May 10, 2014
Italians sure know how to polish turds, especially when it comes to taking banal Hollywood blockbusters and making them more stylish, cynical and—most importantly—sincerely sleazy. Undoubtedly, out of all the great Guido rip-off films, none is probably more ambitious than The Visitor (1979) aka Stridulum directed by Giulio Paradisi (who used the pseudonym ‘Michael J. Paradise’ so he would seem more ‘American’), who previously worked as an assistant director and actor on Federico Fellini's autobiographical masterpiece 8½ (1963) and was later mainly responsible for directing comedies. A work that shamelessly steals from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), Damien: Omen II (1978), and The Fury (1978), among countless other films, yet throws in conspicuous arthouse and psychedelic elements that ultimately give the film its insanely idiosyncratic character, The Visitor is an extravagant celluloid monster gone berserk that defies both expectation and classification. Produced and co-penned by Egyptian-born Greek producer/director Ovidio Assonitis (Forever Emmanuelle aka Laure, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning), who previously co-directed/co-produced the notable Guido The Excorcist rip-off Beyond the Door (1974) aka Chi sei? and was later a stockholder and CEO of Cannon Pictures during the early 1990s, The Visitor was originally intended as just another cheap take on William Friedkin's hit supernatural horror flick, but evolved into a phantasmagoric science fiction horror epic of the celestial metaphysical sort with an eclectic all-star international cast, including Hollywood auteur John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Wise Blood), Mel Ferrer (The Longest Day, War and Peace), Lance Henriksen (Aliens, The Terminator), Shelley Winters (The Night of the Hunter, Lolita), director Sam Peckinpah (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Straw Dogs), Franco Nero (Django, Querelle), and Glenn Ford (Gilda, 3:10 to Yuma). Notable among cinephiles as being one of the most recklessly whimsical and innately incoherent films ever made (which is more than a slight exaggeration), the film was originally released in the United States in a badly butchered cut that made the work seem even more inexplicable than it actually was, or as producer Assonitis stated in an interview with Zack Carlson, “When THE VISITOR was released in the US, the cut was very different than the original version, and much shorter as well. They did that without asking our permission. It was a distributor from Atlanta. They really eliminated a tremendous amount of the story […] They’d made the cuts, and they had no right to do it, but what could I do? There was a conflict, and we were going to take legal action, but the film had already played. It took decades for people to see the complete version.”
Luckily, Independent distributor Drafthouse Films re-released The Visitor in its complete form in 2013 in both theaters and on DVD. While I had previously seen the original butchered cut of the film and admired various random scenes, it was not until I saw the complete version of this much maligned work that I was able to appreciate it fully as being one of the most ridiculously ambitious oddities of Italian copycat cinema. Mostly shot in Atlanta, Georgia of all places with the support of the state government (then-governor George Busbee actually enticed the Italian crew to shoot there as they wanted to develop a film industry in the state), city mayor (three-term high yellow black democrat Maynard Jackson), and even media mogul Ted Turner, The Visitor is certainly a big celluloid cultural mongrel that producer Assonitis bizarrely claims was more influenced by video-games (indeed, the archaic first-generation video-game pong is featured somewhat prominently in the film) than other films (!), but is really a schizophrenic hodgepodge of various blockbuster Hollywood films and genre conventions that manages to bring artfulness to mainstream American industrial style filmmaking. Featuring a long-haired Franco Nero as a Christ-like figure, John Huston as an extraterrestrial exorcist/warrior battling an evil little blonde girl and quasi-Satanic businessmen, Shelley Winters once again portraying a bitchy maid, and Sam Peckinpah (who was apparently a pain to work with and only worked on the film for a single day) playing a doctor who gives his ex-wife an abortion because she is pregnant with a demon seed of sorts, The Visitor is a rare (anti)genre film where thematic insanity reigns and audacious aestheticism trumps genre formulas. Like Dario Argento at his prime meets Satyricon (1969) era Fellini as penned by William Peter Blatty had he fried his brain on acid and developed a nasty bird fetish, The Visitor is arguably the most entertaining mess of a low-budget (around $800,000) mega movie ever made.
