This week on TCM Underground: THE VISITOR (1979)

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Jesus Christ sends an old man in a fishin’ hat to Earth to stop a corporate cabal from using telekinetic children to take over the world. I think.

Cast:  John Huston (Jerzy Cosolwicz), Lance Henriksen (Raymond Armstead), Joanne Nail (Barbara Collins), Paige Conner (Katy Collins), Shelley Winters (Jane Phillips), Mel Ferrer (Dr. Walker), Glenn Ford (Detective Jake Durham), Sam Peckinpah (Dr. Sam Collins), Franco Hero (Jesus Christ). Director: Giulio Paradisi. Producer: Ovidio G. Assonitis. Screenplay: Giuliano Paradisi, Ovidio G. Assonitis, Luciano Comici, Robert Mundi. Music: Franco Micalizi. Cinematography: Ennio Guarnieri.

Color – 90 min – 108 min. (depending on version)

Showtime: Saturday, March 7 11:30pm PST/2:30am EST. 

The Visitor 01

In terms of sheer diversity of subject matter and execution, no genre levels the playing field quite like science fiction. The categorization is so open-ended and the component parts so far flung that in any given year you can ping-pong back and forth between unalloyed genius and ass-numbing moronicy. Let’s take the example of John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS and Ian Curtis’ THE PROJECTED MAN, both released in 1966, both by definition science fiction yet light years apart in authorial intent and production. One is a brilliant parable co-opting genre to address issues of self-worth, identity and and mortality; and the other… well, it’s about a guy who gets all messed up in an experiment and comes out super ugly and he carries a girl for a bit and I forget the rest. It’s basically THE FLY (1958)  but instead of a man with a fly’s head and a fly with a man’s head it’s a guy who is super-duper ugly. With a bug eye (just the one) and beaver teeth. And he can kill by touching you, so he’s THE FLY plus THE MAN-MADE MONSTER (1940) plus THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936) but mega-uber-super-duper ugly, as stated. Or take 1979. In that year, you could have taken in Andrei Tarkovsky’s artful headscrew STALKER or Ridley Scott’s whip smart monster-on-the-loose movie ALIEN or… THE VISITOR, Italy’s answer to…well, it’s anybody’s guess, really.

The Visitor title card

By 1979, Italy was a country in downward spiral, twenty years beyond la dolce vita and a full generation past the advent of neorealismo, which had inspired the French New Wave and made the nation, for a time, a pillar of the international film community. While Italian films often took their cues from Hollywood, Italian filmmakers could better the instruction — Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns” were able to slip that quasi-racist distinction to be valued on their own merits and classified as tentpoles of the western genre. But the less ambitious directors and producers were content merely to mimic popular trends and copycatism grew steadily more rampant as the Italian film industry lapsed into decline. Italian cop movies were churned out by the hundreds, patterned after BULLIT (1968), THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), and DIRTY HARRY (1971), while killer shark movies were crafted in the mode of JAWS (1975), and science fiction films took their lead from STAR WARS (1977). Producer-director Ovidio G. Assonitis had an eye on the balance sheet and crafted a number of movies calculated to cash in on Hollywood hits. While he answered THE EXORCIST (1973) with BEYOND THE DOOR (1974) and JAWS with TENTACLES (1977), he offered THE VISITOR (which he produced, leaving direction to Giulio Paradisi, aka Michael Paradise) to pick up spares… among them 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), THE BAD SEED (1959), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), CARRIE (1976), THE OMEN (1976) and the then-recent DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978), among others. Among others! (Emphasis added.)

The Visitor 03

You’ve got to love a movie in which Jesus handles the exposition. After an introductory scene in which a cowled John Huston has a close encounter of the weird kind on a Dadaesque desert plane in a sirocco of instant mashed potato flakes, an uncredited Franco Nero walks us (and a bunch of bald kids) through THE VISITOR‘s backstory, of how a malevolent extraterrestrial mu-tant known as Sateen was chased across the cosmos by birds and ultimately killed but not before — something, something (it’s very complicated) — and now Earth children carry his horrible genes! And there’s a little girl (Paige Conner, who has the most darlin’ accent!) with special Sateeny evil powers and her mom (SWITCHBLADE SISTERS’ Joanne Nail) who has a wicked accommodating womb and the bad guys want her to have another baby, a boy this time, and Lance Henriksen (who had played a Satanic custodian in DAMIEN: OMEN II) is the emissary whose seed could spark the Second (Bad) Coming and John Huston is our only hope, but Christ Almighty it takes him so long to get from place to place that it’s anybody’s guess how this thing is going to turn out.

