Director – Robby Henson, Screenplay – Brian Godawa, Based on the Novel by Frank Peretti, Producers – Joe Goodman, Bobby Neutz & Ralph Winter, Photography – Glynn Speeckaert, Music – David Bergeaud, Visual Effects Supervisor – Michael Webber, Visual Effects – Chemistry Productions (Supervisor – Dariush Derakhshani), Special Effects – James Staples & Paul Staples, Production Design – Laird Pulver. Production Company – Namesake Entertainment/Total Living Network/Signal Hill Pictures.
Martin Donovan (Travis Jordan), Edward Furlong (Brandon Nichols/Herb Johnson), Kelly Lynch (Morgan Elliott), Randy Travis (Kyle Sherman), Richard Tyson (Sheriff Brett Henchle), James Horan (Blonde-Haired Man), Joe Unger (Matt Kiley), Noah Segan (Michael Elliott), Ellen Geer (Mrs Macon), Priscilla Barnes (Dee Hinchle), Don Swayze (Abe), Lew Temple (Deputy Smalls), Hillary Tuck (Darlene Hinchle), Richard Moreno (Arnold Ramirez)
In the small country town of Antioch, minister Travis Jordan has lost his faith and slipped into alcoholism following the unsolved disappearance of his wife Mariam. Three years later, a trio of strange men appear around the town and tell townspeople to deliver the message “He is coming.” Travis sees the men on his property and is startled when his dog returns from the dead. He is drawn into the mystery surrounding young Brandon Nichols who is capable of conducting miracles. The townspeople are swayed by Brandon and flock to his side, seeing him as divinely inspired, but Travis remains sceptical. As he digs further into Brandon’s past, Travis increasingly comes to believe that Brandon’s miracles are sinister in nature and that the three mystery men who accompany him were involved in Mariam’s disappearance.
The Visitation is another entry in the growing field of Christian Cinema. This has become a niche industry of growing size from the mid-1990s on. The way was paved by the modest hit of The Omega Code (1999), which led to a number of other works that have enjoyed reasonable popularity, thanks to their employing B-list Hollywood actors to carry them to audiences beyond the church faithful. These include the likes of Raging Angels (1994), The Moment After (1999), Time Changer (2002), Book of Days (2003), Gone (2003), Six: The Mark Unleashed (2004), Fireproof (2008), Suing the Devil (2011), Revelation Road: The Beginning of the End (2013) and sequels, God’s Not Dead (2014), Heaven is For Real (2014), 90 Minutes in Heaven (2015) Miracles from Heaven (2016) and The Shack (2017), along with the Toronto-based Lalonde Brothers and their Cloud Ten Pictures who produced the tetraology Armageddon (1998), Revelation (1999), Tribulation (2000) and Judgment (2001), not to mention Left Behind (2000) and two sequels, followed by the big screen remake Left Behind (2014). And that was before the big box-office surge of Christian films begun with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) etc. The Visitation came out in this immediate aftermath of Passion of the Christ where Hollywood producers for a time believed there was a marketable niche for Christian-themed films and conducted church-centred marketing campaigns.
The film is based on The Visitation (1999), the fourth novel by Frank Peretti, a former minister with The Assembly of God. Peretti began publishing in the 1980s and had a Christian best-seller with This Present Darkness (1986). Not too surprising given Peretti’s background, his fiction is steeped in charismatic theology and centres around the battle on Earth between angels and demonic forces. His books are popular and a number of these have also been adapted to film with Hangman’s Curse (2003) and House (2008), all of which fall into the niche of Christian horror.
The film has been placed in the hands of Robby Henson who previously made the Western Pharaoh’s Army (1995) and subsequently stayed within the horror genre to make Thr3e (2006) and the adaptation of Frank Peretti’s House. The film is co-produced by Scott Derrickson, the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and other works such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), Sinister (2012), Deliver Us from Evil (2014) and Doctor Strange (2016), and himself an openly Christian believer.
From the outset, The Visitation strikes as much better than most of the other above-listed Christian films. You need only compare it to the Lalondes’ films, which are cheaply made and employ actors who are well down the C-list rung. By contrast, The Visitation brings in some more than reasonable names – former Hal Hartley star Martin Donovan, Kelly Lynch, c/w singer Randy Travis and Edward Furlong, who actually gives one of the better performances he has since the career slump he went into throughout the 1990s/2000s following his troubles with DUI, domestic battery and drug possession.
The film settles in with an interesting ambiguity. You are not sure at the outset whether Edward Furlong is a messianic figure or somebody sinister. Moreover, he wields all the miracles associated with charismatic Christianity – miraculous healings and speaking in tongues, while using common parlance like “Slaying in the Spirit.” If this were not such an overtly Christian film, you would almost believe that it is digging its knife in and portraying the stuff of charismatic evangelism with a dark spin, portraying the showmanship of tent Gospel preachers as being of The Devil. Even when you are aware that it is demonic forces at work, the film has no particularly good things to say about believers – by implication it seems to say that they are a simple-minded lot who will fall in and slavishly follow anybody with a flair for the miraculous and will blindly keep following for reasons of self-interest.
The film sets all of this up quite well. For nearly three-quarters of the show, The Visitation looked promising – it was certainly better structured as a story, less preachy and more dramatically assured than most of the above-listed Christian films. It is only in its final explanatory sections that the film falters. Here the preachiness kicks in and we get some hurried stuff involving cheaply depicted possessions and an exorcism. On the plus side, the final confrontation between Martin Donovan and Edward Furlong does tie many of the story strands throughout the show nicely together.