UNSEEN Review: Good Debut Horror Thriller From Yoko Okumura
Sam starts her shitty shift at her shitty job at a shitty gas station when she receives a call from Emily. Emily is a complete stranger in a shittier situation, she’s on the run from her murderous ex. To make matters worse Emily is nearly blind without her glasses, which she lost in a tussle with the bastard. On the run in the woods, more than half a dozen states away, if she is to survive the day she needs Sam to be her eyes using video call on their phones.
Unseen is a horror thriller and feature film debut from Yoko Okumura. They are joined by two other Japanese Americans as their leads Jolene Prudy as Sam and Midori Francis as Emily. Apart from a bit role in Donnie Darko (instant street cred) this is Prudy’s first real foray into feature films after a long career in television. We last remember Francis giving a heated chase to some wayward young boys in Good Boys.
The most recognizable presence in the film is that of Missy Pyle as the customer from Hell, Carol (you misspelled Karen). Self-entitled, bitchy and bossy she is Sam’s bully antagonist throughout the story. On the darker side you got Michael Partrick Lane as Emily’s ex, Charlie.Taking exception to Emily’s leaving him at a bad time in his life he is convinced that if he and Emly just get back together again things would turn around. Drugging her, tying up her hands and feet with zip ties, and carting her off into the woods is not what we would call a good start on the path to reconciliation.
The screenplay from Salvatore Cardoni (whose two other films, a crime documentary and family fantasy, wouldn’t suggest a long history of horror film work) and Brian Rawlins (two short films) doesn’t waste any time establishing that there are abusive men in both these women's lives. They are presented at different extremes, from the casual and cartoonish verbal abuse from Sam’s boss, Florida Man Isaac, to the violence and physical intentions of Charlie. Still, abuse is abuse. Isaac soon departs in his jacked up pick up truck, leaving Sam to take her spot behind the counter at the gas station and get caught up in the more intense story between Emily and Charlie drives the film from there. This is a horror thriller after all and Unseen needs to continue delivering on either or both of those genre designations.
There’s time to kill (poor choice of words?) between the threatening moments in Charlie’s search for Emily and Carol’s antagonistic appearances and harassment of Sam, so the two of them have time to talk to each other, to learn more about each other. It was something we were not expecting from the film when first going into a viewing but a welcome one as we began to understand the purpose of Cardoni and Rawlins’ script.
There is talk of regrets, as you do when facing a dire situation - I wish I did this before I die - it comes up in conversation. You see that Unseen is about two women who have something to overcome. Well, things to overcome. Their present circumstances overshadow deeper, internal issues they see they have to overcome. They both need to find strength in themselves and each other to not only win the day but win their lives back. More than one person will be saved at the end of the day.
Unseen leans more towards the thriller side than it does the horror side. With character conflicts occuring on a personal level there is not any extra fodder hanging around to lay waste upon in this one. Threats of violence happen towards Sam, but her situation is more absurd. The movie takes jabs at Florida Man tropes and gun culture when it can. Sam’s story has this sly humor to it that acts a the tension breaker between the moment when Emily is fighting for her life. She and Charlie beat each other up pretty bad throughout the story. It should be enough to please horror fans who pick this one up on a whim. But mostly there is a good measure of tension throughout the film that should keep a lot of viewers close to the edge of their seats.
There is an ongoing use of split screens in Unseen that is cool as well. Used predominantly in the gas station with Sam, it is a stylistic choice that goes with the neon decor, gator heads, regurgitating slushy machines and boiled peanut stand (Why is that a thing?!?). Not Depalma-esque in their execution like The Sisters, to tie two scenes together, but used in a way to keep the scene kinetic and to crowd the screen with faces as to crowd Sam with demanding customers. As the story builds and the tension picks up it almost dog piles onto the viewer and visually represents the ganging up on her, multiple faces screaming at Sam at the same time from all corners of your screen.
It’s all easy to follow and keep track of and the use of video calling is clear and easy to watch. Imagine if Sam had to help Emily and all she knew was shaky cam? There’s good visual representation of the use of technology and also Emily vision impairment without her glasses on. We really liked the use of it in one scene in particular where Charlie catches up to Emily near a river. She’s lost the phone but it’s fallen in a spot where Sam can see Charlie and tell Emily where he is through her ear pods. In that same scene Emily sets the phone up on the dash of Charlie’s vehicle and attempts to steal it from him and drive to safety.
We do not know how extreme Okumura would like to go with their filmmaking, or how far down the horror rabbit hole they want to go. Unseen works better as a thriller and has no shortage of thrilling moments and a persistent sense of threat throughout. They made good use of the phone’s features and the screen space to emphasize threat by proximity. It is certainly good enough that we would be very interested to see what kind of project Okumura lands next.
Unseen is now available OnDemand and will stream on MGM+ this May. This was the first original production between Blumhouse Television and MGM+.
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