It’s not so common that I have the pleasure of watching a film of this kind from this era for the very first time but be assured The Visitor is anything but a common experience. I had been eyeing this cult obscurity up for some time under the alternative title of Stridulum via Code Red in the USA when I heard the fantastic news that Arrow were releasing it on Region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray over here for the first time. The trailer had been doing the rounds and had left people saying how they simply had to see this once they had picked their jaws up off the floor and as far as the complete movie is concerned you are in for one hell of a psychotronic viewing experience with this one.
Director Giulio Paradisi only actually made five films, The Visitor (1979) being the Italian’s third. I can’t say I know any of the others and they appear to be comedy orientated although Spaghetti House (1982) would certainly be of interest set around the Knightsbridge restaurant siege of 1975. Italian genre fans will however be much more au fait with the film’s original writer Ovidio G. Assonitis who was responsible for involvement as director / producer on many a classic including Beyond The Door, Tentacles and Piranha 2 There is absolutely nothing obscure about the cast list of The Visitor, it is absolutely fantastic and includes Franco Nero, Mel Ferrer, Lance Henriksen, Glenn Ford, John Houston, Shelly Winters and even Sam Peckinpah in one of his rarer in front of camera forays. If that doesn’t make you intrigued nothing will.
We start off in very psychedelic scenes on an alien planet and the convoluted story is somewhat explained. Apparently a really evil alien ended up on earth and impregnated lots of women before finally being killed. It is the children of these women that have special powers and must be hunted down and the women themselves must be prevented from getting pregnant again. There are two sides, an evil corporate one who want to propagate the species and another strange cult like outfit who want to stop it spreading and protect those already affected. That is it in a nutshell and although many look upon the film as nonsensical and beyond comprehension it really is not that difficult to follow at all, even on a first viewing. Those who sat through the likes of Liquid Sky (1982) and early Jodorwosky efforts should find it a breeze. Speaking of Jodorowsky he is one of the many film makers I am reminded of here. The good side all played in white and with all the children completely bald and a picture of innocence, are looked over by the cultish figure of Franco Nero (perfect for the role). His part although unbilled is credited as Christ and you can take it on board that he is and the evil alien is the Devil, or that this is simply that age old tale of good vs evil. It drew a lot of parallels to both other films and literature; I had actually by chance just finished reading Arthur C Clarke’s classic Childhood’s End which resonated deeply here.
On a more earthbound plane things centre on Katy (Paige Connor) a spunky eight year old child of obvious origins, her mother Barbara (Joanne Mail) and her would be suitor basketball coach Raymond (Lance Henriksen). You do at first wonder why you are watching so much of a basketball match in a scene far too long for its own good (I guess they had the means so were going to milk it) but it is to set up the premise that Katy is far from normal and displays telekinetic prowess that fans of films such as The Omen (obviously a huge influence), The Fury, Carrie and later Scanners would all certainly find common ground with. At Katy’s birthday party a bird ornament (and birds are very important to the film to the extent that the girl has a familiar guardian of a bird of prey on the loose at home) turns into a gun when its packaging is opened. She throws this on a table and it goes off crippling her mum in the process. Naturally the police get involved and the floodgates are opened as more and more strange incidents occur.
The precocious charm of Katy is part of the films driving force at one point she is being quizzed by watching police detective Jack Durham (Glenn Ford) about whether there’s something she wants to tell him to which without flinching she replies “yeah, go fuck yourself.” Add to the plot the benevolent and helpful, not quite what he seems, watcher Jerzy (John Houston) and astrological nut, child disliking housekeeper Jane (Shelly Winters) and you really do have a fantastic cast, none of whom try to overplay each other but work in a coordinated effort to really give the film a hugely colourful and well-acted presence.
It’s not just the players that drive things along. The house where Katy and Barbara live is an opulent 70’s delight, state of the art and full of character itself. Lovers of retro video games are going to be in their element within it too as it showcases the highest technology of the era in all their glory. Not just within the house but outside it as well, the camera gives things a very futuristic look adding to the sci-fi premise of the picture but adding a lot of symmetry to things too. There’s a long endless escalator sequence for example that is riveting and at other times you are floored by sudden shots of garish nature. Another thing that has to be mentioned is Franco Micalizzi’s amazing score. It’s over the top, strident and really dramatic, spurring on the action and penetrating the senses. It reminds me of the sort of themes that would be used in a lot of the big hit TV series of the time such as The Six Million Dollar Man and things of that ilk and indeed at times the film as a whole looks like it could be an extended episode of such a series, full of mystery and intrigue.
The Visitor is very much an experience and one that had me enthralled and on the edge of my seat. Despite the earlier references which are obvious, it is also a unique and hallucinatory viewing experience with scenes that are bound to linger long after viewed. It’s definitely not a one watch film either and once the dust has settled I am going to be really keen to view it again and see if there is anything I did not pick up on first time round.
Having written the review now I can go on to see what further insight the extras will give me. For once I am pleased to see that these are brief, I think anything in depth would ruin the mystique of the film and it is one that should not be explained to the viewer but left for them to make their own sense about it and its message (if indeed it even has one). What we get are three short interviews with Lance Henriksen, Screenwriter Lou Comici and Cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri. Henriksen should need no introduction having starred in countless films and series both big and small. Starting out with the words “I really hope you have seatbelts as you are going to need them to watch this movie,” I had to laugh as I almost used that very line in my review. He is not kidding as he goes on to mention difficulties with the illogical approach of the film, having no idea what he was really doing. Things were all the more confounding as the crew were all talking Italian and as for the director who had worked with Fellini, apparently he was frantic and really trying to make his own mark on things, which it has to be said he certainly did. Anecdotes of seeing the film on 42nd Street are amusing and yeah I still don’t understand the original poster art of for that matter the title Stridulum. Obviously one person the film had an effect on was Zola Jesus who named an EP and album after it.
Scriptwriter Comici was apparently given the spec of writing a rip-off of The Exorcist and apart from starring a girl of around Reagan’s age he covered his tracks pretty well here as this was not a film I immediately thought of in comparison. He also had to rein in the ‘out there’ director who really must have been a character to work with. Some of the director’s original ideas were certainly eccentric and would have made the film even more obtuse and bewildering. It sounds like Comici had a right ding-dong on his hands when it came to tethering him and making anything resembling a coherent plot. Guarnieri at least didn’t suffer the ignominy of having his contribution flung out the window by the director like the script was. In fact he seems to have only praise for him and the professional cast. It’s a short segment but does give a brief insight into editing, effects and filming some of the stunts in the film.
Misunderstood it may have been but The Visitor is a fantastic film and one that looks sharp and sounds pumped up and full of adrenaline well defying its age 35 years after it was made. Huge kudos to Arrow for giving this a new lease of life and I have to say it is probably the best film of its time that I had never seen before and a real gem that I simply cannot urge anyone not to seek out and see for themselves. Unlike the 42st Street punter who shouted loudly that he wanted his money back part way into it, hopefully anyone discovering this now will see it as the remarkable piece of celluloid it is. Sit back and enjoy the surreal trip!