Written by: Luciano Comici & Robert Mundi (screenplay), Giulio Paradisi & Ovidio Assonitis (story)
Directed by: Giulio Paradisi
Starring: John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Lance Henriksen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Now listen to me Katy, isn't there something you want to tell me?"
"Yeah. Go fuck yourself!"
"Yeah. Go fuck yourself!"
There’s a turn of phrase you hear a lot—and continue to hear even during the transition to digital filmmaking—that movies are an exercise in committing something to celluloid. It’s a shorthand that’s probably abused (by yours truly included), but it’s grounded in a certain, understood truth: human beings labor over this process, and it’s reflected in the final product. Sometimes, however, you confront a film and can only assume it was beamed right onto celluloid from another fucking dimension altogether.
The Visitor is a film that especially challenges all sensibilities—it’s so foreign, so strange, so alien that it can’t be from this Earth. In keeping with its title, it’s an emissary from the deep reaches of some far-flung netherworld, dispatched to grant our minds a glimpse into the beyond before it completely melts out consciousness. Like the monolith in 2001, it perhaps exists to point us to the next stage in evolution, as it practically speaks in cinematic tongues in its scrambled attempt to regurgitate familiar genre tropes.
History insists that, having already produced Exorcist rip-off Beyond the Door, Ovidio Assonitis tried his hand at replicating that success with this Omen imitator. I’m more inclined to believe he was working on behalf of superior beings who had not only seen Richard Donner’s film but also its first sequel, The Birds, and Rosemary’s Baby before attempting to shove them all into one transcendent experience. Some parts hail from such a far-flung plane of existence that they can’t rightly be accounted for: consider an opening prologue where an Aryan Christ figure (Franco Nero, bleached blonde) recounts a centuries-spanning mythology to a group of bald pupils.
His stories involve Sateen (not to be confused with Satan, presumably), an ancient, nebulous intergalactic evil whose demon seed persists on Earth despite his extinction generations ago. Enter John Huston, who gravely informs Nero that one of these unholy offspring has been discovered on Earth, and the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, with the reckoning set to occur in…Atlanta, Georgia. When the film abruptly cuts from this ethereal dimension to a basketball game at the Omni, you sense that it’s not exactly operating with the usual concern for pacing or coherence. Once it introduces a young girl (Paige Connor) eerily spying the on-court action and preventing the visiting team from winning with a well-timed explosion at the rim that no one seems to find odd, it’s confirmed: The Visitor could not give any fewer fucks about what you expect of it.
Speaking a language all its own, it continues to weave the increasingly bewildering tale surrounding Katy, this hellion and spawn of Sateen at the center of a global scheme to restore the dark lord to power. Watching it unfold is akin to listening to a baked conspiracy theorist ramble on about a cadre of enigmatic businessmen (headed by Mel Ferrer) compelling one of their own (Lance Henriksen) to impregnate Katy’s mother so that the 8-year-old might eventually mate with her half-brother to fulfill a prophecy. In a southern drawl that simultaneously borders on adorable and sinister, Katy herself encourages her mother to “make love” to the man who wants to wed her—not that this stops the little devil from shooting her mom with a gun that mysteriously appears during her birthday party (in one of the film’s several hilarious reaction shots, Katy can only offer a shrug at the events).
These conflicting actions don’t make any kind of coherent sense, nor does much of The Visitor, quite frankly. A loose semblance of a story exists but functions as more of a suggestion; what Assonitis and director Guilio Paradisi have created here is really a sandbox for a weirdly star-studded cast to wander in and out of as they please for one outrageous episode after another. It looks as though Glenn Ford will be the film’s hero when he drops in as a detective investigating the strange circumstances surrounding Katy, only he runs into a deranged flock of birds before he can actually accomplish anything. Shelley Winters takes up the mantle in his stead as a nanny who’s inclined to breaking out into nursery rhymes and slapping Katy around. In the vague capacity as a “protector,” she’s remarkably ineffectual, and dropping her character from the film wouldn’t alter the story much at all—though you would lose the sheer delight that is Winters strolling through The Visitor with little regard for whatever the hell is unfolding around her.
Nothing quite captures the madness here better than Huston’s enigmatic overseer. Taking on the ridiculous name “Jerzy Colsowicz,” he’s actually the titular visitor, sent ostensibly to protect the Earth from calamity, yet he spends most of his time hanging out on a roof, plotting some vague counterattack with his army of bald minions. Occasionally—such as when he acts as a babysitter for Katy (which entails playing pong)—he intercedes; more often than not, he’s nonplussed about the fate of the universe. In one of the film’s more sublime sequences, Katy raises hell on a mall ice rink before Jerzy makes a triumphant entrance, complete with a blaring, heroic theme…on an escalator, where he stays for the duration of the assault. Footage of Katy causing boys to trip over themselves on the ice is intercut with Jerzy casually riding an escalator down to do absolutely nothing. There are non-sequiturs, and then there’s The Visitor, a film that simply rewrites the rules of cinema in a garbled, alien code as it goes along.
Unsurprisingly, few were able to meet it on its own trippy terms, including an American distributor that chopped about twenty minutes of its runtime. Just imagining that is unfathomable: The Visitor already has such a clipped, jagged pace that it must be completely indecipherable in any other form. In its intended form, its syncopated rhythm eventually yields an entrancing collection of images captured by Paradisi's manic camera, which zooms, darts, and weaves with stylish abandon: baffling reaction shots, killer ceramic birds, implied extraterrestrial insemination, and Sam Peckinpah wandering in as an abortion doctor for a scene are only a handful of highlights here.
Recent years have been kind to The Visitor, as both Code Red and Drafthouse Films have spearheaded separate movements to release its uncut version upon a world that is perhaps more willing to engage it on its own level. Nothing, truly, can prepare you for The Visitor, though: having seen it twice now, I can say that I felt just as unsuspecting the second time around, especially as its infectious madness washed over the audience at the New Beverly. While The Visitor is indelible even in the comfort of your own home, seeing it with a crowd is vital because it’s the only way you can be sure it’s not a hallucination being broadcast straight to your brain via subliminal airwaves that can only be accessed by the enlightened creatures that produced it.
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