April 26, 2018


Future FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART V: A NEW BEGINNING director Danny Steinmann’s 1980 pseudo-slasher THE UNSEEN begins in grand Hitchcockian style. Borrowing a page from REAR WINDOW, Steinmann begins his film with nothing more than pictures and set dressing. We see a photograph of a beautiful woman (that would be Jennifer, played by the always exquisite Barbara Bach). It’s a professional photograph, the kind that would be used in print ads. We see shelves lined with sports trophies. A few shots later, we see a man’s leg, a large scar on his knee. The man’s name is Tony. Jennifer appears in the room, in her hands is a large overnight bag. She storms out, leaving Tony to meander around the room alone. This relationship is clearly on the rocks.

Jennifer meets with her two friends, camerawoman Karen and Vicki, her little sister. The three women head to Solvang, a Danish community in Southern California (and yes, it is apparently a real place) to film a news feature on the town’s annual Danish parade. Jennifer is a news reporter and damn glad to be taking this trip. She needs to rethink her relationship with Tony, a professional football player sidelined (perhaps forever) with a bad knee injury. She’s also pregnant and wanting an abortion.

After arriving in Solvang, the gals discover their hotel reservations have gone missing. With no place to stay, they hit up another local hotel hoping to book a room. Alas, this old hotel is no longer a hotel, but a living history museum. They meet the owner, a meek and lightly strange man named Ernest. Just before the girls leave, Ernest decides to make them a friendly offer. They can stay with him at his home. Because this is a horror movie, the girls immediately accept the offer.

Upon arriving, they meet Ernest’s perpetually distraught wife, Virginia, and settle into their rooms. Vicki is tired and in need of a bath so she hangs back while Jennifer and Karen hit the town to get some footage of the parade. As she lounges in the tub, Ernest spies on her through a keyhole. Vicki’s day goes from bad to worse when she is dragged into a heating vent by someone – or something – with obvious anger management issues.

So far, so fine. It’s your standard horror set-up. Young, lovely lasses accept an offer of shelter from a kindly stranger only to meet sticky ends at the hands of a maniacal family. But something is definitely off here. First, the setting is clearly quite strange, set up in a way to simulate the typical ‘fish out of water’ horror trope without ever having to spend the dough on stock footage of a plane landing and maybe a few foreign sounding street signs to sell the illusion that we’re no longer in Kansas anymore. I'll freely admit, going for a California Danish town instead of simply pretending to be in an actual Danish town is ballsy and unexpected, but let's not mince words. A backwoods community would have sufficed. But that's only the tip of the strange iceberg that is THE UNSEEN.

What kind of news crew sends two women, one with a 16mm camera and the other with a microphone that’s very clearly not plugged into anything, to film a news report? That seems a bit odd. And if Solvang is a few hours car ride from home, why do these women even need a hotel room in the first place? Couldn’t they just drive home? Why do we cut to Virginia graphically decapitating a live chicken or to a shot of a cat licking a shoe? Is it just to accentuate the weirdness of the whole damn film? Maybe it’s best not to dwell on the particulars, but Steinmann is clearly up to something here. Jennifer divulges her pregnancy to Tony while puffing on a cigarette. Ernest’s past trauma is delivered completely through auditory flashback, his angry father’s voice pitched one notch below R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Maybe this wasn’t ever meant to be a straight horror film at all? Maybe, just maybe, instead of screaming, I'm supposed to be laughing?

Ernest’s dirty little secret, in case you’re wondering, is that Virginia is not really his wife. She’s his sister. Ernest had raped Virginia many years ago, a terrible act which resulted in a pregnancy and the end result of said pregnancy was Junior, a gibbering slob they keep locked up in the basement. Junior mistakes our bubbly leads for playthings, resulting in Vicki and Karen’s deaths. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Ernest locks Jennifer in the basement, hoping Junior will snap her pretty neck. Unfortunately for Ernest, Virginia is getting awfully sick of his cruel games and Junior… well, Junior isn’t too fond of his dad either.

