As a child, the poster to Laslo Benedek’s The Night Visitor used to scare the heck out of me, but when I finally saw the film after it popped up on TV a few years later, I wasn’t frightened all that much. Granted, it took a few more viewings as I got older to really appreciate what’s here and it’s a nifty little thriller worth tracking down (it’s been out of print for years on DVD). While it’s not the best nor most coherent suspense flick out there (calling it a “horror” movie is a bit of a mistake), the casting is solid (Liv Ullman, Max von Sydow, Trevor Howard, Per Oscarsson), the script has its moments and you may even get a surprise or three as this creepy little tale plays out.
Von Sydow plays Salem, a rather crafty resident of a supposed “escape proof” mental asylum who escapes a few times in order to exact some extended revenge on his sister (Ullman) and her husband (Oscarsson). Why? Well, not just because he’s nuts plus tax, kids. Salem was set up for a brutal murder by his brother-in-law and he’s not having the time of his life in that freezing hellhole. Of course, the fact that each time he escapes he’s in his underwear (Why? You’ll see, you’ll see) and he manages to make it back before its noticed he’s missing keeps the film going for a while as a local inspector (Howard) tries to find out what’s going on when some new murders start happening…
The film is a slow burner, but keeps you settled in thanks to the performances and the loads of little scares that pop in as Salem goes about his dirty work. Henry Mancini contributes a surprising and unsettling score which keeps the level of suspense up even when the film hits a few rough spots. Granted, the tiny Scandinavian village setting and small cast mean this one never gets out of hand with the over the top blood and gore some would expect, but what little violence you see is nicely shot. Also, while well acted, the characters tend to be a bit one dimensional as they play through and react to some of the usual psychological thriller stuff.
There are some very cool bits (well other than Salem freezing his own cool bits off running around in the snow in his undies), such as the wicked-looking chess pieces and other stuff Salem has carved (perhaps a nod to Von Sydow’s performance in The Seventh Seal?) and a pet parrot that provides some amusement as well as a key to the mystery Howard’s inspector is wracking his brain over. But again, don’t go in expecting gallons of blood and a ton of “jump” scares and you’ll come away mostly pleased with this dark little sleeper. While the DVD was out of print for a while, it pops up all over eBay these days and I think you can even stream this one online if you like. For a chilly winter’s night, this and some hot beverages are a nice pairing, but feel free to add another 1971 chiller from abroad, The Night Digger to this one as an interesting double feature deal. I’ll get to that flick shortly – it’s better and stranger on a few levels.