The Visitor – Italy/USA, 1978

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‘They know we are here.’

The Visitor – aka Stridulum – is a 1978 Italian/American science fiction horror film directed by Giulio Paradisi (Michael J. Paradise) from a screenplay by Luciano Comici and Robert Mundi, based on a story by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (Beyond the Door, Piranha II: The Spawning, Madhouse).

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Main cast:

John Huston, Shelley Winters (Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?Tentacles), Mel Ferrer (Nightmare City), Glenn Ford (Happy Birthday to Me), Lance Henriksen (Mansion of the Doomed, The Horror Show, Alien vs. Predator), Joanne Nail, Paige Conner and, in a cameo role, director Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs).

The film’s funky soundtrack score was composed by Franco Micalizzi (Black Demons; The Curse (1987); Beyond the Door, plus a host of ’70s Italian cop thrillers).

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Plot:

A young girl with telekinetic powers is the focus of a battle between good and evil. Katy Collins (Paige Conner) is no ordinary eight year-old girl. Indeed, she is unique, carrying within her the power of Sateen, an inter-spacial force of immense magnitude.

Katy’s primary mission on earth is to carry these genes forward, a task accomplished by convincing her mother, Barbara (Joanne Nail) to bear a similarly endowed male child with whom Katy would eventually mate…

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Review:

It’s one of the Italian occult films of the 1970s that shows just how far removed from the source material a copycat film could go. On paper, The Visitor, made in 1979, is a copy of The Omen. Or maybe Carrie. Or The Fury. Or The Exorcist. Or even Rosemary’s Baby. And so you can see the confusion right away. Because the film takes elements from all these films and their imitators and sequels, as well as a bunch of other less well-known US movies, throws in a spot of Jodorowsky and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, stirs them all together and then throws the whole chaotic mess onto the screen, performed by a genuinely strange cast that includes Franco Nero apparently playing Jesus Christ and no less than two legendary and controversial Hollywood movie directors in acting roles.

Franco Nero in The Visitor (1979)

It comes as no surprise that The Visitor rarely makes much sense, and sometimes becomes entirely incoherent. It’s wildly overlong and often looks as though it is being made up as it goes along. Characters are introduced and then either killed off or forgotten about, the bombastic main theme appears seemingly at random and the movie sometimes stops to allow strange visual effect set pieces.

The film ends and then carries on anyway for several more minutes, presumably because someone had forgotten about one important character who needs to make another appearance, and John Huston wanders through the film with the bemused smile of a man who wonders how he got from directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to appearing in this sort of thing.

This film is entirely compelling, both as a visual experience, a hallucinogenic trip and a fascinating folly. At no point does it ever become dull; quite the opposite in fact. The longer the film goes on, the less sense it makes and the more fascinating an experience it is. This isn’t a ‘so bad it’s good’ film as much as a ‘so weird it’s great’ one.

In case it didn’t sink in earlier, it’s worth repeating – it has Franco Nero in a blonde wig as Jesus Christ! He opens the film, telling a bunch of bald kids the tale of the evil Sateen (which I think we can safely say is Satan), essentially reinventing Christianity as a space opera. Audacious stuff. It turns out that before Sateen was killed by holy birds destroying his brain, he managed to impregnate a handful of women. It’s their progeny and descendants that now sit, ageless, at his feet.

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And it seems there is another one to deal with, eight-year-old Katy (Paige Conner), the daughter of Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail). Barbara is being groomed by a bunch of Sateenists, led by Dr Walker (Mel Ferrer), who want her to marry basketball executive Raymond Armstead (Lance Henricksen) and give birth to a male child who can then mate with Katy and bring about some unspecified event. John Huston is Jerzy Colsowicz, who Jesus has sent to stop this and bring Katy to him for salvation. This apparently involves him watching things from a distance and doing little to prevent Katy’s increasing reign of terror as she develops her powers and becomes an extremely potty-mouthed Bad Seed.

Soon, Mom has been ‘accidentally’ shot in the back and paralysed, and Shelly Winters has arrived as housekeeper Jane Phillips, a sort of holy Mrs Baylock from The Omen. Glenn Ford is on hand as a police detective investigating the shooting who comes to a sticky end, and cult director Sam Peckinpah pops up as Barbara’s ex-husband for no good reason beyond someone realising that hell, we can get Sam Peckinpah in this thing!

