Not everyone owns a Steinmann, or has seen one for that matter. They are an acquired taste, much like doing a deep scrub on your tongue with a Brillo pad, or massaging pickle juice into your eyes. They’re not for everyone, is what I’m saying. I’m of course referring to writer/director Danny Steinmann, former porn auteur (and still quite dead), helmer of Savage Streets (1984), Friday the 13th: Roy’s Boy (‘85), and today’s topic of discussion, The Unseen (1980). To say that a film about a killer inbred man-baby is his subtlest work is testament to his next level commitment for producing entertaining sleaze. Were it not for bad taste, he wouldn’t have shown any at all.
Released in Japan and Denmark in late ’80 with a September ’81 rollout stateside from World Northal, The Unseen came and went, well, unseen by most. Steinmann himself disowned it; he claimed it was edited beyond repair, so he chose the alias Peter Foleg and wiped his hands of the whole ordeal. A shame really; whether intentional or not, it broadens his palette a bit and shows a more tempered and even artist under the grime. (There’s still a touch here, don’t worry.)
Our little film opens in a high rise apartment, with ace TV reporter Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach – Caveman) leaving on assignment and leaving behind her abusive boyfriend, ex-pro footballer Tony (Doug Barr – The Fall Guy). Off she goes with her two cohorts Karen (Karen Lamm – Tilt) and Vicki (Lois Young – Newsies) to Solvang, California to cover the local Dutch festival (it must have been May Sweeps Week), but an error in their hotel booking leads them to a museum where they seek the assistance of the proprietor, Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick – Carrie). Mr. Keller graciously invites the trio to stay at his creepy manor (which is out of the way, natch) for the night, much to the chagrin of his anguished wife Virginia (Lelia Goldoni – ‘78s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who lives in a perpetual state of angst (for good reason).
As one of the non-Bach’s stays behind due to illness, the true nature of the Keller clan reveals itself; mom is silent and anguished, dad is a sweaty creeper (and keyhole peeper), and then there’s Junior, who expresses himself via the ventilation system in ways that Child Services would be very interested in. Except Junior isn’t a child in body (although he wears a diaper), but rather the mind; and with the arrival of visitors he isn’t content to stay in the basement forever…
Okay, that’s not true; Junior (played by Flounder himself, Stephen Furst) does stay in the basement in The Unseen, but it still would have made a hell of a tagline. Perhaps the film Steinmann originally envisioned had more kills because the count here is low and the nature is far from graphic; a head pulled down against a grate and a nail to the noggin are as vicious as this one gets, so do not expect Friday the 13th levels of mayhem. (However it does have a chicken beheading that would make Ma proud.)
No matter how little is shown however, this is still a Steinmann; which means that as long as the film is focused on the Kellers, it is icky – in tone and insinuation. What’s in Danny’s tickle trunk this time? Well, besides giving an abusive character a redemptive arc (Fall Guy friend), he offers up incest (from which Junior sprang) and a leering, dirty old man who is slimy enough for four pictures. (Hey, that’s how many Steinmann made!) This gothic manor still has a flickering 42nd St. marquee proudly swaying from the rafters.
Again, this was not Steinmann’s intention; the original (and uncredited people) who worked on the story include the late special effects guru Stan Winston and The Beast Within’s Tom Burman, as well as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Kim Henkel. That’s a lot of effects folk for a tale that has practically none. I’d bet the six dollars in my pocket though that the warped Keller family was Henkel’s idea though.
But the final credit (or blame, I guess) lies with Foleg, er, Steinmann, who when not left to his seedier devices manages to deliver a very respectable directorial turn, drawing solid work out of all the ladies (hats off to Goldoni and her poor, tortured soul), Furst’s bizarre appearance in the third act, and especially Lassick in what amounts to essentially the lead.
First with Furst; unrecognizable under a makeup that tastelessly insinuates Down Syndrome (would you expect less from Danny?), he’s a million miles removed from Animal House and marches around the basement uttering gibberish and hitting himself. (In a diaper, no less.) If he reminds you of Simple Jack you’re on the right track; but at least he goes for it, and in a Steinmann, effort is everything. Impish and jittery with a permasmile, Lassick manages to bring some pathos to a sicko just trying to keep his family together, and I think that pathos is earned through a childhood of familial abuse and psychoses. Plus, it’s just damn fun to watch Lassick off his leash.
Our poor Danny tried to get a bunch of projects off the ground post Friday but it was not in the cards; his Jason-less take would be his final feature before his death in 2012 at the age of 70. He only made four films, but that’s four more than me – and if I worked the Pearly Gates of Sleaze, Danny would be a saint. The Unseen may be missing a few black greased bulbs on its Times Square signage, but a Steinmann never depreciates in value nor truly loses its luster. Be the belle of the ball and collect them all.
The Unseen is available on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: PHASE IV (1974)