Low-budget slasher movies were at their height in the 1980s, and many of them have since developed a cult following. During this time, a number of independent filmmakers produced films with modest to no budgets.
But it is amazing how much work they managed to get done despite the difficulties. Today’s discussion is on The Unseen, a 1980 American psychological horror film directed by Danny Steinmann.
A murderous man-baby who is amusingly sleazy in the movie serves as the heart of the plot. In the second half of 1980, the movie was released in Japan and Denmark. Northal Films followed in September 1981 with a release in the United States to mixed reviews.
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Exploring the story in detail
Jennifer Fast, a freelance tv reporter, is shown dumping her lover Tony, a professional ex-football player, and leaving the house near the beginning of the film. Later, the sisters Karen and Vicki, her two companions, accompany her for the Coverage of the local Dutch festival in Solvang, California. A mistake in their reservation at the motel, which is fully occupied when they arrive, leads them to a small town museum, where they seek help from the owner Ernest Keller, who is a pleasant but shady character. Jennifer asks him to help her because her pal is unwell.
It can be sensed that something is wrong when Ernest persuades the three women to accept an invitation to stay at his huge farmhouse outside of town, where he lives with his wife Virginia, for inexpensive lodging and boarding. He threatens Virginia over the phone to get the room ready for the girls to stay in the following scene. After reaching the house, he introduces his wife, which portrays a scene of mystery when we see her crying.
Then we see a private conversation between Ernest and Virginia where she is crying and requesting him to not let the girls stay. She is afraid that they will find out. This mysterious fear of hers adds suspense to the film. Jennifer, who is joined by Karen, leave the house immediately after arriving for the holiday parade fair, which she is also supposed to report on.
She is approached during the festival by Tony, her ex-lover, who convinces her to remain behind to discuss their relationship and fix things up. It also seems that Karen wanted Jennifer and Tony to be together. She even tells her that his love for her is true. Jennifer breaks the conversation and asks Karen to go back to the farmhouse and check on Vicki.
Later in the film, we see that Ernest hears some noise from the girl’s room. On entering their room with some blankets, he notices that Vicki is in the restroom. He peeks through a keyhole and sees her taking bath. She inquires who’s outside after he accidentally drops the keys and created noise. He reacts nervously, saying he had brought blankets for them because it was chilly.
Then, he goes to the museum and we see a conversation between him and his dead father. During this conversation, we come to know about the real relationship between the husband and wife. They were actually brother and sister. Ernest had murdered his wicked father over 20 years earlier to continue his illicit affair with Virginia. After taking a bath, she prepares to snooze in her room when she is accosted by the unseen, which comes through the vent.
Vicki is finally drawn into a floor vent by the apparition. As she tries to flee, the vent’s grate falls on her neck, killing her. Virginia, who had been in the stable butchering a chicken, returns home to discover Vicki’s dead body. She screams and panics. Meanwhile, she hears Karen arrive and hides in the washroom. Karen enters their room and fails to notice Vicki’s lifeless body.
She goes down to the dining room, where she too is assaulted and killed by the mysterious killer, as it tries to drag her through a duct into the basement by her scarf while she was picking up the fruits from the floor. The brutality of the psychopathic killings is quite unsettling for viewers. There is, however, greater suspense connected with the slasher flick, which proves effective in capturing the attention of genre enthusiasts.
Virginia, who has been hiding all along, is terrified by the two dead bodies. Later, when Ernest returns home, he discovers Virginia distraught over the deaths. They actually have their inbred kid, “Junior,” who is imprisoned in the basement, where Ernest regularly beats him. To keep everything under the shadows, Ernest tries to persuade Virginia that Jennifer must be killed when she returns. She tries to disagree, but Ernest threatens her.
Simultaneously, we see that Jennifer and Tony are having a conversation in a restaurant. There, we find out that Jeniffer is pregnant and doesn’t want to keep the child, whereas Tony suggests keeping it. She tells him that she is not ready to be a mother yet and has some goals which she wants to accomplish. She wants to settle down, marry, and start a family in the future, but not right now.
The conversation results in a small fight between the lovers. Tony angrily drives Jennifer to the farmhouse, speeds up his car, and leaves. A disturbed Jennifer stares at the disappearing car for a moment and enters the house, as it starts to thunder heavily. We can clearly see her love for Tony reflected in her eyes. She sits, looking disappointed and stressed, and takes out a slip from her bag, which is an appointment for the abortion. She stares at it for a moment and then changes her mind and throws it on the bed while crumbling it.