The final act of THE UNSEEN is one of the strangest final acts in all of horror. Practically wordless, much of the action focuses on a four way fight for survival. Not only is Jennifer fighting to survive, but Ernest, Virginia and Junior take their sweet time bashing, slapping, clubbing, pushing and punching their way through long standing family resentment issues. Although 99% of the finale occurs in a basement, Steinmann still finds a way to soak Barbara Bach’s ultra thin shirt with water, even offering up what could be seen as a dry run for Pam’s slow crawl away from Roy during the ending of FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART V: A NEW BEGINNING.

As the villain of the piece, Junior is, shall we say, problematic and not just because the make up effects for the character were purposefully designed to make Junior look as if he had down syndrome (it was the 1980s, people). Junior is meant (I think) to be sympathetic. He doesn’t attack Jennifer when he first meets her. He tries playing with her. He even gives her a teddy bear. He also gibbers and moans CONSTANTLY. Ceaselessly. Endlessly. Infinitely. And as we spend a good three or four minutes with Junior and Jennifer before all hell breaks loose, Junior stops being threatening and starts becoming insufferable. Worse, Steinmann and Co. have him bounce around the room like a gorilla, slapping himself in the chest, bellowing and grunting like Kong trying to impress Ann Darrow. It’s both laughably lame and yes, completely distasteful.

But again, I don’t really know what the fuck this movie is even trying to be. If it’s comedy, it’s bad comedy. If it’s horror, it’s bad horror. Once I reached the point in the film where Ernest placed clothes pins on his nose to threaten his sister/lover/punching bag, my brain just kind of shut off. I gave up, or gave in, or whichever. I sat there and allowed the film to take me wherever it wanted, and where it took me was so damn bizarre that I left somewhat impressed. It’s a minor miracle that a film like this was ever made within a studio system, let alone attracted talent like Bach, Sydney Lassick and Lelia Goldoni. It’s a Bizarro World rendition of TOURIST TRAP or THE FUNHOUSE. I mean, did Steinmann and Co. really give Jennifer an unwanted pregnancy in an attempt at arguing that it would be better to abort a child than have it born into a dysfunctional family, that giving birth to an unwanted child is to run the risk of giving birth to a drooling, unibrowed halfwit with murderous tendencies?

You know what? Maybe it really is best not to dwell on the particulars. At the end of the day, THE UNSEEN is odd enough to recommend, but too damn weird to truly love.

April 13, 2018


“Don’t look in the attic” is the first bit of advice I would give to anyone visiting my home. For starters, to reach the attic one must traverse a narrow staircase lined with old monitors, stereo equipment and various bits of bric-a-brac. Once you reach the attic room, you’re greeted by garbage bags full of old clothes, boxes upon boxes of toy accessories from god knows how long ago, stacks of action figures still in boxes, and a whole assortment of other junk I should just get rid of. I’m not a hoarder, by the way. I’m just exceptionally lazy.

Of course, DON’T LOOK IN THE ATTIC is not the original title of this film. It’s an Italian production, directed in 1982 by low-rent genre regular Carlo Ausino. The original title was LA VILLA DELLE ANIME MALEDETTE, or THE VILLA OF THE CURSED SOULS, a far more appropriate moniker. The film was unceremoniously dumped on video here in the States with the title of DON’T LOOK IN THE ATTIC in an attempt to tie the film into the semi-popular series of unrelated “Don’t” films that forbade us from ever going near the park, going in the house, going in the woods alone or even looking in the basement. Good thing I was still allowed to go to the bathroom and to FuncoLand otherwise I would have had a rather miserable childhood.

This Italian turd begins in Turin, 1955. We arrive in the middle of a domestic quarrel of sorts. Two men scuffle about while a hysterical woman tries to get them to calm down. One man stabs another to death. In a moment of shell shocked horror, the woman then retrieves the knife and offs the other man. She then retreats to the family cemetery where she is inexplicably dragged into the ground by a demonic hand. Many years later, we meet the woman’s daughter, Elisa, as she attends a séance. Elisa hears her dead mother’s voice warning her, endlessly droning “don’t go to the villa… don’t go to the villa”.

