Thursday, April 17, 2008
Visitors, another entry in the Aussie-horror sub-genre, takes the common horror trope of isolation to its extreme, placing its heroine Georgia Perry alone on a 38-foot yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Only days away from finishing a five-month solo circumnavigation of the globe, the intrepid Georgia has suddenly found herself languishing in the windless horse latitudes, alone in the middle of an ocean with only her radio to connect her to the outside world. The boat hasn’t moved for days, and to make matters worse, she’s starting to see things. As she says in the film’s opening dialogue, “the line between dreams and reality has started to blur.”
With such a unique and truly creepy premise, one could hope that Visitors would be able to deliver on the same kind of psychological horror that made classics like Repulsion so terrifying. But despite a promising start, Visitors quickly devolves into hopelessly melodramatic territory, and like Georgia’s drifting boat, never quite manages to get back on course.
Georgia is played by the severely underrated actress Radha Mitchell, who does a fine job of carrying the film on her shoulders, but her nuanced performance can’t lift the material beyond its very basic flaws, the biggest of which is that it never manages to deliver on its set-up in any way that’s not entirely contrived and predictable. In all fairness, writer Everett De Roche (who wrote Long Weekend, and employs none of that film's subtlety here ) had no easy task before him-- a single character at sea is not the easiest of situations in which to establish any kind of drama without dialogue. With this in mind, it didn’t even bother me that Georgia’s cat speaks to her in a laughable British accent, or that the film constantly flashes back to her life on the mainland, if only because they had to have some way of establishing character development without using constant narration. But when the titular visitors start showing up, the film exhausts any semblance of suspense and becomes almost laughably stilted.
Visitors comes from the tired school of horror where every bit of psychological fright has to be the result of some personal demon manifesting itself visually. So when Georgia starts seeing things, they are all characters we’ve met before, and for the purposes of having some dialogue, she usually chats with them for a little while. While I can see why the filmmakers took this route (they were probably freaking out that they had a feature film with only a forty-page script), it does very little to encourage a mood of dread or suspense, emotions so key to a story like this. I found myself wishing that the menace at the film’s center had been a bit more nebulous, or at the very least that the filmmakers had tried to string the mystery along a little longer. As the film stands, we get Georgia working out her issues with specters of her dead parents, a recycled plot device that fails to work even in the more direct dramatic sense. This story isn’t Solaris and director Richard Franklin is no Tarkovsky. The filmmakers should have dispensed with the melodrama and focused more on constructing an effective atmosphere.
Indeed, because of its preoccupation with the emotional, Visitors fails to establish any kind of consistency of mood or tone. The film shifts radically in several instances, changing from a horror story to a family drama, from adventure (look out! there’re pirates about!) to thriller, eventually settling on an ending that seems lifted out of a bad romantic comedy. The whole thing smacks of drastic rewrites, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find that the film had been re-cut to satisfy a more mainstream audience. Not only this, but outside of a few excellent CG-assisted zoom outs to the stratosphere, Franklin does a meager job of conveying the truly desperate nature of Georgia’s isolation, and for the majority of the film it seems obvious that her boat is floating in a water tank on a studio backlot.
If anything, Visitors is noteworthy for proving once again that Mitchell has what it takes to be a legitimate star, and since this film’s release she has indeed found her way into more top-shelf material. But the film wastes what could have been a truly frightening premise on hackneyed plot devices. In the end it commits the most unforgivable sin in all of horror cinema: it just isn’t that scary.