Friday, October 22, 2010

The Red Eye Report's 2010 October Horrorthon #22: "The Unseen" (1945)

As would Jamie Lee Curtis and Carol Kane after her, Gail Russell assumes the role of a babysitter who's really in for it in 1945's The Unseen. Russell plays Elizabeth Howard, a young woman hired by the stern David Fielding (Joel McCrea) as governess for his children (Nona Griffith and Richard Lyon). But she's hardly had time to unpack her things before realizing she's stepped into the nuttiest house since the Femm estate. All manner of strange characters drift about the Fielding residence, including a shifty real estate agent, a handyman who keeps odd working hours, and a former nanny who's not about to move on. From all of this hubub emerges a peculiar mystery, involving a recent string of murders and a figure rooting around the house next door. When she learns the Fielding kids know more than they're admitting, Elizabeth attempts to gain their trust and crack the crimes before her name ends up in the obituaries next.

It was but a few days ago that I ragged on Return of the Living Dead 3 for having bugger-all to do with its namesake series. But now we have The Unseen, a film I like a fair deal more than has even less to do with its own supposed roots. You can see from the poster that The Unseen was billed as a follow-up to 1944's The Uninvited and is accepted as a sequel in certain circles. But not only do none of the latter film's characters show up here, the former completely ditches the supernatural angle in favor of more earthly chills. The only common threads are director Lewis Allen and star Gail Russell, no longer playing an outright victim but a more proactive part this time around. Strangely, though, I didn't mind so flimsy a connection, since the first film's spirit is present here, even if the spirits themselves are not. The set-up is straight out of The Turn of the Screw, wherein the relationship between governess and children provides the film's emotional core, as well as its main source of conflict.

But here's where The Unseen gets a bit murky, kids. The resentment kids have towards any foreign authority figure is natural, and the junior actors here convey this very well. But Griffith and (mostly) Lyon do almost too good a job of exuding brattiness, so much so that the story's flow suffers as a result. With much of the mystery hinging on what the Fielding kids know but won't tell, it gets irritating to see the resolution prolonged because one of them is being a stubborn little demon spawn. As such, The Unseen is often left trying to find stuff to do, and though it only lasts 81 minutes, it's still dishing out red herrings an hour in. It doesn't develop an intricate puzzle so much as it just makes everyone but Russell look guilty as all get-out, resolved whenever's convenient for the culprit. This doesn't give Russell much of a chance to really play detective, but she still delivers a sweet and sympathetic performance, particularly when she puts up with McCrea's crusty ways to an almost saintly degree.

Though I've exhibited more jeers than cheers, The Unseen isn't at all terrible. Again, Allen nails the atmosphere, which is dark, foggy, and teeming with spookiness. Although the supernatural isn't part of the plan, you still find yourself getting nervous over what real-life terrors await Elizabeth in the surrounding mist. Even more hard to find than The Uninvited nowadays, The Unseen isn't worth breaking a sweat over, but should the Turner Classic Movie gods feel generous enough to schedule it, it's worth catching just to say you've seen it.

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