It Came From the Cultosphere: The Mind-Bending Madness of ‘The Visitor’
How do you even begin to explain a movie like ‘The Visitor’?
Do you start with the basics? The fact that it was released in 1979, written and produced by Ovidio Assonitis and directed by Giulio Paradisi, two Italians guys who wanted to earn a few bucks releasing a horror movie in the lucrative American market? Do you mention that, to make the movie more appealing to U.S. audiences, “Guilio Paradisi” became “Michael J. Paradise” in the credits?
Or do you start with the cast? Assontis followed the lead of other European filmmakers who filled roles with American actors, but he aimed higher – and stranger. For the part of the film’s hero, the guy who single-handedly battles an alien invasion, Assonitis naturally chose his friend, legendary director John Huston, 73 at the time.
For the dedicated detective who gets his eyes pecked out, he chose Glenn Ford, just a few years after he played Pa Kent in ‘Superman: The Movie.’ Assonitis filled other slots with familiar Hollywood names like Shelley Winters and Mel Ferrer, then cast a pre-‘Terminator,’ pre-‘Aliens’ Lance Henriksen as one of the film’s villains.
He even found a small part for director Sam Peckinpah as an abortion doc, but Peckinpah was so difficult to work with, only a single scene with him survived. And, for the title role, Assonitis cast first-timer Paige Conner as the little girl fathered by an evil alien being.
Maybe I’d better switch gears and explain the plot. Hang on — this isn’t going to be easy. As the movie’s intro explains, there are good space aliens and bad space aliens, and the bad space alien had space sex resulting in a space baby that’s now living on Earth, looking like a normal baby. And only one of the good space aliens, played by Huston, can stop her from taking over the world. Or something like that.
As you might have guessed, ‘The Visitor’ is a mess. But it’s a glorious mess, the sort of no-holds-barred money-grab that only could’ve sprung to life in the late ’70s, when every producer in the world (including, obviously, a few in Italy) dreamed of cashing in on the popularity of ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ ‘The Omen,’ ‘The Exorcist’ and a whole lot of other, more polished movies.
True, those movies are “better” in every sense of the word, but they’re not quite as much fun as ‘The Visitor.’ That’s because Assonitis and company tossed in everything they could think of, then tossed in some more stuff for good measure.
There are psychedelic special effects and visions of otherworldly, distinctly cheap landscapes. There’s Franco Nero, famous for playing the original Django, as a sort of blonde Jesus watching over a bunch of kids with shaved heads. There’s a little girl clobbering two grown met at an ice skating rink, and Winters keeping a birdcage full of stuffed birds.
And there are real birds too, plenty of them, showing up every so often to peck out Ford’s eyes or show Henriksen the error of his ways. There’s an Atlanta “Rebels” basketball game and a giant TV set showing Pong and, oh, so much more — all tied together by an unforgettable, deliriously over-the-top musical score.
And, every so often, just when you least expect it, there’s a moment or scene that somehow, against all odds, works beautifully. ‘The Visitor’ isn’t just a so-bad-it’s-good movie. It’s a movie that bounces from bad to good to jaw-dropping without every being boring.
Naturally, it died a quick death in theaters back in the day, finding a brief afterlife on VHS before disappearing altogether. But thankfully, a dedicated cult sprung up in its wake, and Drafthouse Films has preserved the twisted brilliance of ‘The Visitor’ on a beautiful new Blu-ray.
Besides a complete, remastered print of the film, the disc contains an informative booklet, the theatrical trailer and interviews with cinematographer Ennio Guarnier and co-star Henriksen, who seems surprised — but amused — that anyone would still remember this movie.
He shouldn’t be so surprised. Once glimpsed, ‘The Visitor’ can never — ever — be forgotten.