Color, 1981, 94m.
Directed by Peter Foleg
Starring Barbara Bach, Sydney Lassick, Stephen Furst, Karen Lamm, Lelia Goldoni, Doug Barr
Scorpion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Code Red (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
The second greatest horror film ever shot in the Danish-inspired California town of Solvang (right behind William Castle's Homicidal), the early '80s horror drive-in oddity The Unseen has long been one of those films cult fans are vaguely familiar with, having perhaps caught a few minutes here and there on cable back in the early days of channels like Cinemax or stumbling across a DVD or VHS copy in a dusty corner. The film was barely released in theaters by the short-lived World Northal, who mainly promoted the presence of Bond girl/Beatle wife Barbara Bach after her success in The Spy Who Loved Me. However, the wild departures from audience's slasher expectations and some truly demented plot elements ensured this would remain a word-of-mouth cult item rather than a bona fide hit.
Our story begins as TV reporter Bach leaves her apartment under cloudy circumstances with her injured athlete boyfriend (Deadly Blessing's Barr). Along with two perky blonde assistants, she drives to Solvang to cover their annual Danish celebration (which leads one to expect Bill Murray and a groundhog to pop up any minute). However, their hotel accommodations turn out to be lost, so they find refuge instead at the home of jovial but very eccentric local museum owner Mr. Keller (Carrie's Lassick), who lives in a nearby antiquated house with his mousy wife, Virginia (Goldoni). However, at night the husband experiences traumatic flashbacks involving his father and some hideous family secret, while something monstrous and murderous lurks in the cellar below the young women's guest rooms...
Though audiences at the time most likely expected a monster-meets-slasher outing from The Unseen, the film draws far more inspiration from the string of perverse, Lovecraftian thrillers involving dark, nasty things tucked away in attics and basements (for example, The Shuttered Room and Beast in the Cellar), albeit with a couple of murders involving more blood and T&A than censorship would previously allow. The film is still surprisingly restrained with its imagery but definitely unsettling in its implications, particularly in the final third when we finally meet the "unseen" of the title (played by an unrecognizable Stephen Furst shortly after Animal House) whose exact nature and appearance will remain unspoiled here. This revelation also opens up the story in some interesting directions, with viewer sympathies swerving all over the place as the whole sick family drama plays out with more than a few shredded bodies in its wake.
The film features a few creepy moments, most memorably a bit involving one unfortunate character's scarf and a ventilation grate, but the real fascination here lies with the actors. Bach starts off rather wooden and icy but surprisingly steps up to the plate quite well as a scream queen in the final act, and the hammy Lassick gets the spotlight with a creepy, hammy turn offset nicely by the fragile, tragic presence of Goldoni, a John Cassavetes veteran from Shadows. Then there's Furst, who has nary a word of genuine dialogue but delivers a pivotal performance whose physicality creates a character that's very difficult to forget. Also noteworthy is the sterling music score by the criminally underrated Michael J. Lewis, who had already proven his horror mettle with Theatre of Blood and The Legacy. His moving main theme here is surprisingly underused (and was released as a promo soundtrack CD), but his evocative strings are perfectly used throughout to generate an air of classical unease.
A murky, bare bones UK DVD marked the film's digital debut fairly early in the format's history, but the first worthwhile edition came in 2008 from Code Red courtesy of a two-disc edition with an anamorphic transfer that served as a significant upgrade at the time. Extras included a far-reaching and often hilarious audio commentary with Furst and producer Tony Unger (with moderator Lee Christian), who chart the film's difficult journey to the screen (with Savage Streets director Danny Steinmann yanking his name during post-production). Disc one also includes on-camera interviews with Furst and Barr, who talk for a few short minutes about how they became involved with the productions, and both actors also contribute quick, funny video intros to the main feature (with Furst calling it "really scary" because it's "the only film where you can see me wearing a diaper"). Other first-disc extras include the theatrical trailer, a lengthy still gallery, and bonus Code Red trailers including The Visitor. Then over on disc two, the film's effects are covered in detail with two featurettes, a 38-minute chat with future Hollywood make-up man Craig Reardon and a half-hour interview with writer Tom Burman, who also covers the effects as well as the reasons he wound up leaving the film before completion. For a troubled production, the surprisingly good result is explained here in enough detail to answer anyone's questions. The final extra is a big batch of Reardon's test slides, sketches and production photos with a focus on the grisly effects and Furst's unforgettable climactic creation.
Fast forward to 2013, with Scorpion Releasing revisiting the film for a new HD transfer and what would have once seemed unthinkable, a lavish Blu-Ray release. Considering the film's history, it looks pretty darn spectacular; the colors look much more natural than the Code Red disc (which by comparison seems very boosted with oversaturated reds and blues in particular). The improved presentation really helps the film, too, giving it a crisp sense of atmosphere and texture. Apart from the occasional tiny white speck, the film elements have been kept in excellent shape, so there's really nothing to complain about here. It's also worth noting that this was taken from the original negative, which runs a little over four minutes longer than the theatrical and TV prints with an entire additional scene in the first act. It's also two minutes longer than the Code Red disc, which was already extended to begin with! At this rate, in a few decades we'll have an eight-hour miniseries cut of The Unseen in our hands.
All of the extras from the previous two-disc release are carried over save for the fleeting video intros, which are replaced here with wraparounds featuring the label's genial horror hostess, Katarina Leigh Waters. This isn't branded as one of her Nightmare Theatre titles, but it still gets the full treatment as she cheerfully rattles off facts and figures about the film after being chased by the titular menace. She also reappears for another "Kats Eyes" interview segment with Unger, in which the producer of such films as Don't Look Now and Silent Rage discusses his career and this particular film's turbulent history. An excellent release for an eccentric, unforgettable, and weirdly endearing horror oddity from the height of the slasher era.
Updated review on July 18, 2013.