the various mother proxies he encounters (i.e. any fertile female). The boy probably just needed a hug somewhere along the line.

Final Girl: Barbara Bach's Jennifer is a successful news reporter whose independence and self-determination in her career bleed over into her personal life. At the beginning of the film, we witness her leaving her abusive pro football player boyfriend, Tony (Douglas Barr), whose obsession with recovering from an ankle injury has transformed him into a frustrated, woman-beating prick. When he follows her to the small town that her assignment takes her to and tries to confront her about their relationship "problems," Jennifer greets him with the quip, "Beat up any more women today?" But despite Jennifer's seeming flippancy towards her recent ex-lover, the break isn't as clean as she might wish: she's pregnant with his child. Through the character of Jennifer we see society's desire to squash the individual played out under the auspices of conforming to traditional gender roles and family models. Jennifer cares much more about her career and personal goals, stating that she might one day wish to start a family, but certainly not today. But it ain't that easy.

The societal pressures from those around Jennifer-- Tony acting as their chief representative-- encouraging her to abandon those independent desires and become a selfless mother are palpable, creating uncertainty within Jennifer's mind about what actions she should take. Her horrific experience with Junior Keller is, in a way, her maternity trial period. While she shows resourcefulness in dealing with the dangerously childish Junior, she also demonstrates that she's not quite prime mother material. She's revolted by her proxy "child" and the maternal responsibility she must take on as a burden in order to survive: for Jennifer, motherhood is clearly lacking in those profound, instinctual joys that our family-oriented culture assures us exist for everyone. Which direction she ultimately chooses between independence and motherhood is left unresolved by the film, and this omission feels like a significant flaw. Nonetheless, it's quite telling that the strongest image of mothering the film provides us is that of a regretful mother cradling her child for the first and only time as he lies on the ground as a corpse. Not every person is capable, ready, or interested in becoming a parent, society. Look what happens when you force the point.

Evaluation: The Unseen is a peculiar but awfully entertaining quasi-slasher/basement mutant thriller from director Danny Steinmann, he of the leather-clad Linda Blair rape-revenge epic Savage Streets (1984) and my second favorite but first weirdest entry in the Friday the 13th franchise, Part V: A New Beginning (1985). Those films having been produced later than this one, we can consider The Unseen as being Steinmann's humble beginnings (so humble, in fact, that he took his name off the finished film in shame. The film's direction is credited to the nonexistent 'Peter Foleg'). But there's nothing one wishes could remain unseen here: carried by its histrionic performances, clothespin-eroticism, and a smattering of sleaze, the film works despite an unnecessarily drawn-out third act that doubles as a tedious crash-course in demented parenting. Slasher devotees will be-- if not pleased-- at least appreciative of the film's creative mining of various trademarks of the subgenre placed into a rural Gothic context, from a faceless killer messily dispatching young women from out of frame down to the final girl's shock discovery of her companions' arranged corpses.

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