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Unhinged: Revisiting a Video Nasty

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Of all the movies to have the misfortune of being banned, Unhinged seems like an unlikely culprit. A 1982 slasher film directed by Don Gronquist, it was one of the many titles to be pulled from distribution for obscene content. In the United Kingdom, it became known as one of the infamous ‘video nasties’ along with the likes of Cannibal Ferox, Zombie, Island of Death, and countless others. While the slasher over-saturation from the time period brought us some memorable classics, it also featured many lackluster copycats. Truth be told, Unhinged has never gotten the full amount of praise it deserves, and one of its most prominent DVD releases features an audio track of commentators roasting it, a la “MST3K.” While it isn’t the blood-splattered mayhem of Violent Shit, or the psychological portrait of Bill Lustig’s Maniac, it certainly deserves recognition among genre fans as an underrated gem.

Unhinged is the story of three girls named Terry, Nancy, and Gloria, who crash their car while driving to a concert. When Terry awakens from her trauma, she finds herself in the care of Marion Penrose, a spinster living with her mother in an isolated country estate. The relationship between Marion and her mother is dysfunctional and emotionally abusive. Her mother berates her daughter, and constantly expresses her disdain for men. The house they live in feels less like a family domain, and more akin to a matriarchal society. Even the Penrose’ handyman Norman is forced to exit through the rear door like a second-class citizen. Actress J.E. Penner, who portrays Marion, gives the best performance in the film. She continually walks the thin line between creepy and sophisticated.

As Gloria recovers from her injuries, Terry and Nancy attempt to make the best of their situation, and understand the odd relationship Marion and her mother have with one another. The house itself becomes the ideal location for the chain of events that begin to unfold. Its isolated location allows the seeds of tension to be sewn, and introduce the first signs a potential antagonist. Early on it’s established that someone (or something) is watching the girls during their recuperation. This part of the movie makes the audience feel like they’re being watched—the repetitive POV shots and close ups of a mysterious eyeball furthers this voyeuristic aspect. Terry continually mentions that she hears a man’s voice throughout the ordeal, which starts the gradual build up to the films shocking climax, one that wouldn’t be rivaled until Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp a year later.

Unquestionably, the greatest attribute of Unhinged is its pacing best described as a slow burn. The story builds up gradually, and unlike some of its contemporaries, it restrains itself a great deal with its content. The violence is surprisingly minimal, and the death toll never rises to the high level one might expect. Unhinged compensates for this absence of carnage with suspense and mood. The films minimalist soundtrack helps create a strong atmosphere coinciding with the slower pace. The first murder doesn’t occur until 36 minutes in, and when it does it feels like a climax at the end of a crescendo. From this point forward, the tension begins to rebuild itself, with the identity of the mysterious voyeur from earlier being revealed. Luckily, the third act doesn’t give too much away about the inevitable, or spoiling too much for a first time viewer. The conclusion, which borrows slightly from Three on a Meathook, is something that’s completely unexpected. During a second or third viewing many of the subtle clues that exist throughout become more noticeable.

The strength of a good film is how well it holds up after multiple viewings, and this one certainly does. The best horror is what you don’t see, and Gronquist’s demonstrates his ability to keep you on the edge of your seat with anticipation. There’s also a nostalgic charm Unhinged holds for those who gravitate towards the classics of yesterday. It might be time for a whole new generation to fall in love with this video nasty.

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