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Schlock & Awe: THE VISITOR

Here at Schlock & Awe, I like to find movies that are as ridiculous as they are awesome. Maybe it’s got a good idea but poor execution, maybe it’s got a good performance or two amid a sea of hams and cheeseballs, or maybe it’s just because naked space vampires are fucked up and hence unmissable. Sometimes, though, the movie is such a gloriously insane mélange of all of these elements and a fair amount of je ne sais quoi and other French terms as well that it almost shouldn’t exist, but I’m insanely happy it does. Today’s movie fits that bill; Drafthouse Films’ newly rediscovered 1978 whacked-out piece of craziness, The Visitor.

There’s been a few movies in my life that I knew categorically I was going to love even before I watched them, and from the first trailer for this late-’70s amalgam of The Omen, The Birds, Close Encounters and funktastic music, I had no doubt I was going to be head-over-heels for it. I’ll tell you right up front: strictly speaking, this Italian-made, Georgia-shot sci-fi/horror movie is not what anyone would call a “good” movie, but it has a sense of style and purpose and, well, just cajones that a fan of this kind of movie can’t help but appreciate.

The film, directed by Giulio Paradisi (under the pseudonym Michael J. Paradise), was shot entirely on location in Atlanta, Georgia which makes the very Italian-looking cinematography all the weirder. If you know anything about late-70s Italian schlock cinema, the texture of the film stock will fit around you like a warm blanket. It’s sort of hazy and yet rich all at the same time. It’s not as vibrant as something like an Argento or a Fulci would do, but it’s unmistakably Roman.

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The film follows (if one can term it that) a Visitor whose name is inexplicably Jerzy Coslowicz, played by the legendary John Huston, an intergalactic warrior whose mission it is to reclaim celestial children born on Earth who’ve become evil. Oh, yeah, evidently, when celestial children are born on Earth, they’re evil. He goes to see Space Jesus, played by Franco Nero, to tell him that the newest such child is about to turn 8 years old. It’s up to Huston to stop her evil without killing her… or something.

The little girl, Katy Collins (played by a girl with a Southern accent named Paige Conner), is the daughter of Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail), a rich divorcee who has vowed never to marry or have any more kids. This irritates her boyfriend, played by Lance Henriksen, a professional basketball coach who desperately wants them to be a real family. Sounds nice, except Henriksen is part of a devil cult run by Barbara’s doctor, Mel Ferrer, that wants to use Katy for their own nefarious means. Also, evidently, Barbara is the one and only woman on the planet who can give birth to these special kids, so Henriksen wants to get it on to perpetuate the evil.

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Early on in the movie, at Katy’s 8th birthday party, Barbara is shot by a gun that nobody saw, wielded by a person nobody knew was there. Weird, right? Now she’s paralyzed and in a wheelchair forever. This was another of the cult’s plans to keep her from running away. In fact, most of the terrible things that happen in this movie happen to Barbara. The poor woman’s only crime is not wanting to give birth to another devil child. She gets forcibly impregnated, shoved through an aquarium, dragged up and down a flight of very uncomfortable-looking stairs, and nearly hanged with a piece of high-test fishing line. I mean, holy crap, guys! What are you saying about motherhood that it has to be so horribly punished?

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A cop (Glenn Ford… I know!) comes to investigate the shooting, and is concerned and confused when nobody who was at the party seems to be able to remember anything about the incident. He comes sniffing around Katy’s school and the little girl tells him, literally, to go fuck himself, which always makes police detectives back off, let me tell ya. He begins to suspect Katy’s otherworldly status, but before he can do much about it, he is attacked while driving by Katy’s omnipresent, yet never fully explained, pet hawk. It claws at his face and pecks at his eyes, and the car goes careening down the streets before finally crashing through a chain link fence, rolling down a hill, and catching fire in a baseball field. The fence traps Ford in the car and he’s engulfed in flames. Wowzers.

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Throughout most of the film, Huston just sort of walks around and watches as Katy does awful and demonic things. Eventually, he shows up to babysit, pretending to be from a service. As they play Pong together (a brand new thing at the time), he tells her he knows what she is and that he wants to take her up to Space Jesus. She, of course, says she’s going to kill him, but I can’t remember any other meeting of good and evil that’s done over a game of Pong. And she cheats, too; what a bitch.

There are two other characters worth pointing out: one is Shelley Winters as Barbara’s new, somewhat clairvoyant housekeeper. She senses the evil inside Katy and does her best to keep Barbara safe. She even helps the Visitor with his benevolent duties. The second is Barbara’s MD ex-husband, played by action director Sam Peckinpah. SAM PECKINPAH! I have no idea why he’s in this movie, nor do I think he really knew. The weird thing about the scenes with Peckinpah is that they were clearly dubbed. Now, most Italian movies were dubbed anyway, owing to not recording live sound so they could sell to whatever market they wanted, but Peckinpah’s are among the only scenes not using live sound, and he’s CLEARLY saying other words, meaning they either totally re-wrote the scenes after they’d shot them, or that Peckinpah was that terrible at remembering lines. Either is perfectly possible.

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At a certain point, the plot really falls apart. For all the ridiculousness and over-the-toppery, the first two thirds of the movie actually hang together rather well. I’m not sure what happened, but with about a half hour left, the scenes don’t contain any real necessity within the story and are really just a series of things happening, not least of which being the “final battle” between Katy and the Visitor, which is just her running around a room full of fun house mirrors and smashing them when the Visitor appears. Sort of a weird pastiche of Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai, actually.

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The actual end of the movie results in Huston calling down a massive flock of pigeons to dispatch Henriksen and the Mel Ferrer gang. I don’t know why this happened. Huston was standing on a roof of a building, making semaphore-like arm movements, which resulted in lights swirling overhead, then all of the sudden there are birds attacking the bad guys. Umm, all right? This is what I’m talking about with the plot falling apart. They did such a good job with the setup that the resolution seems nonsensical by comparison.

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So, The Visitor is just a weird movie, no 2, 3, 4 ways about it, to quote Tarantino. Everything about it baffles me, but in the most interesting and exciting way. How did a kind of no-name Italian director rope all these great actors into being in the movie? Where did he find this actually-frightening little girl who can’t act? What’s the significance of Space Jesus beyond being a Jesus from Space? Who can say? It’s got really striking visuals, an amazingly out-of-place soundtrack, and more half-formed ideas than anything I’ve watched in forever. It’s kind of the schlock cinema-lover’s dream come true.

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