An ostensible old Polack/intergalactic warrior named Jerzy Colsowicz (John Huston) has been summoned by a blond Aryan Christ figure (played by Franco Nero in a role he apparently offered to play for free just so he could work with his hero Huston), who surrounds himself with bald children acolytes in glittery white robes, to take care of an evil 8-year-old American girl from Atlanta named Katy Collins (Paige Conner). As the supremely stoic Aryan Christ explains, a certain Commander Yahweh managed to capture an evil mutant being known as ‘Sateen’ in a battle that claimed hundreds of lives. Unfortunately, Sateen eventually managed to escape in a tiny scout craft and landed on earth where he developed new psychic and occult powers and used them to dish out death and destruction. To rid planet earth of inevitable destruction by dark forces, Commander Yahweh sent a flock of specially trained birds to kill Sateen, but the evil being managed to procreate with earth women before he kicked the bucket, thus spreading his demon seed in a somewhat cryptic fashion. 8-year-old Atlanta girl Katy Collins—a confederate Heather O'Rourke lookalike of sorts who is a master of gymnastics and figure skating—is one of Sateen’s descendents and it is ‘extraterrestrial exorcist’ Jerzy Colsowicz’s job to rid the girl of her sinister genetic inheritance as well as preventing her mother Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail) from breeding again, or else evil may spread like the plague throughout the cosmos. Barbara’s boyfriend Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen) is a professional basketball team owner who works for a group of satanic businessman who sent him on a sinister assignment to procreate with his girlfriend to create another demon spawn. Luckily, Barbara can sense her daughter is evil and does not want another child, but of course, Raymond and Katy have teamed up to make sure she spawns a satanic spawn against her will.
Demonic brat Katy is so powerful that she merely stares down negro Muslim NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to give him the power to do a literally explosive game-winning slam-dunk, but she has more pressing things on her mind as a little bad rich bitch who wants a bad little bro to help her establish an out-of-this-world aristocracy of satanic evil and destruction. In between playing pong with her stoned babysitter and using her evil pet bird ‘Squeaky’ to carry out devilish deeds, Katy plots to get her dimwitted mother pregnant. On her birthday, Katy magically receives a gun as a gift from her aunt (who really bought her niece a talking bird toy, but someone or something replaced the present) and ‘accidentally’ shoots her mother with it after throwing the weapon on a table in an excited fashion, thus resulting in her paralysis and her total dependence on her evil boyfriend and deranged daughter. Despite being a worthless cripple, Barbara refuses to get married or have a kid, telling Raymond, “I want my freedom.” Barbara also hires a maid named Jane Phillips (Shelley Winters) who loves to sing negro spirituals (which hint at the fact that she has sort of 'supernatural negro powers' despite the fact she is white) and talking about astrology and she can tell instantly that there is something not quite right about Katy. Meanwhile, a detective named Jake Durham (Glenn Ford) begins investigating the circumstances revolving around Barbara’s paralysis and when he asks little Katy about it, she says “Go fuck yourself,” adding, “I don’t like you. You’re a child molester. I bet you do dirty things to children.” Needless to say, it does not take long for the Detective to drop dead after snooping around the Collins home, as Katy has deadly demonical pigeons unleashed on him, which poke his eyes out while he is driving, thus causing him to crash and subsequently die after his unmarked cop car explodes. Meanwhile, Barbara ends up getting pregnant after her car breaks down, as evil scientists land Close Encounters of the Third Kind style, abduct her, and artificially inseminate her with the demon seed. Jerzy, who previously babysat for Katy and had a pong showdown of sorts with the little girl, tells Barbara that she has conceived out of the evil business men’s hatred for this world, so she naturally opts for aborting it. Luckily, Barbara’s ex-husband Dr. Sam Collins (Sam Peckinpah) knows how to perform abortions and reluctantly gives her one. When evil bird Squeaky attacks Barbara, maid Jane kills it, which irks Katy so much that she pushes her wheelchair-bound mother through a fancy gigantic fish tank (which contains no fish!). Barbara attempts to set Katy straight by bringing her in for psychological testing and experimentation, but nothing helps. Ultimately, Katy becomes completely demonically possessed, strangles her mother. and then throws her down the stairs. With the help of Katy, boyfriend Raymond attempts to lynch Barbara for aborting her demonic fetus, but Jerzy sends in some magical birds (the same sort that killed Katy’s evil ancestor Sateen), which kill the satanic basketball franchise owner when one drives its beak into his neck. Ultimately, the angelic birds also manage to ‘peck out the evil’ of Katy, who is delivered to Aryan Christ, albeit minus the evil and a head of hair. In the end, Jerzy states, “You can’t kill children. Only the evil part. That’s no more.”
