Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #40
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: October 15, 1982
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 79 minutes
Director: Don Gronquist
Producer: Don Gronquist
Screenplay: Don Gronquist, Reagan Ramsey
Special Effects: Janet Scoutten
Cinematography: Richard Blakeslee
Score: Jon Newton
Editing: Phillips Blair, Foster Castleman
Stars: Laurel Munson, Janet Penner, Sara Ansley, Virginia Settle, John Morrison, Barbara Lusch, Bill Simmonds, Francine Molter
Suggested Audio Candy:
Jon Newton Chase Theme
Every so often I like to dust off an old relic from yesteryear that not many people are aware of and offer it a little more acknowledgment than it received when it first came out. This time it is the turn of Don Gronquist’s forgotten 1982 slasher Unhinged. In all probability this would have passed everyone by had it not been for one memorable dynamic. His film made the official 72-strong BBFC video nasty list. It didn’t particularly merit inclusion, was never actually prosecuted, and there are far more degenerate works that warrant their place considerably more than this but it isn’t without a certain degree of low-rent charm. Thus, it is time to prepare my microscope and poke around in its shallow DNA pool further.
In truth, the original VHS sleeve was as malicious as any of the actual content within. There was no consumption of human tissue, no Nazi experiment camps or sadistic rape scenes, no animal cruelty and mercifully not the faintest whiff of snuff to be discerned. Just a couple of half-respectable executions which were over in a jiffy and precious little else to rise it above mediocrity. So appraisal over then, right? Not even close. Unhinged may not be a particularly praiseworthy movie and, not wishing to place a banana in anyone’s tailpipe, there isn’t much on exhibit here that you won’t have seen countless times before and since, probably executed a darned sight better too. Having said that, it does have a couple of tricks up its sleeve, those being an ominous tone and effective build-up which serve it remarkably well.
Events follow three typically purty college girls, Terry (Laurel Munson), Nancy (Sara Ansley) and Gloria (Barbara Lusch), who run their car off the road en route to a concert after a blatant piece of time-padding in the form of a good old-fashioned montage. When they come to, the girls find themselves in a country manor tucked away out of earshot of anything or anyone else. They’re taken in and their needs tended to by a most bizarre woman (think of the nanny from The Omen on mind-bending drugs and you won’t be a country mile away) plus her wheelchair-bound mother. These curious old cronies run a tight ship and men are totally prohibited. Mrs. Penrose is convinced her daughter is sneaking them in at night “defiling the sanctity of our home”, while the ladies are required to act as such and everybody must be tucked up in bed shortly after evening tea. Could be worse right? You’re damn right it could.
The first inkling that everything is not quite kosher (apart from the fact that the hosts just look like they will likely hack their guests to pieces at any given moment) is when some rather ominous audio begins to emanate from our heroine’s room as she prepares to sleep. In addition to plenty of heavy breathing is the sound of a man seemingly self-stimulating somewhere nearby. Then there’s the small matter of a little tool shed in direct view from Terry’s window. Locked throughout the day; the solitary light buzzes at night and it appears something untoward may well be afoot. This is where Gronquist builds most of his tension and he is aided by Jon Newman’s eerie if occasionally unintentionally hilarious score, creating a sense of trepidation as that bright light flickers on once more. We are still no wiser as to what fiendish delights await us inside said shed but are already starting to fear the worst and remain hopeful of something suitably ghastly.
There are some very drawn-out scenes of stilted dialogue and Gronquist looks like he is struggling to fill the meager 79-minute running time. So he does what any director in the eighties horror field would have done and spices things up with some harmless full-frontal nudity courtesy of the obligatory shower scene. As two of our girls lather themselves, the prowler is doing a Norman and copping an eyeful of young supple flesh through a cunningly placed peep-hole in the adjoining room.
When the killings commence, bearing in mind that we started with a paltry three characters, they’re actually reasonably bloodthirsty. Nothing near grisly enough to elucidate how it found itself banished by over-excitable censors but there is splatter on the platter. As our numbers dwindle, with no abacus required to keep count, Terry is attempting to find a way inside that wretched shed and ascertain what really is going on behind its door. When she does find out, we are treated to a veritable butcher’s shop window of hacked off body parts and, with lightning sporadically illuminating parts of the room, are revealed precisely what we’ve speculated about for the last hour.
There are a few more points I wish to make that I believe raise Unhinged above the bottom feeders. First a dash of trivia: it was filmed entirely on location in Pittock Mansion, Portland, Oregon over nineteen straight nights of dusk through dawn shooting, using stage performers from a community theatre company so, in that respect, it’s a true designer original. Not enough? Okay, well how about these apples? By my own observation it appears that Ti West may have drawn a little inspiration from Gronquist’s movie for his awe-inspiring retro-styled The House of the Devil. There are a number of parallels between them while clearly West does a far more sturdy job with his proliferation. So, if Unhinged had never existed, we may not have had introduction to what is arguably one of the best straight horror flicks of the past decade.
Still not convinced? Try this on for size then. The reveal at the close precedes Sleepaway Camp (whose finale is regarded as revolutionary) by three years. Unhinged was knocking about for two of those before gaining distribution rights, making it the pioneer of the transgender killer twist in my estimations. If none of the aforementioned are sufficient to whet your appetite just a little then I have only one point left to make. It may be poorly paced, padded like a cell in a psych ward (79 minutes should not feel overlong), and feature largely substandard performances (although Janet Penner puts in a gloriously demented turn as Marion/
Marlon) but it has a certain undeniable je ne sais pas. While these flaws exist and are each applicable, the image of that little tool shed light suddenly illuminating overlaid by Newton’s erratic electronic composition is more than enough to warrant its existence. Maybe if it had been called Don’t Go in the Shed, it would have amassed more curiosity.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Such a furor over what? Three kills, three measly kills. Actually, one in particular stands out, and that is a particularly brutal scythe dispatch. There’s a certain low-rent giallo feel to Nancy’s demise as she clambers up the incline and the camera reveals our killer already waiting at the summit (in green Wellington boots curiously) followed by a flurry of blows and quick cut-aways before she slumps lifelessly to the ground. However, there is a fair degree of off-screen bloodletting which is disappointing for a film deemed controversial. Thankfully, there’s a dash of naked flesh provided to help raise our spirits during the quieter moments.
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2016)