Monday, November 4, 2019

“This New Twist is Really Giving Me the Willies” - Unhinged (1982) - Film #159

It is time to visit the 1982 slasher film Unhinged, a film that incorporates many aspects of the protoslasher despite being released well into the slasher boom of the early 1980s.

Many of your universe's critics fail to appreciate this suspense classic. Reviewer spastickitchen writes, "The plot is actually not the worst I've seen, but it's close. The acting is not the worst I've seen either...but it's close. The production .... well, I can honestly say that it was the worst I had ever seen in my life!" Reviewer soggycow writes, "One of the things that makes this movie awful is the acting. Lisa Munson, who plays the main character, looks as though she is reading her lines off cue cards." And reviewer startide77 writes, "This film is without a doubt the most inept attempt at film making I've ever seen."

Of course, the film is not inept in any way. Read on for more details...

The film begins with a radio announcer spewing banalities over a dark screen as a woman, Terry, wakes up in her bedroom. After several seconds, she turns on the bedroom light to listen to a commercial for the fast food franchise Taco Time, then she takes a shower. When her mother calls, 19-year-old Mary reveals that she is going on a trip to Pinewood for a music festival with her friends Nancy and Gloria. When her mother says she doesn’t trust Nancy, Terry quips, “I’ll excuse myself when they break out the heroin.”

As the girls drive upstate, the filmmakers score the scene with a synthesizer score that would not be out of place in a giallo; however, the music lasts only a few seconds, replaced by more conventional folk rock as the girls pass around a joint while driving. (It must also be said that the filmmakers get a tremendous amount of mileage from a few helicopter shots.)

The car radio also informs us all that 23 girls have disappeared in the area around Pinewood, a fact the girls do not acknowledge.

Suddenly, the car bumps into a log on the road, which causes it to veer into the forest.

Terry wakes up in a bed, a woman and a man staring at her. The woman is Marion Penrose and the man is Norman Barnes. “We haven’t a phone,” Marion tells her. “The closest one is down in the village.”

“How far is that?” Terry mumbles. (Having been in a car accident, Terry mumbles monotonously quite a lot.)

“Oh, about three miles by the road, about two if you cut through the woods.” However, the rain has washed out the roads.

The locals take several minutes to convince Terry she is stuck in the house. Norman discourages her from walking through the woods: “The terrain’s pretty rugged. I’d say you and your dark-haired friend would make it, but the little one, she won’t be leaving for a while.” He adds, “Anyway, it would take somebody with quite a bit of stamina just to get there. And there’s the possibility of catching pneumonia, getting lost. No, I think you’re much better off just staying here and waiting it out.”

Terry and Nancy are asked to eat dinner with Marion and her mother Edith at eight. Edith is in a wheelchair, and she is quite proper, not to mention dismissive of her daughter Marion.

The filmmakers show us the women eating dinner silently for several minutes.

Edith freezes for a moment, then arranges some little cups on the table.

“Have you lived here long?” Terry mumbles.

“Time seems to be of so little importance,” Edith replies, “when one finds that her entire lifestyle is so far removed from what she once knew.”

Then Edith yells at Marion and calls her a slut.

Terry asks about Edith’s husband, which causes her to act mildly unhinged. “I have neither knowledge of nor interest in his or any other man’s whereabouts. It is the subject I do not allow to interfere with my thought process.”

After dinner, unsurprisingly, the girls sit on the floor of the music room playing Scrabble with no game board while Marion plays piano and Marion’s mother looks on happily. Outside, however, a man approaches the dark house (the rain has stopped). He approaches the window to the music room and watches the goings-on.

The girls go to their bedroom, where they make fun of the old woman and Terry hurts her foot by stepping on a tooth. “That’s weird,” she comments.

After everyone has gone to sleep, Terry wakes up several times, first to watch someone walk to a guest house and turn on the lights, and then to listen to someone on the floor above moaning, as if pleasuring himself. She rushes to Nancy’s room. “I think we should get out of here as quick as we can. I have a hard enough time taking Cinderella and her wicked stepmother, but this new twist is really giving me the willies.”

The girls flip a coin to decide who will walk through the forest. But first they shower together, completely nude for several minutes, while someone watches them (noisily) through a peephole.

The next morning, after the rain has completely cleared up, the girls tell their plans to Marion. Terry says, somewhat stiltedly, “We just figured it would be better if one of us went to the village for help. It’s just that we feel that we must let our parents know where we are.”

Marion replies, also stiltedly, “Don’t worry about that. I can sympathize with you completely. As you may have surmised from last night, my mother is quite in the habit of having to know exactly where I am at all times also. But that should be no concern of yours.”

Nancy volunteers to walk to the village while Terry volunteers to bring in firewood, which is kept in a pile on the porch with a long-handled axe resting next to it. Terry, curious, walks over to a two-story, ivy-covered guest house which Marion calls a “shed”; before Terry can open the door, Marion runs furiously out of the house to intercept her, warning her not to go in there.

Meanwhile, Nancy walks through the woods, accompanied by a synthesizer score that would not be out of place in a Dario Argento film of the early 80s. Then she encounters a scythe-wielding stranger in a raincoat and galoshes who murders her—a scene that would be only a little out of place in a Dario Argento film of the early 80s.

