The 13th Floor

Slashback! Beyond Reason, Beyond Help: 1982’s Banned and Baffling UNHINGED

When the notorious “Video Nasties” witch hunt swept across the UK in the 1980s, plenty of slasher movies made their shit-list — but some of the titles which gained that dubious distinction were not nearly as controversial as some that I’ve covered in this column previously; for example, Tobe Hooper’s 1981 THE FUNHOUSE, a nearly bloodless affair, was another questionable target for British censors.

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Another relatively tame slasher entry, the Oregon-lensed 1982 slasher UNHINGED, was one of the few titles on the Nasties list to totally embrace its “banned” status; the film’s distributor fully exploited the “Banned in England!” banner to generate curiosity.

Directed by Don Gronquist and released to theaters in 1982, UNHINGED may not be nearly as gory or sleazy as its reputation would suggest (despite a heavy quantity of blood, it’s got a relatively modest body count of four). But, if nothing else, it certainly tries to live up to its title… especially in its final minutes.

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The film follows a group of three college coeds en route to a music festival in the Pacific Northwest, who become stranded when their car hits a massive sinkhole during a heavy downpour.

The trio — one of whom is badly injured in the wreck — seek refuge in a sprawling mansion in the depth of the woods. This immense Gothic structure is the home of the seriously mental man-hater Mrs. Penrose (Virginia Settle) and her equally unbalanced daughter Marion (J.E. Penner).

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While the nubile young visitors try to keep themselves occupied, they are stalked by what sounds like the house’s only male occupant, as a man’s heavy breathing can be heard whenever the unseen intruder spies on them through peepholes — especially when they shower together.

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The main issue for most viewers is going to be the film’s rather leisurely pace; the filmmakers apparently attempted to position UNHINGED as more psychological thriller than chop-em-up slasher, but instead of slowly building tension and suspense, the script frequently leaves the characters lounging around with nothing much to do except talk and sleep (both of which they do a lot).

A tighter edit might have helped speed things along, but considering the film’s ultra-lean runtime of under 80 minutes, I’m not sure that would have even been possible.

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Still, while you may not find the final-act payoff worth the wait, there’s actually a fairly creepy and bizarre climax — one which would be employed by a more notorious slasher film the following year (to avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal the title of the latter), and in turn, both of them owe a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and William Castle’s HOMICIDAL.

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Despite being initially banned there in its uncut form, UNHINGED actually received its best home video release in the UK — courtesy of an all-region PAL DVD, the first release from 88 Films’ “Slasher Classics” collection in 2014. It beats the socks off the full-frame DVD issued in 2002 by Brentwood Home Video, and even features commentary from Gronquist.

Image Credit: Oregon Haunted Houses
Image Credit: Oregon Haunted Houses

Now for this week’s Slashback Trivia: Pittock Mansion, the gothic abode where most of UNHINGED takes place, is not only a well-known Oregon landmark, but has a long-standing reputation for being haunted.

The house was privately owned until 1964, when it was bought by the state and transformed into a museum, visited by an average of 80,000 tourists per year. After UNHINGED, Pittock Mansion continued to be a favorite shooting location, appearing in films like THE HAUNTING OF SARAH HARDY and BODY OF EVIDENCE.

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