Posted by Richard Harland Smith on March 4, 2015
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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… doop… THE 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.”
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.
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.
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