Unhinged 1980 Review
Directed by: Don Gronquist
Starring: Laurel Munson, Janet Penner, Sara Ansley
Review by Luis Joaquín González
In these recent times of rapid action cuts and CGI overloads, slow boiling thrillers have lost some their allure amongst audiences. I always try to value craft over excess, but recently I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds again and noticed I was losing focus during the lengthy character development parts. It’s strange, because I loved that movie so much when I was growing up.
This fairly intriguing genre entry grabbed a slice of notoriety because it was banned in the United Kingdom and quickly added to the video nasty list upon its release in 1982. With only four on-screen killings during the seventy-two minute runtime, nowadays it’s hard to see what the BBFC found so offensive. It’s been billed most places as more of a psychological chiller than an out and out stalk and slasher, so I promised myself to be extra patient when watching it unfold.
Three young girls that are on their way to a Jazz concert, crash their car in a rainstorm and wake up stranded in a large mansion. Even though everything seems comfortable at first, it soon becomes apparent that there’s a local killer on the loose and the girls have to fight to survive.
Director Don Gronquist has said that his sole ambition throughout his life had been to make a feature film. His first attempt, a serial killer/crime drama based on Charles Starkweather’s exploits, wasn’t picked up until eight-years after its 1973 production date. He didn’t let this deter him and Unhinged proved to be a lot more attractive to relevant suitors due to the boom of the slasher genre. Costing only $100,000 to produce, the film is a mix of Halloween and Psycho that coincidentally results in a blend that’s a lot like The Unseen. The early shots of a car heading along a winding road brought to mind The Shinning, which I also believe played a part in the ambition behind the project.
In terms of the influences taken from Carpenter’s classic, Gronquist pulls off some generally effective heavy-breath POV shots and a strong utilisation of sound to unsettle viewers. Jon Newton’s brooding score works wonders in maintaining an atmosphere and lesser scenes come alive solely because of the striking audio accompaniment. Dressed in a rain-mac, the killer strikes with unpredictability and each murder is brutal and ruthless. If you’re expecting bundles of gore because of the video nasty status, you’ll be disappointed, but there’s something unsettling about the way the killings are staged. Tension is brought from a complex mystery and a claustrophobic feeling that the girls are truly stranded in the wilderness. Building a creepy environment is not something all can achieve, but the unusual characters and (again) that frantic score really do wonders in maintaining the menace.
Whilst there can be no greater sources of inspiration than Hitchcock, Carpenter and Kubrick; as a director, Gronquist doesn’t come close to achieving that level of artistry. Unhinged is shot rather flatly, and rarely tries anything audacious. Outside of the impressive steadi-cam moments, the camera always seems to abide by the safest option and this has a noticeable effect on the film’s energy. Some of the most amateur editing that I can remember certainly doesn’t help matters and it’s surprising that this wasn’t picked up upon before release. We’ll see a shot of an open doorway for three-seconds before someone walks through or a sequence will just stop and fade to black awkwardly. This also plays havoc with the story’s timeline, because I couldn’t keep track of whether minutes or hours had passed between one part and the next. Whilst it would be fair to call Gronquist’s work ‘uninspired’, it deserved a lot better than how his editors made it look.
I called The Unhinged intriguing, and I really believe that it is. The plot concludes with a twist that I didn’t mention so as not to ruin, and it provides moments that are generally chilling. The performances are poor and the technical ability shoddy, at best. Despite that, it remains worth a look because it is so – what’s that word again? – Oh yes, intriguing. I prefer horror films develop an atmosphere and even if the pace does drop here and there, I actually quite liked it.
Killer Guise: √√
Final Girl: √