By the way, that really should have been the US video release title of the damn movie. You guessed it. We never once look in an attic.

A little later, Elisa and her two cousins, Bruno and Tony, are called to a lawyer’s office. They are told that they have inherited the cursed family villa. They are not to sell the place, nor are they to evict the creepy live-in custodian. Despite being again warned by her mother’s ghostly voice, Elisa immediately moves into the villa. Bruno brings along his wife. As the film progresses, Elisa becomes more and more aware of a certain evil that lurks in the hallways of the home. But she has something else to worry about, something a tad bit more perverse...

Despite their close relations, both Bruno and Tony have taken an interest in their virginal cousin. Bruno desperately wants a male heir, but his wife is unable to have children (or so he thinks; it’s really Bruno that is sterile, a fact his wife is hiding from him). When Bruno’s wife meets an unfortunate end, run down by a car in the most hilarious slow motion scene of vehicular manslaughter ever captured on film, Bruno’s interests turns even more sinister, culminating in an attempted rape. While all of this is going on, the lawyer is investigating the circumstances of the wife’s death (even though it’s extremely cut and dry) with the help of his ex-lover-turned-secretary, and Elisa discovers that she is part of the seventh generation of cursed family members destined to die in the rundown villa.

And just what is this family curse, you ask? I have no idea. The film never gets into specifics. In fact, the film doesn’t seem all that concerned with any one strand of plot here, which is a shame as the twisted family dynamics on display could have resulted in a queasy, sleazy brew of nasty exploitation goodness. But despite its noncommittal attitude to narrative consistency, DON’T LOOK IN THE ATTIC desperately wants to be a horror movie, as evidenced by all the roaming camera work and incessant haunted house music. Fog wafts through a crack in Elisa’s bathroom door. Her bed sheets move on their own. Someone shines flashlights through obvious black construction paper in an attempt to simulate demonic eyes watching Elisa in the dark. It’s all painful stuff to watch, delivered with little flair or directorial conviction.

The fact that nothing quite makes sense is the least of the concerns here. The film is too poorly paced to hold attention and every attempt at drama is sabotaged by some truly awful dubbing. Perhaps watching the film in Italian would help correct the latter, but the former just cannot be overcome. I was bored through much of the film, uninterested even in the more giallo-like elements at play in the narrative. Someone is skulking around the villa. That mysterious someone stabs a main character to death. There’s a bit of murder mystery giallo iconography tossed in, including a last minute arrival by a character chock full of exposition. But it’s all for naught. The exposition makes no sense. The identity of the true culprit is so out of the blue that it’s likely to result in more chuckles than gasps. It’s poorly thought out, just like the rest of the film.

DON’T LOOK IN THE ATTIC was made in 1982, yet it feels like a throwback to the dime store Italian Gothics of the 60s. The 1980s was an era of Italian genre film that reveled in explosive violence, graphic grue and dynamic visuals. Ausino’s film feels like a relic in comparison, too workaday, too padded out with spook show moments, too lacking in any real intensity, completely without the balls to follow through on its incestuous indulgences. DON’T LOOK IN THE ATTIC could have been an exploitation film for the ages, a gonzo kitchen sink nightmare loaded with taboo sex and violence. But it isn’t, not even a little bit. It’s a sleep aid disguised as a horror movie.

April 4, 2018


I'll start this review off by stating a simple, unarguable fact: TWISTED NIGHTMARE is not a movie. It’s a product. Everything you would expect from a movie is missing. There are no characters, just bowling pins. There is no real narrative, just an ever-escalating series of brutal murders. It has the appearance of a movie, even having a beginning, middle and end. But in between all the requisite bits and pieces one would need to gather in order to make their product feel like a movie, there’s nothing. It’s as empty and hollow as it ever could be.