Visitor 004

Imagine if, in THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, George Sanders had opposed his evil son not by mind games but by playing Pong. Or imagine if Gregory Peck had dragged his Antichrist adoptee not into a church to stab him with the daggers of Meggido but had driven him home kicking and screaming to play Pong. If you can imagine these things, you have a handle already on THE VISITOR, which is a hundred minute cat-and-mouse game played between a young girl on the cusp of understanding her tremendous capacity for evil and an old coot alien angel and at one point in the second act they sit down together and play Pong. Doop… doop… doopTHE VISITOR is lousy with such wonderful, tone deaf, unforgettable WTF moments, whose number also includes a pro basketball quarter played nearly in real time (the inclusion of so much plot-stalling arena footage might have had something to do with the stadium backdrops of Larry Peerce’s TWO MINUTE WARNING and/or John Frankenheimer’s BLACK SUNDAY, both of which got European play in the spring and summer of 1977), a virtual anti-bullying PSA played out on a shopping mall skating rink (prefiguring, to a degree, the gory finish of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN by thirty years) intercut with shots of John Huston walking down an escalator to no discernible purpose, an overabundance of athletic events (as if basketball and ice skating were not enough, we also get sandlot baseball and gymnastics), cop-on-the-case Glenn Ford being attacked by birds while driving through the Atlanta suburbs, and Shelley Winters (as a housekeeper of potentially Whitelawvian intent) singing “Shortnin Bread.”

The Visitor 02

Maybe you have to be of a certain age, to have been old enough in 1979 to get around on your own to the cinema to go see these movies first run or to have discovered them on VHS during those glorious boom years of video cassette rental, for THE VISITOR to have purchase for you. Evocative as it is of the death of Italian cinema, it also is a reminder of how dire things were for such former Hollywood heavyweights as Huston, Winters (the pair had just played brother and sister in TENTACLES), Ferrer, and Sam Peckinpah, who pops up out of nowhere late in the film to play a not-so-concerned third party. (For whatever reason — and I’m sure you could divine ample reasons — the maverick director of THE WILD BUNCH, THE GETAWAY, and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is dubbed by another actor.) It was mortgage and alimony time for these ersatz A-listers, whose presence bestows upon THE VISITOR true Psychotronic currency. Nobody’s idea of a hot tamale even during his heyday, and I’m probably overstating things by calling him a Hollywood player, Mel Ferrer was at this point between ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1978) and THE GREAT ALLIGATOR (1979), with EATEN ALIVE! (1981) and NIGHTMARE CITY (1982) yet to come; I doubt that even a prominent role in Fassbinder’s LILI MARLEEN (1981) caused his bradycardic heart to flutter but for a guy on autopilot since at least 1970 Ferrer covered a lot of ground before he ditched his career in 1998.

The Visitor 04

Lance Henriksen, on the other hand, was between films for Sidney Lumet and had the career-defining hat trick of THE TERMINATOR (1984), ALIENS (1986), and NEAR DARK (1987) just ahead of him. (Am I the only one with a fondness for PIRANHA PART II: THE SPAWNING?) Is he the only actor to have played Charles Bronson in a movie? I’m pretty sure he is. Anyway, it helps, I suppose, to have a sensitivity to all of this history for THE VISITOR to pay off in a meaningful way. Or you may just warm to its madness, because, brother, THE VISITOR brings the batshit in bulk.

14 Responses This week on TCM Underground: THE VISITOR (1979)
Posted By John : March 4, 2015 6:59 pm

Huston made “Wise Blood” the same year and, I assume, in the same state!

Posted By Jenni : March 4, 2015 7:47 pm

Lol-great review of a movie I’ve never heard of. Sounds like a hoot, but not a good one. I did see Tentacles when TCM last aired it and about fell off the couch when the kids in the movie called Shelley Winters “mom”-I assumed she was their grandma in the thing!
I guess if Ray Milland can be in a movie about a two-headed man or a movie about frogs turning on humans, then I can forgive Glenn Ford for being in this movie.

I heard an interesting interview on the radio a couple months ago with a film producer in the late 1960s -1970′s. I am sorry that I can’t recall the man’s name. He said that in Italy in the 1960s, audiences would flock to the American movies playing in theatres but not flock to the Italian films, so it was a natural progression to start copying the popular American films. It was a wonderful surprise, he said, when the Spaghetti Westerns became so popular in Italy as well as all over Europe and in the US.

Posted By Darlene : March 4, 2015 10:36 pm

I am so disappointed that TCM has decided to play movies made in the 80′s, 90′s and 2000. These are NOT classic movies. These movies can be seen on many other cable channels. TCM was always a step above the rest. That is no longer the case since TCM decided to play these NONE CLASSIC movies. Most of the movies from the 80′s, 90′s and 2000 are not worth seeing once never mind twice. I hope TCM goes back to being a true classic movie channel.

Posted By little bobby : March 5, 2015 8:55 pm

so glad tcm is expanding to include late classics- these movies only add to the network – some movies whatever the period made are classics- thus the popular phrase ‘it’s an instant classic’-is sometimes used to describe modern works who just fit the bill- I welcome most any innovation from tcm except commercials .

