Friday, October 31, 2014

The Visitor (1979)

"You want my advice, old man? Go back to wherever you came from. This world is not for you."
"It's not for you either, kid."

Oh, Italy. Other countries may make completely bonkers horror movies, but my heart is ever with you. Even when you film in America and fill your cast with over-the-hill American movie stars, that Italian flavour is impossible to deny. The Visitor has it all: dazzling camera gymnastics, psychedelic coloured lights, Franco Nero in a blonde wig as Alien Jesus, a story that rips off two movies from seemingly incompatible genres (The Omen - or more specifically, Damien: Omen II - and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) while remaining its own incomprehensible beast, bizarre death scenes, the lazy use of repeated footage, a soundtrack that goes gloriously over the top at the slightest provocation, under-cranked footage of someone going crazy in a wheelchair, etc. A Japanese director like Nobuhiko Ôbayashi will make something as insane as Hausu on purpose, but Italian directors like Giulio Paradisi (working here under the amazing pseudonym Michael J Paradise) will turn out a movie like The Visitor as an attempt at producing a mainstream hit.

I would like to programme a double feature of The Visitor and Star Crash and then sit at the back of the theatre watching people's heads explode. Anyone who survives will be treated to a screening of Messiah of Evil, probably the closest any US movie has come to this sort of sweaty-lipped delirium.

The great genre movie director Luigi Cozzi (Star Crash, Contamination) once claimed that Italian producers wouldn't ask "What is your movie like?" but rather, "What movie is your movie like?" Because of this, Italian genre movies are particularly derivative in terms of story, often going so far as to label themselves as sequels to unrelated movies. In this grand tradition, The Visitor over-achieves by ripping off several earlier movies simultaneously without any regard as to whether they're compatible in any way. The main inspirations at play are Damien: Omen II (a Devil Child resists manipulation by a shadowy business cabal; both movies feature Lance Henriksen as a conspirator and unlikely "accidental" deaths), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (semi-benevolent alien invaders) and God Told Me To (God and Jesus were aliens). The Visitor features ideas and imagery from all three, tosses in some avian menaces from The Birds, and emerges as its own completely deranged beast.

Many of the most entertaining scenes involve John Huston as the leader of the aliens. After a lovely dream-like sequence in a desert, where he sees a vision of the evil child, his every appearance is accompanied by a bombastic and wholly inappropriate action-movie theme. Huston was in his '70s by the time of The Visitor so I guess just climbing the stairs may well have counted for him as strenuous action. In any case, he is absolutely marvelous here, committing wholeheartedly to his role and selling some of the movie's more bizarre dialogue. His scenes with young Paige Conner, who also excels playing the sinister little girl at the heart of the movie, are especially entertaining and Huston manages to come off just the right side of creepy when he presents himself as a babysitter from "the agency".

The story involves a secret cabal of power-hungry old white men lead by Mel Ferrer who want Lance Henrikson to impregnate Joanne Nail (star of the incredible Switchblade Sisters) so they can have two super-powered evil children to help them control the world. John Huston and Franco Nero (uncredited but seemingly playing Jesus) are trying to stop this, with the help of an army of bald children lurking on the roof of a skyscraper in Atlanta, Georgia. Glenn Ford as a police detective attempts to figure out what's going on, and slap-happy Shelly Winters knows what's going on and seems to be the only one immune to Paige Conner's evil powers for some reason. Oddest of all, Sam Peckinpah stops by briefly (badly dubbed with someone else's voice) as Nail's doctor ex-husband.

Compared to many movies in the "devil child" subgenre, The Visitor is quite restrained in terms of violence. It's more at the High Weirdness end of the scale, so there is no rending of flesh. Apparently Shelly Winters slapped Paige O'Connor for real, but that's the limits of it, except for a wee bit of Fulci-style bleeding from the eyes.

I would highly, highly recommend The Visitor to anyone who enjoys the weird-shit end of the Italian horror spectrum. From the basketball shenanigans at the start to the 2001-style cosmic trippiness near the end, from Franco Nero's particularly resplendent facial hair to Joanne Nail's wheelchair hysteria, from bald children to ceramic bird attacks, this movie gives you all you want from Italian horror plus the bonus of slumming old-time Hollywood stars who seem unsure of how seriously to take themselves.

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