The Night Visitor: Terror… to the max

The Night Visitor directed by László BenedekThe Night Visitor directed by László Benedek

The Night Visitor directed by László BenedekIn 1968, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman released what might be arguably deemed his closest attempt to create an outright horror film, Hour of the Wolf, starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. The three would go on to work together several more times in the coming years, and although the following pictures that they made together (such as Shame and The Passion of Anna) WERE fairly emotionally devastating, none could be termed outright horror.

Viewers desirous to see Max and Liv together in another film that is indisputably in the horror domain, however, may be confidently steered to a picture that they made together in the early ’70s, entitled The Night Visitor. Released in February ’71, this was a Swedish production (its Swedish title is Papegojan), filmed in English by Hungarian director László Benedek (of The Wild One fame) and co-starring British and Scottish actors in the supporting roles. Very much a class production (it was produced by the famed actor Mel Ferrer, who had also produced the great horror outing Wait Until Dark four years earlier, starring his wife, Audrey Hepburn, and features still another impressive score by the great Henry Mancini), the film is a remarkably suspenseful, ingenious and only mildly bloody affair, more clever than scary, perhaps, but still a fascinating exercise in terror.

The film manages to impress from its very first shot, in which we see a man named Salem fleeing from a grim and imposing castle fortress along the snowy shores of a desolate seacoast. (The viewer will immediately wonder just where this desolate-looking terrain, that looks for all the world like Lapland, perhaps, is situated; as it turns out, the film was shot in Denmark and Sweden.) As we later learn, this man, dressed only in underwear and a heavy pair of boots, is fleeing through the wintry countryside after escaping from a lunatic asylum, where he had been confined for the previous two years after being convicted of the axe murder of one of his farmhands.

Salem hightails it directly to his former cottage, where resides his two sisters (one of them, Ester Jenks, is played by Liv) and his brother-in-law, Dr. Anton Jenks (Per Oscarsson). Salem manages to steal a few of the doctor’s dress ties and several ampoules of morphine, and with them begins to take vengeance on all the people he deems responsible for his unfair conviction and subsequent confinement. He contrives to make Dr. Jenks look like the one responsible for these new murders, and even though Anton sees Salem in the house at one point and tells the local police inspector on the case (the great English actor Trevor Howard) that Salem has escaped, he is not believed.

Salem, it seems, upon investigation, is shown by the asylum director (Andrew Keir) to be residing comfortably in his bed in the institution … an escape-proof pile situated hundreds of feet above the rocky shore. As the new murders continue, however, each one of them made to look like the work of the befuddled doctor, the inspector is forced to wonder: Could Salem possibly be escaping to do these deeds, only to return to his cell afterward? Was he indeed guilty of the original crime that put him there? And just how would the man be able to get out of his cell to begin with?

Although The Night Visitor does feature the formidable talents of both von Sydow and Ullman once again, to be perfectly honest, the two share only one scene together, but what a doozy it is! For the most part, the film’s main selling points are its truly ingenious escape sequences by Salem, during which von Sydow, 41 years old at the time, was compelled to perform any number of physical feats, such as rope and tree climbing, and swinging from ropes at impressive heights. It is a wonderfully and credibly physical performance from von Sydow, who easily steals the film with his derring-do and steely, calculating resolve. (If, as has been reported, the role of Salem was originally offered to English actor Christopher Lee, one might feel gratified at the way things turned out here; great as Lee was at physically imposing performances, I don’t think that even he could have matched von Sydow’s strength and determination in this role … and I doubt that Lee would have relished the prospect of performing extended sequences running around in the frigid cold in his underwear!)

The viewer is not certain whether or not Salem should be sympathized with or not during the film; we know that he is performing ghastly murders — of his sisters, his old lawyer (Rupert Davies), his former girlfriend — but don’t know whether or not he is doing this because he was unjustly convicted of an old crime or not. So yes, the film does keep us guessing, while it impresses us with its extremely clever story line. And if the film’s final twist, in the last moments, comes off as a bit contrived and unbelievable, well, it’s all in good fun, and is a very nice way to wrap things up.

Less artful, perhaps, than Hour of the Wolf, although infinitely easier to follow, The Night Visitor is perfect fare for the jaded horror fan who is eager to see something different and rewarding. Personally, I just loved it … final shot and all…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. It sounds interesting and suspenseful and those locations would definitely add to the atmosphere!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      I was very pleasantly surprised at what a quality film this one turned out to be….

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