Posted By Pearce : March 5, 2015 11:46 pm

This movie is very dear to me. I love the way that the music kicks into high gear whenever John Huston goes into full action mode and, um, walks down some stairs.

Posted By Gene : March 6, 2015 1:24 am

I have this seen The Visitor twice, once on late-night TV where I had a hard time shaking off the idea that it was just a dream (because if a dream can be said to have narrative structure this is about what mine are like). Really the most puzzling thing is how it ever got green-lighted in the first place. What a mess, and yet a fascinating mess – like fragments of a … dream. Maybe after The Hateful Eight Tarantino can take a stab at a tribute to bad Italian Horror with this being the basis. BTW, the skating rink scene was actually quite good as well as funny, and I never saw the beginning either time so I’m glad to know that Franco Nero’s Blonde Jesus wasn’t just pasted on to the very end of the movie.

Posted By Ben Martin : March 6, 2015 3:57 pm

Hey – I had a theory on the “virtual anti-bullying PSA played out on a shopping mall skating rink” scene. I just bet that our cash-in king Ovidio G. Assonitis was inspired to emulate this scene after watching Italian audineces flip over the kill-the-arab-terrorist scene in DePalmas The Fury which was showing in Italy in 1978. Andrew Stevens gets his forehead veins a poppin and sends his unwary victims on the carnival ride of their lives – and deaths. I may be wrong, but thats what I assumed when I saw The Vistor (as we counted up all the Hollywood movie inspired scenes.)

Posted By george : March 6, 2015 10:54 pm

DArlene said: “I am so disappointed that TCM has decided to play movies made in the 80′s, 90′s and 2000. These are NOT classic movies.”

Well, THE VISITOR came out in 1979. It is a classic of weirdness.

Posted By Dave Starry : March 6, 2015 11:35 pm

“The Visitor” has what might possibly be the most insane reacion shot on the history of cinema…after Katy “accidentally” shoots her mother in the back during the birthday party…http://waytooindie.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/reaction.gif

Posted By george : March 7, 2015 12:36 am

Darlene: On Saturday, TCM is showing A FACE IN THE CROWD, PSYCHO, DR. STRANGELOVE, ROMAN HOLIDAY, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA and ORPHEUS. Doesn’t look like TCM is abandoning the showing of real classics.

I can put up with an occasional campfest like THE VISITOR (or the 1943 BATMAN serial) in exchange for a lineup like I listed in the above paragraph.

Posted By swac44 : March 8, 2015 3:22 am

I got to see this recently in a packed theatre, so it was more like a mass hallucination. I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch this on actual drugs.

And after a month full of Oscar-related films I have no desire to ever watch again, it’s films like The Visitor that get me back in the TCM groove again.

Posted By Ben Martin : March 9, 2015 1:58 pm

In reference to the comments about modern films and Oscar month – Hmm – This is an interesting turn of events on this blog about The Visitor. – - I thought I was the only one whose least favorite TCM month is 30 Days of Oscar. On the other hand – there is so much inventive programming that goes unsung on TCM. that’s why the movies Gods invented bloggers – to draw attention to these things. (I wonder if TCM would consider a 30 days of TCM Underground? Hmmm.) But even the bloggers only get one chance a week each.
Is anyone else out there pleased with the obscure British films (On Approval – what a gem) making their way onto TCM, such as the weekly showing of Carry On films? I wish Ben Mankowitz would introduce these as he used to the Tarzan films, Jungle Jim, and the like. Anyway – just like swacc44, I’m in the TCM groove again.

Posted By Walt : March 9, 2015 2:24 pm

This movie has a lot of great Atlanta locations. The basketball scenes were shot at the late, great, Omni, also known as the “rusty egg crate” (pictures available online). (Personal note: I saw a fantastic concert by Bob Seger there on May 6, 1978.) A scene with John Huston in a parking lot is across the street at the vast parking deck known as, well, “The Decks”. The very unusual house where the little girl and her mother live was the home of noted Atlanta architect John Portman. His firm designed the Atlanta landmark currently known as the Westin Peachtree Plaza (originally the Peachtree International I believe). When Glenn Ford is driving around being attacked by birds, you get a great view of downtown Atlanta, including the gold-domed state capital building and the distinctive state archives building.

Posted By swac44 : March 9, 2015 2:38 pm

I wonder if the producers got some sort of special tax credit for filming in Georgia?

Also, love it when UK films show up on TCM, although due to copyright laws and distribution rights, they often get blanked out in Canada since Rank/Odeon (or whoever owns them) probably still has proprietary rights to them here.

I remember when Canadian distributor Astral Films went out of business, and a film collector friend of mine wanted to buy some of their 35mm prints, but they couldn’t sell them because they had no record of who was the prime owner of those titles. Who knows what ultimately happened to those copies, it wouldn’t surprise me if they wound up in a landfill, seems too bad they couldn’t arrange some sort of “back door” deal so they’d wind up where they’d be appreciated, but that’s how the business works sometimes.

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