As Ovidio Assonitis revealed in a recent interview, apparently John Huston was not embarrassed by his role in The Visitor, or as the Producer stated himself, “Long after THE VISITOR was finished, I was invited out to visit John Huston. He was a week from dying. I got there, and he was very sick. He’d brought together all the women from his life. So he had a 22-year-old girl there beside an 80-year-old woman, all sitting around the same table. That was his farewell. I was the only other man there. And at that time, I saw that he’d purchased a video cassette of THE VISITOR so he could watch it at home.” Personally, I only have all the more respect for Huston for being in the film, as a legendary Hollywood director who dared to get a little dirty in a dago celluloid beast that demonstrates that Italians do it better, at least when it comes to ripping of soulless Hollywood mainstream trash. As both revealed in the extra features included with the 2013 Drafthouse Films DVD release of the film, star Lance Henriksen (who had no clue what the film was about) and Italian-American screenwriter Luciano Comici (who was mainly hired because he spoke both English and Italian) do not exactly have fond memories of The Visitor, with both men recollecting their chaotic experiences working on the film and essentially describing producer Assonitis as an intolerable egomaniac. Of course, Assonitis admitted himself that the film was made under intense and largely improvised circumstances, with the producer stating in an interview regarding how the film was in a constant state of evolution, “The story was being built and rebuilt day-by-day, even as we were shooting. Sometimes you include things that come out from your subconscious without you knowing it.” Cultivated and kaleidoscopic metaphysical sci-fi-horror kitsch crammed with sensational and otherworldly cine-magic, a pinch of psychosexual degeneracy, and a wonderfully warped sense of logic (or lack thereof) that even puts Brian De Palma to abject shame, The Visitor is ultimately pure style and spectacle over substance and that is certainly one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. As someone who cannot be bothered to invest any sort of emotion in the majority of Hollywood horror/sci-fi/thriller films, I managed to appreciate The Visitor because it is such an aesthetically overwhelming and thematically convoluted experience that I never found myself bored and I certainly never found myself feeling lost while watching the work. Indeed, compared to the films of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Visitor tells a fairly linear story that is easy enough to digest, especially on subsequent viewings. As for the importance of the film in the context of film history, I think Assonitis said it best when he once remarked, “All in all, I am sadly aware that my contributions to the horror genre are not of such historical relevance as, say, THE EXORCIST (1973) or PSYCHO (1960). We're not talking masterpieces here, but I have put all my love and enthusiasm into my films and I think it shows. What's most important, I have gained the respect of true horror fans, who are always loyal and extremely perceptive--they know a good film when they see one!,” as The Visitor is certainly a work that deserves an even larger cult following than it already has as a sort of poor man’s The Holy Mountain. The virtual father film to Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), The Visitor is a “pre-Reagan-era fever dream” that demonstrates in a dreamscape-addled sort of way that CEOs (in one notable scene, a satanic businessman, who later dies with what looks like feces on his face, states, “Power corrupts [...] And absolute power corrupts absolutely. But we must have that power.”), politicians, and related parasitic psychopaths have been transforming America into a Devil's playground for sometime. Of course, more importantly, the film demonstrates that a random Guido hack director has more creativity in his pinky than Spielberg has in his entire truly satanic being.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:05 PM
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