THE NIGHT VISITOR (1971) Blu-ray
Director: Laslo Benedek
VCI Home Entertainment

A Bergman cast in a slasher film? Not quite, but THE NIGHT VISITOR does offer Max Von Sydow chasing Liv Ullmann with an axe in high definition thanks to VCI's new Blu-ray release.

Wrongfully institutionalized for the supposed alcohol-induced murder of a farmhand, Salem (Von Sydow) has managed to escape his fortress prison, trudging along the rocky coast and snowy forests in his underwear to visit revenge upon his accusers, primarily his sister Ester (Ullmann) and physician brother-in-law Anton (Per Oscarsson, TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN) who resented his mismanagement of the family farm. After strangling Brit (Lotte Freddie), the girl he was with at the time of the murder who did not come forward, Salem then crushes the skull of his other sister Emmie (Hanne Bork) in her own bed before revealing himself to the future prime suspect. Despite the use of Anton's tie to strangle Brit and his paperweight to bludgeon Emmie, along with Anton's incredible accusation that the real culprit was the confined Salem, the inspector (Trever Howard, PERSECUTION) finds the evidence all too perfect. Visiting Salem at the institution, he is assured by the director (Andrew Kier, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) that there is absolutely no way Salem could get out of his cell (and even less reason for him to return after having escaped). Salem provides the inspector with even more logical reasons for Anton to be the killer and even suggests that the next victim will be his lawyer Clemens (Rupert Davies, FRIGHTMARE) who he believes was bribed to change his plea. Since Anton had argued with Emmie over selling the farm before her death, Ester also finds it extremely unlikely that Salem killed her, and her husband's apparent derangement provides her with the means of getting rid of him as well; however, she is unaware that she too is due an appointment with THE NIGHT VISITOR.

An American/Swedish co-production by actor/producer Mel Ferrer (BLOOD AND ROSES) with a British, Danish, and Swedish cast, THE NIGHT VISITOR is a nifty little thriller with a slow pace that may at first put off viewers. The deliberate pacing, however, and measured depiction of Salem's seemingly ambiguous actions in the first act becomes thrilling so as the details of his obsessively methodical escape plan shed reveal a devious mind that is still a lunatic one. The English-language performances of the Danish and Swedish actors seem hampered not by the language but by the script since the British actors stumble over some nakedly expository bits as well. Von Sydow is at his best when seething, Oscarsson when going off the rails, and Ullmann when slyly manipulative such as when inferring an unnatural closeness while trying to fend off an attack from her brother. The snowbound settings are appropriately chilly, from the castle asylum to the bluish exteriors (along with some odd green-gelled highlights in the outdoors) and interiors that offer only slightly more warmth. The Swedish title translates as THE PARROT, referring to a Hitchcock-worthy plot element. One of the most surprising elements is the score of Henry Mancini (THE PINK PANTHER) which is sometimes bombastically obvious and other times barely perceptible.

Released theatrically by Universal Marion Corporation in 1971 and reissued as LUNATIC in 1981 by 21st Century Film Corporation, THE NIGHT VISITOR has been released on tape under both VCI and United Entertainment banners at different points in the 1980s and then on fullscreen DVD in 2000 and widescreen in 2013. VCI's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray (VCI's only stepped up to VC1 with the last couple Blu-rays after releasing several encoded using MPEG-2) seems a modest improvement over their two previous genre Blu-rays CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and CITY OF THE DEAD. The craggy textures of the still relatively youthful Von Sydow's face in close-ups are rendered as well as the frosted thatched roof of the family's farm, but it is a generally unimpressive image partially due to the source material. A couple shots look poorer than others, including particular angles within scenes as if they were patched in from another source or brightened in post-production to match the reverse angles (see the early scene cutting between a coarse-looking two-shot of Emmie and Ester and a close-up of Anton that looks dramatically better. At sixty-two minutes, a jump cut (which may be a stylistic device) pops Von Sydow from background into foreground while climbing across a wooden beam. What really rankles beyond any imperfections in the cinematography and its video rendition is that this title has been with VCI for more than three decades, yet they do not appear to have sourced better materials from what they already had (it took sub-licensor Blue Underground to access the negatives for fellow UMC release THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE after VCI's own erratic job patching up their R-rated US edit for their earlier DVD). As a UK co-production, one would hope that better materials are archived overseas and the recent fullscreen UK DVD from Simply Media a matter of disinterest in the title across the pond than the lack of elements for a newer transfer. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.

Besides the film's GP-rated theatrical trailer (2:23), the disc also includes a brand new audio commentary by film historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck which is informative but probably should have been edited down into a selected scenes track or an appreciation montage of scenes. After starting the track with a load of information about the project's initial option at Fox with Steve McQueen in the lead before it was dropped and then picked up by Ferrer with Christopher Lee initially scouted for the role (but he was committed to THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD for Amicus at the time), and Von Sydow and Ullmann coming onto the production after an MGM production they were slated for fell through, Hallenbeck slows down to some play-by-play and comments on the film's structure and plotting that is better left to the viewers themselves to glean by watching the film itself. With the subsequent introduction of each actor, Hallenbeck does pick up speed again to cover their background and career highlights along with "six degrees of Christopher Lee" connections. More interesting are his reference to Benedek other mystery/suspense credits in THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR episodes, the way in which the film effectively conveys its chilly setting and lends itself to viewing under similar conditions, as well as a Cinefantastique review that suggested the film would have been regarded as a horror classic had Lee appeared in the film alongside the reviewer's dream cast of Barbara Steele as Ester, Klaus Kinski as Anton, and Peter Cushing as the inspector. (Eric Cotenas)