By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Midori Francis, Jolene Purdy and Michael Patrick Lane
Directed by Yoko Okumura
Written by Salvatore Cardoni and Brian Rawlins
Blumhouse Television/Paramount Home Entertainment
UNSEEN is a short (76 minutes) and taut entry into the survival-horror stakes, and also belongs to another subcategory I just made up a name for: the assistance-at-a-distance thriller. Perhaps best exemplified by Sgt. Al Powell helping out John McClane back in the original DIE HARD, it has a lot more possibilities in the current electronic-communication age, and UNSEEN makes the most of them to deliver both suspense and humor.
A Blumhouse/Paramount production arriving via VOD and digital March 7 and then hitting MGM+ in May, UNSEEN tills similar territory to last year’s SEE FOR ME, though director Yoko Okumura’s approach here is quite a bit brasher. There’s frequent use of split screens and plenty of pop/rock-music accompaniment as Sam (Jolene Purdy) begins what seems like a worse shift than usual working at the Gator Galore gas-station quick-mart in Tallahassee, Florida, and circumstances put her in touch with a woman going through an even more desperate situation. Emily (Midori Francis) has been kidnapped to a cabin in the Michigan woods by her creep of an ex-boyfriend, Charlie (Michael Patrick Lane). He sadistically taunts Emily and almost kills her before she’s able to overpower him and takes off into the surrounding forest, but her glasses have been broken and she can barely see well enough to operate her smartphone.
Emily does manage to call 911, but with their help unlikely to arrive in time, she contacts Sam (who had mistakenly dialed her number earlier that day) and pleads with Sam to guide her to safety through video chat. At first, Sam doesn’t need or want the extra pressure–she has already been browbeaten by her boss and has to deal with nasty customer Carol (Missi Pyle), who proves there’s such a thing as rich white trash–but UNSEEN’s story (scripted by Salvatore Cardoni and Brian Rawlins) becomes one of solidarity leading both women to overcome different obstacles and find heretofore untapped strength. As Sam tries to keep Emily one step ahead of the pursuing Charlie, while distracted by Carol’s harassment and a malfunctioning Squatch Freezy machine, she rises to the occasion and bonds with Emily, who struggles against impairment and injury as she attempts to make it out of the trees alive.
That bond becomes impressively tangible considering that Francis and Purdy are never in the same place together, with Okumura, cinematographer Federico Verardi and editor Michael Block joining them on screen through adroit use of the split screen and mirrored camera moves. (At times, the image is fragmented into more than two images to help crank up the fear factor, a gambit that works for being used sparingly.) The two leads are also major assets, each playing out her own separate arc of burgeoning fortitude while forging an empathetic relationship with each other, and there’s a little extra dramatic heft as they advise each other on moral choices as well as lifesaving ones.
It’s no small achievement that Okumura and co. make UNSEEN a cohesive whole while intertwining a pair of plotlines with widely varying tones. Emily’s ordeal is straight-up gritty survival-horror, while Sam inhabits a scenario that’s as much about exaggerated humor–with wonderfully garish production design by Spencer Davison–as building tension. Yet even in the brief running time, the filmmakers give each the right amount of weight, and you can root for Sam to overcome her own odds even as her circumstances veer into the ridiculous. Perhaps the only real issue with the movie is its nondescript title; this is at least the fifth genre film called UNSEEN or THE UNSEEN and the third in just the past several years, with another coming later in 2023. A more unique moniker would help this nifty little chiller stand out and receive the attention it deserves in the crowded streaming marketplace.