She suddenly notices that Karen and Vicki are absent and starts searching for them in the whole house. While searching, she comes across a door in the extreme corner of the kitchen. The door serves as a way to the basement. Ernest invites her into the basement. After getting down to the dark basement, he asks her to stay there. He tells her that he will be back shortly.
She calls for him after a few minutes but receives no response. She becomes agitated and ascends the staircase, only to discover that the door is locked. In her hunt for a way outside, she comes across a rather unsettling devoured raw, whole chicken, which makes her nervous. The basement is creepy, dark, and quiet. The heavy rain outside starts to make the scene more suspenseful and scarier.
She freaks out when she stumbles into Karen and Vicki’s lifeless bodies. Junior, an intellectually handicapped and immature grown man, confronts her in a panic. He is the true perpetrator of the horrific fatalities. He tries to play with her but she is terrified of Junior’s violent conduct and refuses to play with him. It seems that all the deaths caused by Junior were accidental. Ernest enters the basement to finish her, but Virginia intervenes after a change of heart. Junior flees and hides when he sees Ernest as he’s scared of him to death.
When Virginia tries to stop him from killing Jennifer, Ernest hits her on her face. Junior is angered by the sight of him attacking Virginia. To protect his mother, he gets involved and attacks him. He seems to be very emotionally attached to his mother. He gets furious on seeing his mother fainting on the ground. He aggressively attacks Ernest. His love for his mother gives him the courage to fight the man he is most afraid of.
Junior and Ernest get into a fight, while Jennifer manages to flee. Ernest has the upper hand in the battle and knocks Junior unconscious with a shattered board holding a pointed, exposed screw, causing Junior to fall and die. Virginia gets her consciousness back and sees Junior dying. She clings to him and sobs. She becomes enraged after seeing Ernest and attempts to assault him, but he pushes her, causing her to fall and injure herself.
The element of suspense is enhanced in the film when Earnst notices that Jennifer is missing. He tries to search for her, but panics when he cannot find her. In the meantime, he hears noises from the barn and realizes that Jennifer is hiding there. He enters the barn and tries to attack her, but she manages to escape. The rain has left the ground muddy and slippery, making it harder for her to flee. She sees Ernest following her outside with a hatchet that is unmistakably intended to murder her.
While running, she falls due to the slippery and muddy ground. Terrified of the evil Ernest, she starts crawling, crying for help. At this moment, Tony comes up in his car and rushes to her aid after seeing the scene, but slips and collapses owing to a leg injury that he previously had. Jennifer panics and cries for help while dragging her body forward. At the last minute, Virginia shoots Ernest in the chest with a hunting rifle from the distance, killing him instantly. The film closes with Virginia in the basement, clutching Junior’s lifeless body, while Jennifer goes over to Tony.
The Unseen is a true 80s slasher flick. It is a suspenseful drama that keeps audiences glued on the edge of their seat. The movie is surely an underrated gem and is worth watching. It is more like a Hollywood mystery than a horror film. The film’s outstanding acting and production make it worthwhile to watch. This isn’t a horror picture for the average horror lover; it’s for people who want a bit of mental turmoil with their dread.
The film’s casting was flawless since it starred Barbara Bach as Jennifer Fast, who was also the wife of Ringo Starr, drummer of the legendary rock band Beatles and was also famous for her appearance in the 1970s hit, “The Spy Who Loved Me”. The horror flick’s jaw-dropping cast also starred Stephen Furst as Junior Keller and Sydney Lassick as Ernest Keller.
Although the film was not able to top the Box office particularly, it seems to entertain its horror enthusiast audience through the different elements of psychological torment associated with the psychopathic killings in the film. Several film critics have admitted to the fact, that despite room for improvements, the film is underrated and can be ranked among the better American horror films released during the period.
Some may agree that fans of Alfred Hitchcock will enjoy the movie, and anyone who enjoys binge-watching “Psycho” once in a while will find this to be just what they are looking for. The narrative, like that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, centers around a young kid named Junior Keller, whose psychotic temperament is the result of inbreeding experiments on him. Overall, if you enjoy the psychological thriller and horror genres, this 1980s American film is well worth your time on a gloomy afternoon.
Movies like Unseen aren’t made nowadays. It was a pure slasher that entertains psychological horror fans thoroughly. Although Unseen isn’t particularly overheated, this low-budget flick is fascinating to watch. The film is rather old, which is both a benefit and a drawback. It’s fun as a suspenseful 80s flick and is quite entertaining and mysterious to watch.