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When it came time to put together my potential horror viewing for this year, Visitors (2003) definitely felt like it deserved a spot on the list. After all, it was directed by Richard Franklin, one of the godfathers of ’70s-’80s Ozploitation cinema, starred genre vet Radha Mitchell and had a tag that read “Fear runs deep.” The film’s logline mentions strange encounters during an ocean voyage. Hell, the cover art features more sinister screaming skulls than a teenage metalhead’s Trapper Keeper. All of the signs pointed to a nifty little ghost story, perhaps even a twisted time travel scenario like Triangle (2009) or maybe something grounded a little more in reality, ala Dead Calm (1989). The sky, as they say, was the limit.

Visitors, alas, is a decidedly more low-flying affair. While the film flirts with elements of the supernatural and sinister (there are, indeed, mysterious figures that appear during an ocean voyage), it tips its hand way too early and establishes a thoroughly mundane explanation for the occurrences: our faithful protagonist, Georgia Perry (Radha Mitchell), is off her rocker. With that knowledge firmly in pocket, it becomes impossible for the film to muster any sort of tension whatsoever. Imagine a Wizard of Oz (1939) that begins with Dorothy discussing how she’s about to have a very detailed dream and concludes with her waking, looking at the camera and declaring, “Wasn’t that a crazy dream that we just watched?” It’s one thing to be handed an “It’s only a dream” ending after the fact: it’s a cheap tactic but at least you get to enjoy the action, as is, until you realize you’ve been had. It’s another thing entirely to know, up front, that what we’re seeing is fictitious: talk about low-stakes storytelling.

There’s plenty of potential with Visitors, although much of it ends up being unduly squandered. Mitchell plays Perry, a driven young woman who’s hell-bent on setting a record for sailing around the world, solo, in 140 days. She’s a troubled young woman with a concerned husband, Luke (Domenic Purcell), a wealthy benefactor (Tottie Goldsmith) and a complicated relationship with her parents (Susannah York, Ray Barrett) that hints at some past trauma. Georgia is also one hell of a sailor, as we witness thanks to a montage that shows her easily handling the various travails of life on the open sea. With only her cat for company, Georgia seems eminently capable of taking her place in the record books.

Georgia has a habit of talking to her cat, which isn’t surprising: the eye-raising moment comes when the cat actually answers back, speaking in an urbane but distinctly human voice. Since this particular revelation occurs right at the beginning of the film, we’re handed a fairly important bit of information right off the bat: Georgia has actual conversations with her cat. Since nothing in the film has led us to expect any sort of magical realism whatsoever, we can really only draw one conclusion: Georgia is losing/has lost her ever-loving mind.

Once we know that Georgia isn’t playing with a full deck, it completely removes the tension from any of her future interactions. There’s a creepy guy wandering around the boat: could it be real or Georgia’s imagination? Take a guess. Strange, unexplained sights, such a neat scene involving a horde of supremely creepy sea spiders? Please see above. Georgia getting involved in potentially life-threatening scenarios? Are we sure? Advise from a talking cat? Yeah…why not?

Once it’s established that Georgia is cracking up, it’s a pretty clear line to see that all of her “visitations” will somehow revolve around whatever her central issue is. In other words, these “hauntings” are distinctly of the Christmas Carol variety and will serve to help make Georgia a better person and bring her closer to her dysfunctional family, yadda yadda yadda.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this kind of “twist”ending but I’ve encountered it often enough to just shrug and accept it as one of those “clever” ideas that writers always feel they came to first. In the past, however, at least there’s been some sort of attempt to make this a genuine surprise. Once Georgia’s cat lets loose with that mellifluous human voice, all bets are off: unless you’re willing to assume that this is a film about a woman and her talking cat sailing around the world, we can pretty much assume that trusting our eyes and ears will be a bit of a fool’s errand.

It’s a shame, really, because this could have been a much better film if Franklin would have just kept us dangling a little longer than 10 minutes. There’s plenty of nice atmosphere here, including lots of truly creepy fog-shrouded shots of the sailboat at night. The sea-spider scene is pretty damn great, to be honest, and stands as the highlight of the film, despite its relative brevity. Mitchell is typically sturdy as Georgia, although she takes a note from the Jack Nicholson Guide to Actin’ Crazy and starts the performance dialed almost to 11, leaving her precious little room to move around, emotion-wise. By the time the film hits its climax, Mitchell is pitched at a fever-pace, which ends up seeming decidedly silly since we know everything is just in her head.

As a genre film, Visitors tanks because there’s no actual tension but it doesn’t fare much better as the kitchen-sink, mother-daughter relationship drama that it seems to want to be, either. The central conflict between Georgia and her mother feels arbitrary, since it occurred when Georgia was so young, and ends up setting the mother up as an almost inhuman shrew. Her father comes across as one of those slightly lumpy “white knight dad” characters and there’s nothing about the family dynamic that feels particularly important or even interesting. By the time we get to the climax where Georgia’s mom chases her around the ship’s cabin and tries to get her to commit suicide, there’s been so little actual connection between the characters that they might as well be strangers instead of flesh and blood.

I’m inclined to say that this doesn’t feel much like any of Richard Franklin’s previous films (Patrick (1978), Road Games (1981), Psycho II (1983), Link (1986)) but there are actually plenty of moments that directly recall his earlier (and better) work: the aforementioned sea-spider scene, the foreboding bit where the cat calmly pokes holes in Georgia’s delusions, the creepy scene involving the mysterious figure walking about the boat…it’s not like the film can’t build a decent head of steam, it’s just impossible to maintain any consistent sense of tension when you know nothing’s real.

Ultimately, I like Franklin’s filmography enough to give Visitors a shot, even though it was clear from a pretty early stage that the film didn’t really fit my traditional October viewing bill. That being said, the film just isn’t very good, even when viewed as a generic “family in crisis” drama: it’s too often silly and self-deflating (the final line is the sassily-delivered “What’s the matter: cat got your tongue?”, which seals the film’s coffin with a resounding thud). The movie has potential, as mentioned earlier, and I still think there’s a really great story to be made about someone encountering spooky happenings during a solo ocean voyage (how amazing would a horror mash-up of All Is Lost (2013) and Humanoids From the Deep (1980) be?!). Visitors isn’t that film, however, which is kind of a pity.