The Visitor (1979) (Blu-ray)

They know we are here.After knocking everyone’s socks off with Miami Connection, the folks at Drafthouse Films are at it again, unearthing another unknown movie oddity and releasing for cult movie fans to rediscover. This time, it’s 1979’s head-spinner, The Visitor.

I have no idea how I’m going to describe the plot of this one, but I’ll try. Katy (Paige Connor) is an eight-year-old girl living with her parents in Atlanta. She has explosive psychic powers—of sorts—and she may or may not be evil. A mysterious man from another planet (John Huston, Candy) has taken an interest in Katy, following her around menacingly. Katy’s father (Lance Henriksen, Aliens) has regular meetings with a group of men who have plans for Katy. Katy’s mother (Joanne Nail, Switchblade Sisters) was recently confined to a wheelchair and begins to suspect something’s up with Katy.

Also, Jesus is in this movie.

Science fiction/fantasy and the whole counter-culture thing have often had strange parallels. Sci-fi heroes explore outer space in their metal ships, while hippies explore outer space with their recreational substances. Knights and wizards storm giant castles to overthrow dark empires, while protestors hope to overthrow the establishment not with swords and arrows but with flowers and love-ins. Sense of wonder imagery of alien worlds and magical creatures aligns with psychedelic bead and graffiti art. And so on.

Before Star Wars brought space opera into the mainstream in the big way, the late ’60s and early ’70s were the glory days of psychedelic sci-fi. There’s the head-trip ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the nature-versus-machines theme of Silent Running, the youthful ideals of Logan’s Run, the in-your-face feminism of Invasion of the Bee Girls, and the overall trippiness of The Man Who Fell to Earth, among many, many others. With this in mind, 1979’s The Visitor may very well be the last great psychedelic science-fiction film (Dune doesn’t count).

There’s no describing The Visitor, you just have to see it for yourself. There’s just enough of a plot so that it’s not all weird imagery for the sake of weird imagery, but the weird imagery is so out there and pervasive that viewers will lose the plot. It’s just the right level of weird. We begin in the desert, where Huston’s character confronts Katy, and blizzard starts blowing around them. How? Why? We’re never told. Then we meet the one and only Jesus Christ, played by Italian superstar Franco Nero (the original Django), who sits down with a bunch of children and tells them a parable about an outer space hero, which maybe refers to Hudson’s character and is maybe setting up the plot. Then we finally get to Earth, for Katy and “evil kid” antics like out of The Omen. The incident that lands Katy’s mother in a wheelchair is so crazy and shocking I had to stop and question if what I just saw was really what I just saw.

Yes, the movie is out there, but it’s nonetheless a narrative, so I must do the critic thing and evaluate it as such. The biggest problem with the story is that I have no idea who Katy is as a character. In some scenes, she’s the every-kid, blissfully unaware of all the supernatural craziness happening around her. In other scenes, however, she’s full-on evil, using her psychic powers to terrorize others. At other times, she seems totally aware of all the outer space plots surrounding her, and can talk the sci-fi talk with the adults. There’s just no consistency to her character.

Katy’s parents are the closest thing the movie has to having relatable characters. As you follow them through the film, there’s this ongoing feeling of dread, as they’re mostly unaware of all the plots and spacey weirdness happening around them. Katy’s mom is especially a victim, unaware of how much she’s being manipulated and how much danger she’s in. It’s suspense, but a different kind of suspense. Instead of wondering how she’s going to get out of it, we instead wonder how much worse it will get for her. Henriksen is likable as well, even as his character knows more than he lets on, thanks to secret meetings with a room full of suit-wearing conspirators. Henriksen has this ability to come across as likable even though he often plays dark, tortured characters, and that’s the case in the movie as well.

As for the rest of the cast, Huston makes for an imposing presence, which is all the story really requires of him. Film legend Glenn Ford (The Big Heat) barely registers in a stock role of a detective, as does Mel Ferrer (The Longest Day) as a doctor. There’s a cameo from a barely lucid Sam Peckinpah (director of The Wild Bunch) in a scene that goes nowhere. Oh, and Shelley Winters (The Night of the Hunter) is in this movie, too, playing a housekeeper who’s convinced that Katy is evil. Winters takes the part super-serious, as if thinking this will be her next Oscar.

I know I’m being quite negative about The Visitor, what with it being obtuse and frustrating and all, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects of it to enjoy as well. Chief among these is the movie’s sense of visual style. Director Giulio Paradisi, credited onscreen as “Michael Paradise,” brings that cool ’70s Italian cinema vibe to the film in a big way. The outer space scenes are the most visually inventive, but the rest of the movie is slick as well. Notice the contrasting back-and-forth shots of Katy excelling at gymnastics while her mother is hospitalized and unable to walk. I especially like the ice skating scene, where Katy deals with some bullies while on the ice. Between the camera work and the choreography, the entire scene is half dance and half brutal beatdown, and it’s great.

Let’s not forget the birds. The Visitor is filled with bird-related imagery, including one of the movie’s most talked-about scenes, in which a character is attacked by a falcon. The falcon is practically a main character, as there are numerous shots cutting back to it at important moments, and its screeching squawks, although a little annoying, are part of the signature “sound” of the movie. Moreover, the falcon and the other birds act as symbols, or at least warnings, of evil. Perhaps we are to equate birds’ ability to fly with the aliens’ ability to traverse the cosmos, or perhaps birds are far enough removed from human familiarity that they bring an element of the unknown into the characters’ lives. Either way, whenever there are birds, bad things happen.

The visual quality on The Visitor (Blu-ray) is hit or miss. A lot of the brighter, more colorful indoor scenes really pop, but outdoor scenes are more flat and are occasionally marred with flecks and scratches. The DTS audio, despite being mono, fares much better. This is one of those movies that has long stretches of silence punctuated by big bursts of sound, and those bursts really boom to life, filling the room with immersive sound. For bonus features, we have interviews with Henriksen, co-writer Lou Comici and cinematographer Ennio Guarieri. All three agree that the production was absolute chaos and that they have no idea what to make of the final product. The accompanying sixteen-page booklet contains an interview with producer/co-writer Ovidio Assontis, who reminisces more favorably about the film. The disc also features the theatrical trailer.

• Creepy, ominous John Huston shows up at Katy’s house and tells her parents he’s the babysitter the agency sent over—and they believe him!
• Katy uses her powers at a basketball game to make a ball explode in the last few seconds of a tie game, and we never go back to that. Was anyone hurt?
• Who are all those clone/lookalike guys on the rooftop? What was that about?

The Visitor is critic-proof. It’s not a good movie by any means, but it’s really, really interesting. Check it out.

The Verdict

Not guilty, or as not guilty as ancient intergalactic evil can get, at least.

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