Back at the mansion at nightfall, Marion explains to Terry that an incident occurred in her youth involving her father and a young girl. “While Mother thought it proper to keep the family unit together, he was off exploring some jungle with his friends.” (Surprisingly, this is not a euphemism for sex.) “They both came from families of wealth and power, and they were both quite used to getting their own way.” She adds, horrifically, “The girl was eight or nine.” Marion’s father was institutionalized and now her mother has contempt for all men. “The mere mention of a man now, and she goes into a frenzy.”

Terry tells her she thought she heard a man breathing in the house last night.

“Terry, that’s just nonsense. You couldn’t have. Anyway, this is an old house, full of the usual creaks and groans.“ Subtly, she adds, “I learned long ago not to deal with feelings. With things that aren’t really there.”

Another dinner ensues, now forcing Terry to eat alone with Marion and Edith—during a lightning storm, no less. The dinner is mostly silent, and the filmmakers, edgily, show it in mostly real time. At one point, Edith again reaches for some cups, apparently in a fugue state, but nobody takes note of it.

When Edith recovers, she tells Terry eloquently, “Being a parent, Terry, is a large responsibility. Their unhappiness about your rather unfortunate automobile accident simply translates into concern. Concern for your well being. That is why you must try to understand the burden of parenthood. It is something...something so terminal.”

Again, they retreat to the music room so Marion can play piano, and again they are watched from outside by a mysterious figure. We watch as the rain coated figure goes to the “shed” and turns on a light.

Later, when Terry is in bed, she hears a man breathing again. She investigates and finds the sound is coming from the ceiling—all through the house. She finds a door to the attic and climbs upstairs, only to find a mysterious, though empty, room with a child-sized rocking chair and a holster filled with a pistol.

Terry knocks over a box and finds an poll photo of two little boys.

Back in her room, Terry parts the curtains to see a man leering at her, in a creepily effective jump scare.

Of course, Terry runs screaming downstairs, where Marion tries to calm her down. Breathlessly, Terry erupts: “A lot of pretty weird things are going on around here, breathing, strange sounds, your mother, now faces at the window. I can’t stand it! You’re the only one that seems to have any sense. What is going on?”

“All right. All right. Now just try to calm yourself.” Marion takes Terry to the sitting sit. “You see, the man you saw at your window is my younger brother, Carl.” Carl is developmentally delayed, but harmless. After the tragedy in Nantucket, Edith wouldn’t let a man in the house, even her son. “As far as my mother is concerned, Carl, her own son, never even existed.”

Oddly, and clearly unconcerned about the abused young man, Terry asks, “But what if he should hurt someone?”

“Who is there for him to hurt?” Edith responds.

The next day, Terry encounters Norman chopping wood. They have a long conversation, during which Norman mentions that some young girls have turned up missing. “They know...vanish,” Norman says.

Later, in a shocking scene, a person breathing heavily splits Gloria’s head with an axe. (Cleverly, the filmmakers have nearly made us forget about Gloria, who has been in bed for several days.)

Terry, now the proverbial and literal final girl, looks for Gloria, only to find her bed empty. Marion, who spends ninety percent of her time setting the table, is setting the table. She does not know where Gloria is, so Terry goes outside as another lightning storm brews. Eventually, she finds Carl lurking near the “shed,” so she locks herself inside.

In a powerful slasher-movie sequence weakened only slightly by slow motion camerawork, Carl smashes a window and pushes Terry into a gruesome pile of dead bodies.

Screaming, she runs back to the main house, where she runs up to the attic to get the pistol. Carl chases her, and she shoots him in the head.

Marion confronts Terry over Carl’s body. “He was only playing with you,” she explains.

“Playing? Go take a look out in the shed and tell me he was only playing!”

Marion’s voice changes, presumably indicating she used to be a man (a fact corroborated by the photo of two boys). “Carl had nothing to do with that. I’m sorry it had to end this way, Terry.” Marion pulls out a machete. “Just when we were getting to be such good friends.”

Marion kills Terry. “You putrid scum, fouling the air with your very presence!”

The End

The qualities of Unhinged that make it a classic are myriad, but I would like to focus on a select few. First, the stylized acting is fascinating to watch. The young actresses playing the vacationers act monotonously, reciting their lines as if attempting to get through them as quickly as possible with no vocal variations or, indeed, facial expressions. While some reviewers might take these performances as amateurish, I believe they are a conscious choice director Don Gronquist made to emphasize the banality of disposable youth. The girls' acting styles contrast strongly with those of the older women, Marion and Edith, both of whom speak formally, though no more realistically. Both acting styles would probably be derided as "bad" by modern audiences, but they are clearly "bad" in opposing directions, adding a layer of stylization to all the performances. The different acting styles also serve to distance the audience from the characters, which might be Mr. Gronquist's sly critique of the slasher film, which is always less interested in characters and more interested in stylized murders.

Speaking of murders, Unhinged includes three violent murder scenes. In fact, the film was classified as a video nasty in the United Kingdom (on the list of non-prosecuted films), though the violence is far from extreme. One could consider Unhinged to be a subtle psychological thriller, with the added benefits of gratuitous nudity and a scene where a young woman falls into a pile of body parts.

It must be added that the film begins with a radio ad for Taco Time and ends with a thank you to Taco Time in the closing credits. The meaning of this obsession with Taco Time is unclear, as the characters unfortunately never eat at Taco Time, but as far as I know, very few slasher films reference Taco Time.

Interestingly, Unhinged was remade in 2017.