The central plot set-up, if one could call it that, is simple. A group of teenagers all receive mysterious invitations to a gathering at a summer camp, the same summer camp they all frequented back in the day. They are all presumably friends with deep histories. Laura, the female lead, has brought along her new boyfriend. She has a brief dialogue exchange with the gorgeous, blonde Julie, during which it is hinted that Julie once had a habit of stealing her friend’s boy toys, or so we assume. We meet muscle bound Dean and quickly learn that he’s an asshole. We can assume he had a falling out with the rest of the group some time ago. Our group of teens run into the Native American handyman, Kane, or at least we assume he’s the handyman.

That’s one of the big problems with TWISTED NIGHTMARE. We need to assume a whole bunch of things. Laura’s developmentally challenged brother died at the camp a few years back, inexplicably exploding into flames while hiding in a nearby barn (fans of FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART III will recognize the location), the result of some bad Native American joojoo. We learn that his body was never found. Is that why this summer camp appears to be closed in the middle of summer? Is it now derelict or abandoned? Why does no one seem to know who Kane is if he really is the handyman around the camp? And why does no one question the mysterious invitations they all received in the mail?

I have absolutely no idea because the film doesn’t seem to give a shit about anything it’s presenting to us. Characters have histories we never learn about. Characters have motivations they never share with us. Even the explanation for why all of this is happening isn’t fully thought out or well explained, just hand waved away as evil Native American magic. Laura’s brother was first burned to death by some ancient evil, then resurrected as a snarling, drooling monster with a penchant for mutilation. Laura, we’re led to believe, has somehow concocted all of this, bringing her friends back to camp like lambs to the slaughter, allowing her demon-brother menace to wipe them out for… Well, I don’t know what.

After all, it isn’t the fault of her friends that her brother met a fiery end. That was all the result of Native American demons angry that the camp was built over top an Indian burial ground (I think). Most slasher movie villains have an air of the anti-hero about them. Marty Rantzen throws a mock high school reunion so he can viciously murder the gaggle of teens involved in his disfigurement. The killer in PROM NIGHT is avenging the death of his little sister, the unfortunate outcome of a childhood game gone tragically wrong. But the killer in TWISTED NIGHTMARE isn’t even laying waste to a guilty party of callous brats. I kept expecting a last minute twist in which Laura realizes that she’s not in cahoots with the killer, but that the killer is simply a manifestation of ancient evils out to punish anyone invading their sacred land. But nope. That would have required thought and energy.

TWISTED NIGHTMARE exists solely for the rending of teenage flesh. Back in the early 80s, Roger Ebert coined the term “Dead Teenager Movie” to describe the slasher film. His definition of the term was rather simple. Here’s a group of teenagers, now watch them die. He viewed the slasher film as an empty, nihilistic brand of exploitation. Now, while that isn’t necessarily true, it’s also not necessarily false, but most slasher films at least gave their characters backstories and personalities. They at least gave the characters a chance at survival. I’m surprised TWISTED NIGHTMARE even gave them names.

This isn’t a slasher movie. It’s bowling. Deaths come at a steady clip with nary a character moment in between. Characters just wander off and die at regular intervals, usually after taking off their clothes. It’s as minimalist and perfunctory as you can get, and while I’m not some raging moralist who has a problem with wanton destruction and bloody movie violence, it would be nice if a film actually tried to inject some level of humanity into the proceedings. TWISTED NIGHTMARE is a humorless affair with no interest in creating any semblance of human characters. In fact, the character who becomes the Final Girl of the film is just some throwaway blonde who spends much of the third act locked inside an outdoor freezer. Was I really supposed to care if she escaped?

It would be nice to have a single character to root for or care about, just one goddamn character to hang my hat on apart from the girl whose brother spontaneously combusted inside a barn two years ago. It would be nice if the gaggle of teens actually talked to one another outside of the sex scenes. It would be nice if the film made any sense or actually built to a conclusion that felt earned. But as it stands, all TWISTED NIGHTMARE could offer me was a parade of poorly filmed, never convincing murder set pieces. I spent 90 minutes with TWISTED NIGHTMARE. I could have spent five minutes watching any of the thousand “INSERT MOVIE TITLE HERE – KILL COUNT” videos on YouTube and my experience would have been just as fulfilling.