HCF REWIND NO. 249: THE VISITOR [Italy 1979]
OUT NOW ON DUAL-FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 108 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
On a distant planet, an alien has a vision of a demonic girl that tells him that the seed of the evil force Zatine is on Earth and sets off for Atlanta, Earth, where he goes by the human name of Jerzy Colsowizc. There, eight-year old Katy Collins seems to be developing some strange powers. Her mother Barbara is involved with Raymond Armstead, the hugely wealthy owner or a professional basketball team. Raymond works for some mysterious sponsors who want him to marry Barbara so she can have another child which they can use for their nefarious purposes. Jerzy is around to hopefully protect Katy though…..
I’m aware that the above synopsis of the first quarter or so of The Visitor reads a bit incoherent, but it wasn’t easy trying to write it so it made some kind of sense. The Visitor is a bit, actually more than a bit, incoherent throughout. Almost the definition of a cult film, it’s as if some very religious man or woman watched Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the first two Omen films, Rosemary’s Baby and The Birds and then tried to film what he or she remembered while on drugs. Totally unapologetic about all the films it steals from, it still somehow manages have a bizarre feel and atmosphere that is quite unique. It tries to be arty, and sometimes ends up just being bad, but you have to give it full marks for trying. It’s not exactly scary, and doesn’t really build up much tension. In fact there is a fair but of extraneous footage showing characters walking, driving or looking all introspective [or rather the performers trying to work out what their characters were supposed to be doing] that could easily be cut out with little harm to the film, but it hardly makes the proceedings boring, partly because you’re constantly wondering how on earth they got John Huston [as an alien], Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, Lance Henriksen, Sam Peckinpah, Mel Ferrer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Franco Nero [as Jesus no less] all to be in this movie.
Producer Ovidio G. Assonitis virtually made a career out of producing, writing and/or directing films that ripped off big Hollywood productions, from the Exorcist copy Beyond The Door to the Jaws-inspired [though this time with a big octopus] Tentacles [which also featured Huston and Winters] though of course this was very prevalent in the Italian film industry throughout the 70’s and the 80’s anyway. Filmed mainly in Atlanta though with many interior work done in shot in Rome, its somewhat obscure director Giulio Paradisi, billed as Michael J. Paradise, and the scriptwriter Lou Comicci constantly battled over the big changes and crazy details Paradisi insisted upon. Eventually Paradisi hurled Comicci’s script out of a skyscraper window, Assonitis fired Paradisi, then, goes the story, a relative or friend of Paradisi forced Assonitis to re-hire him by holding a gun to his head. Some sources say that Assonitis ended up shooting much of the film anyway. Sam Peckinpah, yes the great filmmaker, was so high on coke for his single scene that he couldn’t remember his lines and was dubbed in post-production. The Italian title Stridulum means “hissing” in Latin, a strange choice for a title but entirely in keeping with the film. The US release was cut down to 90 mins, removing much of the footage featuring the ‘big’ names and re-distributing parts of the opening scene throughout the film. I guess that some of those scenes of characters walking, driving or looking all introspective went, but when you chop down a film that doesn’t make much sense anyway, it’s only going to make even less sense. Fortunately Arrow Video’s DVD has the full version.
We open with a mystical prologue where Huston’s alien, or maybe he’s God, is in the desert of a planet where the sun blazes down. A dark figure rather menacingly looms out of the ground while clouds form behind him and envelope him in snow [?] as the figure reveals itself to be a demonic little girl. The alien then visits what looks like a greenhouse where Jesus is telling a story to some shaven children. What he’s saying is actually important back-story about Zatine [read Satan], the ancient evil that won’t die and currently likes to impregnate Earth women with his seed, but it’s easy to get distracted by the sheer weirdness of what you are seeing. Never mind, we soon switch to Earth and a basketball game. Unless you like basketball, it seems to go on forever, but no normal game ends with the ball exploding. I should say, though, that there is a hell of a lot of sport in this film. The film feels a need to show montages of little Katy training for gymnastics every now and again, and then there’s a skating sequence where Katy deals with some bullies jealous of her skill [actually this scene is reminiscent of The Fury, which the more I think about it was yet another influence].
It soon becomes apparent that Katy has certain powers, and some want to her for evil purposes while trying to get her mother to have another child. But really, the plot soon ceases to matter as random things start happening. Huston reappears, now called Jerzy Colsowizc, and spends an awful lot of time hanging around on top of a skyscraper while shaven headed assistants potter about and sometimes make strange movements silhouetted behind screens. Katy is bought a wooden bird for her birthday, but when she un-wraps it it’s become a gun which she accidently throws onto a table, causing it to accidentally fire. She tries to kill Barbara several times, but the woman’s virtually indestructible. She survives being pushed into a window and reappears in the next scene with no cuts whatsoever, though that’s nowhere as stupid as her being paralysed from the waist yet still be able to drive a car with no adjustments. Or Glenn Ford’s lower lip covered with makeup to hide a cold sore that’s still hugely obvious. Or Jery playing pong with Katy, only it’s clear from the TV screen that it’s a one-player game. Poor old Huston really has a lot to put up with in this movie, his big scene near the end repeating the same shot of him looking with amazement at some lights in the sky about twenty times. I’m the type of person that isn’t overly bothered by the odd gaff in a film if it’s interesting or entertaining, but,. even allowing for its almost surreal nature, there is evidence of carelessness througout much of The Visitor, which is a great shame, because for much of the time I was enjoying its odd, almost Lynchian mood.
Despite all this, there are some very good moments. The lengthy build-up to one death is quite skilfully managed by Paradisi, as the victim-to-be searches a house, then drives along in his car while the toy bird keeps on saying:”I’m a pretty bird” in quite an uncanny fashion until he crashes his car into a motorbike in a very well staged sequence where it actually looks like a stuntman’s body bends in half as it hits the windscreen. There’s a night-time scene where a truck with lights is made to look like the ominous thing in the world, and a good variation on the old ‘hall of mirrors’ routine. Perhaps these really good bits were directed by Assonities before he left the production. Some of the special effects are rather good, notably a bird attack which is really well realised and actually surpasses similar scenes in The Birds. Ennio Guarnieri’s photography is lush, but then there’s the music, which seems to mostly alternate between extremely loud bursts of a TV-type theme and the same sound effects used to realise the monster Ghidorah in the Godzilla series. Franco Micalizzi’s score is not just weird but often weirdly placed, but I’m not sure I’d want it any other way.
The acting is rather good. Lance Henricksen already has a great, strange presence [he was in Damien: Omen 2 just before he made this] and Page Connor manages to be both cute and creepy as Katy, even when she’s given lines like: “I don’t like you. You’re a cow molester. I bet you do dirty things to children”. There’s a fair bit to laugh at The Visitor, but also somebody admirable about it. There’s nothing out there like it at the moment and you won’t forget it. You may have read reports about Arrow Video’s Blu-ray not looking too good. I disagree – it really brings out the best of the gleaming cinematography while still looking soft and appropriately grainy like a film from 1979 should do. Even though my rating for the film isn’t too high [though probably higher than many would give it], this disc is still an essential purchase for anyone interested in horror, science-fiction or the offbeat, because I have a feeling you might want to see it again just to make sure you weren’t dreaming when you watched it the first time. In fact I think I’m off to watch it again now. You never know, it might be a 9 out of 10 this time round!
* High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements
* Original Mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
* Interview with Star Lance Henriksen
* Interview with Screenwriter Lou Comici*Interview with Cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Erik Buckman
* Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film and more!