Fox // 2006 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // March 6th, 2006
Everyone has their demons.
Adapted from the novel by Frank Peretti of the same name, The Visitation offers up a surprisingly intense experience, drenched in demons, jump scares, child abuse, resurrected zombie dogs, false messiahs, and creepy old women. And would you believe it's a Christian film?
Travis Jordan (Martin Donovan, Saved!) is a man without a semblance of purpose. Once a well-known minister in the small town of Antioch, Travis abandoned his faith after his wife was brutally murdered. Unwilling to believe in a benevolent God anymore, he withdrew from the church and pursued a life of intoxication and atheism. When his beloved dog Max passes away, despite the efforts from the attractive new veterinarian Morgan Elliot (Kelly Lynch, The Jacket), Travis sinks even lower into his despair.
But then strange things start happening in Antioch. Morgan's rebellious teenage son hijacks the church van for a keg run, gets into an accident, and then sees three mysterious men in black in the middle of the road. These same men keep popping up elsewhere in town, delivering cryptic forewarnings to townsfolk, repeatedly saying "He's coming." Finally, Travis is shocked to find Max, very much alive and un-buried. All of this coincides with miraculous, electrically-charged healings taking place at the local Catholic Church, visions of Christ in the sky and on walls, and the sudden appearance of a young man claiming to be a messianic figure. Perhaps the Messianic Figure?
That man is Brandon Nichols (Edward Furlong, Terminator 2), a soft-spoken farm-boy who begins to hold old-fashioned tent revivals. Drawn by his perceived power to heal, people show up in droves to the meetings, eager to reach out their hand and taste this man's power.
But Travis, Morgan, and Pentecostal preacher Kyle Sherman (Randy Travis) have their doubts about Brandon. Are his miracles genuine gifts from the Divine...or are they sourced from some other dark place?
Frank Peretti is a popular writer of Christian fiction. His works primarily deal with the supernatural, demons, angels, all that fun stuff. Having never read one of his books, and being a Christian myself, I was interested in this film, to the extent of a) would it be any good ad b) what's the "preachy level." I came away surprised. Though there are certainly Christian overtones, it is far from didactic. And, best of all, The Visitation is actually a pretty capable thriller.
Let's tackle the second surprise first. Director Robby Henson has a good sense of what makes a thriller tick, and though he sometimes wanders into the realm of overproduction and contrivance, The Visitation proves to be well-paced and stylized, and a deft exercise in plot progression. There are loads of secrets embedded in the story, and the film staggers the revelations well, right up to the end where an authentically disturbing finale gives us the final piece of the puzzle. Along the way, Henson calls a lot of textbook plays in PG-13 pseudo-horror, utilizing many music-cued jump scenes, shadows darting back and forth, mysterious people appearing out of nowhere, unsettling imagery, and the always dependable "demonic old lady who walks weird."
Being a film based on a Christian novel -- and a translation that presumably preserves the theological touchstones -- The Visitation drips with religious atmosphere. It is very dark, very demonic, and filmed in a sweaty, claustrophobic style. As such, I think fans of religious horror would in turn be surprised by the effectiveness of The Visitation.
One of the ways the film works is the big question mark floating around its supposed messiah. Furlong is pretty good as the enigmatic Brandon Nichols, who, despite his seemingly benevolent miracles is always surrounded by a fog of darkness. For one thing, Furlong's done himself up so he looks menacing, with an unkempt beard and long, oily black hair, supplementing a beady-eyed stare. As the audience we know something's rotten in Denmark with this guy, and there's no way he's the second coming of Christ, but we don't know what
On to the "Christian" nature of the film. I'll just be clear: this is not preachy. And while I'm at it, this is not for kids. It is an intense film, crammed with imagery that can potentially freak the crap out of small children, so parents, please, watch a Veggie Tales episode with the little ones instead. But I digress. What impressed me about The Visitation was its reluctance to come out and proselytize in a ham-fisted manner. There are reverential moments, sure, but they are fleeting. For example, when Morgan's son notes "If there is such a thing as evil, there must be such a thing as good." Before he can continue, he and his mom are plunged into some nastiness; but having him utter just that small phrase is instantly more easy-to-swallow than a 20-minute long testimony. The Visitation is a film first above all else, not a soapbox, and the filmmakers are wise to keep the action moving along and let any discussion of orthodoxy organically grow from the viewers.
Finally, most interesting about this aspect of the film is how it puts forward truly difficult theological questions, particularly "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and refuses to offer pat answers. Travis himself rejects such an answer Kyle offers. I respect that. There are tough questions, and clichéd, spoon-fed answers are often more counterproductive than a simple "I don't know." As the movie winds down we find out that bad things happen to innocents, horribly bad things, and there is no easy resolution to these dilemmas. When one character talks about his abusive father, "a fundamentalist fanatic mixed with a manic depressive" and reveals what this guy did, you might in fact ask those questions yourself. Kudos to the film for taking a practical, earnest approach to these sensitive matters of faith.
I would recommend this film, though I think it does have certain demographics that it would appeal to more: Christians from teen on up looking for the wallop of a supernatural thriller that espouses their values; fans of gothic, southern religious-themed horror; and certainly Frank Peretti devotees. If you don't want any Christianity in your shockers, you may not enjoy this one -- its messages are subdued, but they're there, unashamedly and unabashedly.
The widescreen and full screen versions are both available. My nod, of course, goes to the former, a clean, sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film takes place, like 75 percent of the time in the dark, and the transfer takes it like a champ. The 5.1 mix, while not super-aggressive, is loud, and the LFE gets a workout.
No extras makes Satan cry.
The Visitation isn't completely kosher. For all of his skill, Henson over-relies on razzle-dazzle camera shots, and goofy lighting. And the final scene's drama is diluted by way too much screaming, strobe effects, and a general sense of discombobulation. Oh, and a few characters bounce back a little too easily after their exorcisms -- one moment dude is coughing up a swarm of black flies, the next he's eating a bowl of Chex.
It's a supernatural thriller with obvious Christian tendencies, but The Visitation is far from Sunday School. Solid performances and a brisk pace strengthen an engaging, if convoluted story. Overall, an entertaining piece of gothic horror.
Praise Jesus, not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13