Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Visitor (1978)

"This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producers' purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine." Thus plays the introduction to what I feel is one of the most interesting, outlandish, and downright creepy programs ever broadcast. I'm speaking, of course, about "In Search Of," hosted by Leonard Nimoy and running from the late 1970s into the early 80s. Each show would focus on a particular mysterious subject (the real Sherlock Holmes, etcetera) and posit some of the most insane hypotheses conceivable (the real Sherlock Holmes, etcetera). Whether there was much actual research done or the writers simply smoked a whole lot of something, the show was entertaining, and the recreations they shot on grainy 16mm film used to freak me out as a child. But the bizarre and the unexplained is what people wanted to see, and the quality of films, television programs, books, magazines, etcetera on the subject vacillated from the good, to the bad, to the indifferent. So you just know that the Italians would get involved somehow, some way.

Katy Collins (Paige Conner) is a precocious young girl who strolls around like her crap don't stink, makes things explode, and makes vague threats to her mother, Barbara (Joanne Nail). See, Katy wants mom to marry beau, Ray (Lance Henriksen), and give her a brother (presumably to mate with). You might think that's a bit taboo, but it's really okay, because Katy is possessed by the spirit of Sateen (not to be confused with the fabric of the same name), an evil alien mutant who mated with Earth women to pass on his spirit before being destroyed by a flock of birds trained by his archenemy, the eponymous Visitor (John Huston). The forces of good and evil eventually collide (sort of) over the fate of Barbara's womb and Katy's soul.

Giulio Paradisi's The Visitor (aka Stridulum) is about as New Age and paranormal as a film can get. It presents itself as a science fiction/mystical film, but it is actually a demon possession movie couched in science fiction/mystical tropes. The forces of good and evil herein are not named outright, but they both come from other planets and possess extraordinary powers (sometimes aided by an onscreen adjustable wrench). The good guys wear white (mostly), the bad guys wear black (mostly). But the most important aspect on either side is that they are preoccupied with the concepts of good and evil and the cosmic balance that hangs between the two. The bad guys want to destroy, the good guys want to save (and more specifically want to save a soul). They are, for all intents and purposes, angels and demons. However, religion is never spoken of overtly in the film. Instead, characters are concerned with astrology, stellar light shows, and trucks lit up like the craft in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Sateen is not Satan (or Pazuzu) but a malefic extraterrestrial bent on annihilation. His spirit just happens to inhabit the body of a young girl (sound familiar?).

The concept of evil as something which can be passed on or inherited has been around for years. Fritz Lang's The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse is based on this idea. Eric Red's Body Parts also relies on this notion, though there it is the result of receiving an actual piece of an evil person. The list goes on and on. Here, Katy received Sateen's spirit in her mother's womb. Like The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark, who is bad because her ancestor was a killer who started young and passed on the genes, Katy's knack for misbehavior was forced upon her, as well. With that said, Katy is one of the most obnoxious, slap-worthy characters you will ever see, and you will feel a thrill when Shelley Winters does what you have been dying to do for over an hour.

Katy's misanthropy plays into many adults' pedophobia. Does this fear come from children's' ability to embarrass us due to their lack of social filters? Is it because they haven't yet developed a moral compass (and often don't seem capable of doing so or concerned with its absence)? Is it because they will replace us in time, and we adults want to maintain power for as long as possible (not to mention that this usurpation has been told of in violent terms in myths like those of Electra and Oedipus)? Of course, when a child like Katy actually makes threats and throws things, wounds, and all but kills the parent, there can be little doubt that the maternal power structure is in heated contention. Is it any wonder then that Barbara is completely uninterested in spawning any more progeny?

Since this is an Italian-produced film (courtesy of Ovidio G. Assonitis), you can bank on (and you shall receive) a dearth of logic and enough plot holes to fill the Lincoln Tunnel. Chief among them, and the thing that nagged me worst of all throughout was that no one at all ever does anything about the things Katy gets up to in public. She lays waste to a group of teenage boys at an ice rink, actually sending one flailing through a restaurant window and cracking the skulls of the rest against the rink wall. She habitually knocks out her babysitters so she can play "Pong" in peace. At her birthday party, an "accident" occurs that winds up in disaster. Granted, Glenn Ford makes his brief appearance as a cop investigating the little malcontent, but nothing comes of this, either. You're just waiting for someone to finally wise up and directly step in to take action. That's why Katy's tête-à-tête with Phillips (Winters) is so gratifying, if fleeting.3

The special effects are passable and not much more. There are a lot of composite/matte shots utilizing cloud tank effects for roiling clouds. They do what they need to do, but it seems to me the elements were all lit differently (most discernibly in the shots of Huston, which never appear to be lit from the correct direction), thus undercutting a full suspension of disbelief. The finale contains some of the funniest animal effects you may ever witness. The film is shot well enough (and there are even some very nice compositions here and there) for the most part. However, action scenes are blocked and edited confusingly, and while you'll get the overall thrust of the scene, you'll be hard pressed to actually describe what you saw. 

The writing (credited in part to Assonitis and Paradisi) is confused and ultimately confusing, with the writers throwing just about everything they could at the screen and then hoping that some moderately thoughtful visuals would be enough to pacify the audience. Thus, the film starts off intriguingly and ends up a mess, buried under the weight of its ambitions (though I hesitate to use that word, because it feels more like simply a desire to shoehorn as much as the filmmakers could into a feature film). Nonetheless, the cast is loaded with talent and, frankly, better than the material deserves. I recall an interviewer asking Assonitis how he got such monumental actors in his cheap genre movies. He said he paid them. At one point, the Visitor tells Barbara that her confusion has been transmitted to her "from another time, another place." That's kind of how I look at my DVD of The Visitor.

MVT: The cast is stellar, and they really give it their all. It's a shame they couldn't appear in something a little more coherent and worthwhile.

Make or Break: The birthday scene, while being characteristically baffling in its presentation, does have a nice twist that I genuinely did not see coming.

Score: 6/10


  1. wow. haven't heard of this one before. am interested now.

  2. If you've ever seen an Assonitis production, you know what to expect. If you haven't, gird yourself for incoherence. Enjoy, and thanks for reading!