RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARCHIVE: Unhinged (Don Gronquist, 1982)

Continuing on under the sub-heading “Hooray for Horregon,” our intrepid Raider/Contributor leads us up to the top of the SW Hills over Portland to celebrate an #OregonMade Filmmaker who the Willamette Week called “Portland’s most important forgotten filmmaker:” Don Gonquist.

The trailer pretty much sets the tone from there. “It began as an idyllic outing….”

On a clear day you can see for miles, or on the darkest night you can encounter Hitchcock-esque dysfuntionality in a true 80’s fashion. Scream-like slasher rules apply.

Phil Oppenheim takes us from here:

VHS box art — note the Pittock Mansion in the background!

Maybe it’s a good thing that the Pittock Mansion closes at 4 pm on October 31, preventing any stray Trick-or-Treaters from innocently wandering up to its stately front doors.  Thirty-five years ago three young women found themselves in the mansion, after driving their car into a ditch during a rainstorm — and were never heard from again.

At least that’s what happened in Unhinged, a slasher-style horror movie that was filmed in and around the landmark buildling in 1983.  Of course Pittock Mansion is among Portland’s most beloved and famous attractions, having been built in 1914 by the (then) owner of the Oregonian, Henry Pittock, and part of the Portland Parks & Rec since 1964; it’s provided tourists and locals lovely walks and spectacular views for generations.  In the feverish imagination of Portland filmmaker Don Gronquist, though, its Victorian grandeur became something ominous, foreboding — and bloody.

The Pittock Mansion (Showering Strongly Discouraged)

Gronquist produced, directed, and co-wrote Unhinged, a horror movie designed to surf the tidal wave of lucrative, gory exploitation pictures of the early ‘80s; as an excellent profile in Willamette Week from 2012 argues, he’s also an unheralded creative visionary who epitomizes independent movie making (and if not for the success of Gus Van Sant, the article suggests, we’d all be talking about Gronquist as the premiere Oregon auteur).  Gronquist’s movie may not have rivaled Friday the 13th or Halloween for box office receipts, but it absolutely delivers maximum bang for its ($100,000 budget) bucks.

OK, maybe you should go ahead and fear the Reaper

While Gronquist’s film is obviously inspired by slasher pics — no awards given to any readers who figure out what happens to the three pretty girls after they wind up in the dark old house with creepy old people living in it — what’s most interesting about Unhinged is how it toys with (and often frustrates) the audience’s expectations of the genre.  Gronquist’s film is ultimately less of a ripoff of bucket-of-blood teenploitation movies than it is a homage to Hichcock’s twisted masterpiece Psycho.  For a supposed slasher pic there’s really not much actual slashing that goes on in Unhinged, for example; the body count is surprisingly low for the genre, and some of the bloodshed takes place more in one’s imagination than onscreen (thanks to some clever editing).  Gronquist’s did-I-just-see-what-I-thought-I-saw approach echoes Psycho’s penetration-less shower scene, and Unhinged explicitly adds other allusions to Hitch’s classic too (including characters named Norman and Marion).  Gronquist even tries to one-up the Master in at least one regard: Unhinged begins with one shower scene, and adds a second one later in the film (with two women, no less) for good measure (and, thwarting our expectations once again, neither ends in a bloodbath, uh, shower).    

Marion Penrose and the Pittock Mansion wallpaper. Would you spend the night with these two?

Gronquist’s movie also seems less interested in the business of dispatching teenagers than it does with ideas, exploring the dysfunctional family at the center of the film and offering a mother-daughter relationship every bit as dark as that of Norman Bates and his Mother.  Something weird has happened in the Penrose family past that has left poor, homely Marion a virtual servant to her verbally abusive mother — a turn of events teased until the tawdry details come out in the last ten minutes — and the film suggests that all families have a hint of dysfunction too, with the Penrose domestic strife reminding us of the fight between the young (doomed) heroine and her own mom at the beginning of the film (and by extension, the parent/child relations of our own).  Claustrophobic framing of domestic spaces stretches from the first scenes of the movie (at a cramped kitchen table) to its violent bedroom finale, metaphorically trapping everyone within the home to lives walled in by familial bitterness and disappointment.  Family tensions can make us all feel a bit psycho, a bit unhinged; it’s no small wonder that we all go a little mad sometimes (as Norman Bates nervously tells Marion Crane before she takes her last shower of her own).

Among horror fans, Unhinged has developed a fervent cult.  In part that’s because of its infamy: along with 71 other shocker films, it was banned by the Britain’s Department of Public Prosecutions upon its release, in bureaucratic reaction to the moral panic unleashed by the VHS-era “video nasties” boom.   Unhinged joined the notorious ranks of the blacklisted Cannibal Holocaust, Driller Killer, Faces of Death, and I Spit on Your Grave, even though its onscreen gruesomeness pales by comparison (to be fair, though, Unhinged does feature some particularly visceral axe-mangling and severed body parts by its finale), cementing its special place in the hearts of certain videocassette collectors.  Unhinged fans also love its ‘80s syth-heavy soundtrack by Jonathan Newton, its throbbing electronic menace providing connoisseurs with rare spooky grooves perfect for late-night mixtapes.  (Fans note: you can take a class in Music Technology from Professor Newton at Portland State University next fall, when he gets back from his sabbatical!)

For cultists, Unhinged is the hipster-obscurantist’s total package — which helps to explain why this small, humble, indie thriller was remade and released earlier this year.  Given its growing reputation, who knows — maybe Gronquist ought to throw together a Kickstarter campaign, collect another 100 grand, rent out the Pittock Mansion for a couple of nights and put together an Unhinged 2?

Watch: For the full video nasty experience, score a third-generation VHS dub of Unhinged and watch it on a 30-year-old snowy television.  If you must make concessions to modernity, though, you can buy or rent a pristine DVD copy from Brentwood Home Video.

Eat: Don Gronquist was also a Portland food entrepreneur for a while!  You can cook up a batch of the chili he used to serve at his restaurant, Pink’s Grill, by following the recipe in the retro-hipster Patio Daddy-O Cookbook.  The recipe is “powered by dark beer and devilish chilies” — and does not, you’ll be glad to know, call for any human body parts.

Learn: There’s a lot to unearth about the British Video Nasty era, for the curious beginner gorehound.  A great place to start is the 2010 documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape by Jake West (director of several splatter movies of his own, like Razor Blade Smile, Doghouse, and a segment of the anthology ABCs of Death).  Warning: watch enough of this stuff, and you’ll feel like you need a shower (with the curtain open).

Visit: We’ll be reviewing the kiddie movie Halloweentown in a couple of weeks, but you’ll probably want to put yourself in the mood by visiting the town where it was shot, Saint Helens, Oregon before then.  The festivities are happening all month long!

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