I should probably be trying to keep up with all of the new horror movies that have been released this year but I can’t seem to stop returning to my familiar haunting grounds, the eighties. Real world chaos has got me yearning for comfort horror and it’s well recorded that I have a soft spot for slow burn, storm strewn, mansion set, hand wringing horror that preferably features a spinster of sorts and ideally was made in the greatest decade known to man (think THE NESTING, THE HEARSE, THE UNSEEN, SILENT SCREAM, et al.) Don Gronquist’s UNHINGED is just such a film and although it’s widely remembered as an especially non-gory and uneventful video nasty, I personally see it as a go-to easy fix for anything that might ail me. The acting ranks from monotone to cringey, the writing is bizarrely repetitive and needlessly mannered, there are long stretches where characters basically do nothing and yet, I can’t help yearning to bask in its creepy, quiet weirdness from time to time.
Three young, pretty gal pals (Laurel Munson, Sara Ansley, Barbara Lusch) embark on a car trip to a music festival, their journey amplified by bright fall leaves and an ambitious (especially for a 100k film) aerial view that apes THE SHINING. After the car radio alerts them to a recent spat of missing girls, their vehicle inconveniently crashes into a ditch and all goes black (which happens a lot in this movie). The trio finds themselves in a giant spooky mansion having been saved by a likable enough handyman named Norman Barnes (John Morrison) and an uptight shut-in named Marion Penrose (Janet Penner). The PSYCHO references don’t end with those names, Marion’s mother (Virginia Settle) is a paranoid bellowing crone, fixated on sex, who belts out commands and accusations at regular intervals. As accommodating as the Penrose family initially seems, the girls slowly learn that they might be prisoners more than guests as they are stalked by a mysterious mouth-breather and their numbers quickly dwindle.
With all its faults, UNHINGED has tons of character and there’s something about its classic rainy, travelers trapped in an old dark house vibe that I find irresistible. Gorehounds may be let down by the lack of blood but the few killings that do occur are notably vicious and there’s a jar full of eyeballs thrown in as a consolation prize. UNHINGED does indeed take its sweet old time swinging into action but viewers who stick with it throughout its slender eighty minute runtime will be rewarded with a (at least for me) jaw-dropping twist ending that fits all the puzzle pieces together tightly (and perhaps problematically by modern standards). It’s a memorable denouement that cleverly underlines the films assertion that repression is a ticking time bomb. I’d guess the biggest culprit of the film’s less than stellar reputation is the questionable local acting talent who are forced to speak globs of stilted dialogue that often goes in circles but I’m of the thinking it adds to the flick’s charming peculiarity.
UNHINGED may not be the murder by scythe slaughter-fest its poster art implies but its eccentric odd ball nature, objectively creepy atmosphere and beguiling synth score will always keep me coming back to the Penrose estate (Oregon's Pittock Mansion, an operating museum at the time of filming) for more.