Last week, Stephen Furst passed away at the age of 62 from complications related to type 2 diabetes. Furst was one of those actors with a face more famous than his name, his most instantly recognizable role being that of Kent “Flounder” Dorfman in Animal House. Although his early career saw him in mostly comedic roles, he also worked in drama, action, and, yep, you guessed it, horror. In 1980, just a couple of short years after he made Animal House, Furst played the “title” role in The Unseen.
The Unseen is about a television reporter named Jennifer Fast (Barabara Bach from The Spy Who Loved Me) who, along with her sister, Karen (Karen Lamm from Ants!), and their friend, Vicki (Lois Young from Newsies), travels to Solvang, California, to cover a local festival. Unfortunately for the girls, the small town is packed for the festival, so they can’t find a hotel. An unassuming museum curator named Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick from Carrie and Sonny Boy) offers to rent a room to the ladies in the home that he shares with his wife, Virginia (The Devil Inside’s Lelia Goldoni).
At the risk of spoiling the movie, the situation at the house is not entirely what it seems to be. It’s bad enough that Ernest is a creep and that Virginia is completely subservient to him, but there is something…unseen…that lives within the walls and floors which torments the girls, picking them off one-by-one. Jennifer’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Tony (Deadly Blessing’s Douglas Barr), shows up to visit and try to make their relationship on-again, but soon enough, he and Jennifer find themselves in a fight for their lives against an ambiguous foe.
Although it was written and directed by Danny Steinmann (Savage Streets, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), you won’t find his name anywhere in the credits of the film. The rumor is that Steinmann was so discouraged with the final cut of the movie that he took his name off of it, with writing and directing credit going to “Peter Foleg.” Steinmann (er, Foleg) wrote the script from a story that had seen plenty of hands on it, including those of special effects wizards Stan Winston (Dead & Buried, The Thing) and Tom Burman (One Dark Night, The Midnight Hour), as well as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre/Eaten Alive creator Kim Henkel. For having so many fingers in the pie, The Unseen is a surprisingly coherent and economical little splatter flick.
So, as mentioned earlier, Stephen Furst plays the title role in The Unseen, but he doesn’t show up until well into the film, with his appearance essentially ushering in the third act. His character is “Junior” Keller, the boy-trapped-in-a-man’s-body son of Ernest and Virginia. He’s almost a sympathetic character, socially awkward and maladjusted, seemingly not even holding the power of speech (although he does exhibit rational thought and logical decision making). He’s a bit like an out-of-shape Jason Voorhees, if Jason never left his parent’s cellar. And, remember, The Unseen was made in 1980, before Jason himself started doing any of his own killing.
Of course, the real villain in The Unseen, at least for most of the movie, is Ernest Keller. Although he seems nice at first, once the ladies get set up in his home, he lets his true colors show, peeping in on his guests while subtly keeping his well-meaning wife under his thumb. In essence, Ernest created Junior, both physically and emotionally, through years of neglect and abuse, all of which was aided by Virginia’s complacence. Sydney Lassick plays the two-faced lunatic with a combination of melodramatic moustache twisting and calculating psychosis, sort of like Norman Bates-meets-Hannibal Lecter. Junior the Unseen is the perceived threat, but Ernest is the real monster.
Cinematographer Roberto A. Quezada worked as a gaffer for the great Don Coscarelli on Phantasm, and he seemingly took everything he learned there and applied it to the photography in The Unseen. Much of the film takes place in the daytime, and Quezada’s camera captures the ominous bright dread in the same way that Coscarelli did in Phantasm. When the action does move to nighttime (or to dark places like a cellar), the shadows come out to conceal all the creepy stuff until right before it happens. There are no creative color palettes or genius camera tricks in The Unseen, just some good solid motion picture cinematography.
The music for The Unseen was provided by British composer Michael J. Lewis, who also did the music for The Legacy and Theatre of Blood. It’s a creepy minimalistic score, very stereotypical, with sawing strings and blaring horns, but it works in the monstrous melodramatic context of the film. There are very few recognizable melodies or grand themes within the soundtrack to The Unseen, but there’s plenty of maniacal mood creating musical mayhem.
Stephen Furst would go on to somewhat shake the Animal House stigma with regular roles on “St. Elsewhere” in the eighties, “Babylon 5” in the nineties, then “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command” in the aughts. But, in the hearts of comedy lovers, he’ll always be Flounder, and in the hearts of horror fans, he’ll always be Junior Keller, the Unseen in The Unseen.