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Night Visitor

Another pleasant discovery came to my attention recently: VCI’s release of an eerie frostbitten film from 1971, the Night Visitor.

The poster artwork ballyhoo (a striking Spanish poster for the film is combined with contemporary critical taglines from the more drab if surreal domestic version for the DVD cover) quotes a review which states that “if your flesh doesn’t crawl, it’s on too tight”, but this is patently absurd – there’s nothing remotely frightening about the film.  What it does have is a chilling wintry atmosphere and a strong sense of claustrophobia – in spades.

One accustomed to the more vibrant and pulpy tastes of the modern and/or drive in era film might expect little of interest based on the credentials of several of the folks involved, but passing this hidden gem by would be an omission of positively criminal proportions (pun intended).

Directed by Laszlo Benedek, who had an undistinguished career in cult cinema terms, helming such dull bourgeoise ‘entertainments’ as Death of a Salesman and a number of television episodes for various series throughout the 50’s and 60’s, the film is filled with what the hoi polloi of the day would easily recognize as “name” stars, though unlike Benedek, several are not without cult interest.

Ingemar Bergman regulars Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian) and Liv Ullmann (Mindwalk, Hour of the Wolf, 40 Carats) appear alongside Trevor Howard (whose sole film of interest may be the amusing 1979 disaster film Meteor) and cult film favorites Per Oscarsson (Terror of Frankenstein), Andrew Kier (Dracula Prince of Darkness, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Quatermass and the Pit) as the asylum curator and Rupert Davies (Brides of Fu Manchu, Curse of the Crimson Altar, Witchfinder General) as the blustery barrister responsible for the titular character’s unjust imprisonment.

The essential plot revolves around Von Sydow’s Salem, an asylum inmate who performs some rather far fetched if gripping (and pneumonia baiting) semi-clothed nightly escapes from his apparently impregnable fortress of a cell to get revenge on those who framed and committed him there: maid of the house and chief co-conspirator Emmie (Hanne Bork), ex-beau Britt (Lotte Freddie) and the aforementioned Davies, while setting up an elaborate reverse frameup against Oscarsson as Salem’s brother in law Anton.

Anton, it arises through the course of the picture, was the true murderer, killing a farmhand who caught himself and Emmie in the act of arson insurance fraud, and bribing Davies’ defense attorney into changing Salem’s plea to guilty by reason of insanity and thus de facto life imprisonment in the madhouse.

With the grim, claustrophobic feel of an Ingemar Bergman film, which was somewhat endemic to Swedish film of the era (see Ann and Eve, just about anything from Joe Sarno’s Swedish period, the films of Mac Ahlberg and assorted Cristina Lindberg films, particularly Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller a Cruel Picture, albeit with little of the exploitative angle or edge of those) but far more pronounced, the film benefits greatly from its small cast (few further incidental characters are seen at any point, with the bulk of the film taking place between the forbidding fjordside castle of the lunatic asylum, the cramped family farmhouse of the Jenks, and some brief visits to each of the murdered victims homes by Howard’s inspector.

The chess motif plays out in macrocosm and metaphor, as Von Sydow and Howard face off with some complex mental (and in Von Sydow’s case, physical) gymnastics to work out the detailed frame (in Howard’s case, its discovery and solution).

The film further boasts some top notch acting from just about everyone involved, in particular but not limited to the two leads of Von Sydow and Howard.  Though it must be said, Oscarsson’s scene chewing manic descent into apparent madness is more than a dash over the top, particularly coming so early in the running time with the crazed parrot chase scene (which has to be seen to be disbelieved – way to prove your innocence, guy!).

Possessed of a believably naturalistic feel (which can contrarily be read as equally contrived and artificial in its bleak and unrelenting presentation of Nordic grimness) and the sort of atmosphere most horror film auteurs would give their left arm for, The Night Visitor comes with the highest of recommendations in terms of the film itself, particularly when viewed in such an apropos time of year (its snowbound locale and chilling effect may seem diminished when viewed in the blazing record heat of today’s globally warmed summers, for instance).

That said, VCI has, like a number of other companies in the wake of the Warner Archive-led MOD devolution, chosen to release The Night Visitor as a home-grade “purple disc” DV-R burn (which went unnoticed until I discovered some severe hang and freezing up when trying to chapter forward to where I’d left off in the film previously).

Once again, this sort of thing puts an unwelcome blemish on the otherwise heartily welcomed restoration and release of such deserving obscurities and hidden gems as this film represents, and stands in stark contrast to the simultaneous move towards high-definition represented by the rise of Blu-Ray.

If the consumers are demanding more, it boggles the mind that legitimate companies and retailers are actively moving towards giving LESS for your dollar.  With ongoing rumors and rumblings of a worst case scenario on the planned horizon, it seems that we’re being forced into a non-ownership, all-streaming milieu, where consumers are expected to pay ongoing fees for films, music, and literature they will never actually own – an atavistic retrogression to the 1970s television paradigm, but with a leasing/mortgage/cable and phone service style neverending payment attached thereto.

Write your favorite companies and providers now and make your voice heard against this abject stupidity and disrespect for the consumer, before it’s too late to turn things around.

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