Danny Steinmann Week: The Unseen (1980)


Image courtesy of Shots of Anarchy (chosen by Steve Carlson).

I’ve said it before in other places, but 1980 and 1981 seems to be a couple of important years when it comes to the future of what horror cinema could hold for the future. There was ‘The Shining’ (1980) and ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981) for starters, ‘E tu vivrai nel terrore – L’aldilà’ (1981) and ¡Paura nella città dei morti viventi’ (1980) from the master Italian horror filmmaker Lucio Fulci, and then there’s the ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980) and ‘Friday the 13th: Part 2’ (1981); and of course what is the best Halloween sequel out of all of them (they’re all pretty shit except for this one) ‘Halloween II’ (1981). Each one of them single out an aspect or something special that would then become important, seminal and spectacular (or disappointing) for the future of horror filmmaking.

And then, there’s this, ‘The Unseen’ (1980) and you start to wonder, how is this product influential in any way if even the director, Danny Steinmann, the one that is being singled out in this particular week dedicated to his work, disowned this as being a hack job made by the producers after they took away the film from him after he finished shooting (in an interview he mentions that they were editing as he was filming, without his knowledge, because they wanted a cut for Cannes, where they could sell it to international markets), and the film now appears credited to someone named Peter Foleg, at least a pseudonym created by Steinmann to hide his involvement to what he considered until the last day of his life as a compromised work.

If anything, if you compare this particular film with the rest of the wave of great horror movies that came out in 1980 and 81, this one seems more like the kind of film that would signal the future of what the studios and producers would make to films so they could sell it quickly, compromising the visions of great directors that could’ve done something really bold and frightening… nevertheless, even if it’s more of an example of what happened to a certain filmmaker and his oeuvre, this still manages to be a clear Steinmann picture, and quite a wild one with the subjects that it manages to tackle.

Incest, rape, deformities and other harsh and violent moments are depicted in this movie, and while not particularly scary, it’s something to watch for and among the most interesting elements that this film has to offer, that’s besides all the other charms that I’ll talk about later. But just when you talk about the themes and subjects mentioned before, you could say that this is quite far from being something akin to a modern compromised work, and while it barely features any kind of blood, it does have quite an incredible amount of visual and physical violence that makes you uncomfortable while seeing it, and that is something that Steinmann was a master of, he made certain scenes hard to watch, and he made that because he was a masterful filmmaker of the shocking elements of the real life (there’s never any supernatural element in any of his films, maybe the one that comes closer to something more sinister and fantasy-like is this particular film).

For some reason this film reminds me of the movies of Dario Argento. There’s a fetishism in the way of the filmed objects and spaces that the camera seems to discover at every corner, that as well as the fact that the movie is short of being a normal slasher just because the body count is so low, and also how the protagonist and the other two professionals are women, and how they are killed in different, strange and at times showy ways.

Yeah, that’s where I see Argento, not in the oversaturated colors but in a sensibility towards what it shows in the screen and how the camera moves, specially when it comes to creepy dolls, featured in this particular film as well, with certain elements of exploration and observation of damp places, like the basement in which the protagonist of the film takes a long time to realize that she’s trapped and then to uncover the horror of the death of her friends and then of the mumbling monster that did it.

So, in a way, ‘The Unseen’ (1980) paves the way for a new kind of horror filmmaking and theme to appear for the mainstream of the cinematic incantation that Danny Steinmann loved. It never achieved a bigger fame because of its status of not scary, but on its own it’s a really important and interesting piece of filmmaking on its own, and while not every performer hits their notes perfectly, the performances of Sydney Lassick as the landlord and owner of the house, as well as father of the unseen creature, who is also played in a very interesting and at the same time weird manner by Stephen Furst, who moans and cries and yells with a sense of desperate furiousness that fills the ears of the watcher.

So, what is actually unseen in this film? What is the unseen? Something that clearly wants to be hidden, just like Danny Steinmann hid behind a pseudonym to protect his career (just as he did previously in his porn film debut) that was starting, and that in a way manages to create some kind of admiration in me towards this particular film and director, because even if he tried really hard to hide, his style, tropes and other elements of style of Steinmann are present… as much as unseen the director is in the credits, we can only see the effects, shots and decisions made by him. So, there must be something that is unseen here… of course, there’s the movie itself, that was pretty obscure for a long time until it made its way to cable television, where most of its fans can be found at…

But I like to think that the unseen thing in this movie is actually the talent of Steinmann, that is hidden to everyone who doesn’t want to see it, it is actually unseen because you have to look really hard to find the talent behind the compromised vision. There are subjects like rape and sex and incest that do work, and this movie seldom uses them, never in a really exploitative way, and in a way managing to justify the crisp and clean look of it when compared to other horror films of the time (while ‘E tu vivrai nel terrore – L’aldilà’ (1981) is the step in the right direction regarding color, horror and art horror in general), it legitimates the subjects through the way of the light and the time that it takes to build up for certain moments.

It’s a movie that, if anything, lacks a better script. There’s not really great dialogue, but the words chosen aren’t horrendous or particularly bad in this case, it’s, if anything, competent when it comes to the written word, and that’s because there’s a voice and a vision that supply any fault in that, but there are things that one can’t avoid. For example, after killing two people, why does the unseen creature fall in love with our protagonist, giving it maddening twists and turns regarding the choices they made, as well as a reason to wonder why did they made the choice they made.

There’s the classic Steinmann nudity and craziness, and while not supernatural, the Junior or Unseen creature is among the best examples of simpler ways to achieve horror through the makeup as well as with a complete sensation of unease regarding the well being of the person that is humming and screaming loudly in front of you. There’s also an affectionate message, it’s a movie that doesn’t aim for anything in particular, it just wants to entertain, and it does that perfectly, but it also throws here and there a couple of moments, specially as the end approaches, that makes you wonder if there’s any more beyond what we experience, if there’s a message that was muddled because Steinmann’s wasn’t allowed to finish his movie.

So, the movie is about three female reporters that come to a town where a festival is being held, they have to make a story for TV, but all the places in town are full, so they turn to a strange old man that gives them a room in his house, and that’s exactly when things start to go wrong, specially when we see how two of the three journalists are killed in a gruesome manner by an unseen creature. So, if anyone sees something that makes sense, please tell in the comments, maybe there’s an obvious metaphor that I’m missing, so please go ahead, I’ll be waiting.

As a first fiction film from Steinmann, this is quite impressive in terms of the freedom that he had to make the film that he wanted, and while he was finally compromised, the result is still watchable and compelling, there’s great acting in it and how well can we fare in terms of recommending this movie? Well, let’s see how it goes.

Tomorrow I take a break, take some time to watch some Danny Steinmann films. Let’s remember today, the first anniversary of his death to celebrate this wonderfully interesting filmmaker.


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