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As stated earlier, Huston seems pretty bewildered by the whole thing, but still delivers his dialogue with authority, and that’s the strangest aspect of the movie – all the actors are on top form, giving fine performances despite clearly having no idea whatsoever what is going on. It’s an amazing cast for what is essentially an Italian copycat film, and no one seems to be slumming it. And that’s the weirdest aspect of the film – it has so much that is genuinely good, from the performances to the visuals – dated now of course, but often so strange and trippy that they remain extremely effective.

Plus, director Giulio Paradisi (under the unconvincing name Michael J. Paradise) fills the movie with fantastic moments. There’s a scene in a hall of mirrors that ends with a shot of Katy reflected in several broken mirrors, her various reflections seeming to represent aspects of her broken psyche, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The film is full of such little flourishes, alongside some impressive action / horror set pieces and the afore-mentioned psychedelic visual moments where Huston hops between… planets? Dimensions? It’s never made clear, but it looks fantastic while it happens.

How much of the film’s incoherence is intentional and how much accidental is hard to tell. By all accounts, Paradisi wasn’t much interested in the story, preferring a handful of moments he’d conceived that had to be weaved into the narrative – the writing credit goes to Luciano Comici and Robert Mundi, from a story by Paradisi and producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (who had previously directed the disposable Exorcist copy Beyond the Door, which became an inexplicably huge hit in the USA and opened doors for him to make star-studded movies like this, backed with American finance) – whether any of these people worked hand in hand, or simply came up with a series of unconnected ideas that then had to be strung together is anyone’s guess.

It’s worth remembering that this film was made at a time when Italian horror was at its most stylised and free-form – it came in the wake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which also took a slight story and used it to hang amazing visual imagery on. But while Suspiria‘s story was minimal, it still made sense. The Visitor rarely does. In the end though, that hardly matters, because the film is strangely addictive and fascinating – you don’t really need to know exactly what is going on to be drawn into the sheer hallucinatory madness of it all..

The Visitor manages to be both awful and superb at the same time. It’s derivative as hell and entirely original – unquestionably the most entertainingly delirious example of Italian copycat cinema spiralling out of control that you’ll ever see. It’s a conundrum of a film that is cinema at its most not-giving-a-f*ckness. As such, it really should be the next film you seek out to watch. And if for some reason you still have the inclination to dismiss Italian genre imitations from the 1970s and 80s, then perhaps consider again – you’re missing out on one of the weirdest, wildest and more unrestrainedly mad films ever made.

David Flint, HORRORPEDIA

Other reviews:

” …feints towards the tired horror sub-genre, but instead goes for something much grander and bizarre.  The film fearlessly bounces back between sinister B-movie and an operatic cross between extraterrestrial science-fiction and biblical inspirations.  Paradise can’t always escape the tediousness of his nefarious and diminutive villain, but nothing can overcome the exalted presence of John Huston playing God.” Matt Goldberg, Collider

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Mount Everest of insane ’70s Italian movies. Yes, there’s plenty of stiff competition out there with all the eccentric cash-ins on Hollywood hits like Tentacles‘ octopus vs. killer whale  showdown or Starcrash‘s tinker toy space antics. But nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the delirium of this inscrutable mash-up…” Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital

‘For a movie this bizarrely random and narratively misshapen, it does have a lot of rather slick flourishes in the cinematography and special effects departments. The opening sequence, for example, doesn’t make much sense but it is truly creepy. For the most part, however, The Visitor is a bit more fun to laugh “at” than to shiver “with.” The truly eclectic cast and the steady stream of weird moments prevent the film from ever becoming dull — and the score is an absolute riot.’ FEAR net

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“Some movies are so strange that they have to be seen, regardless of quality. The Visitor, featuring one of the greatest casts in exploitation film history, has some pretty special moments. It’s not good by most measures, but it’s crazy and funny enough for two solidly entertaining hours.” Daryl Loomis, DVD Verdict

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“Just when you think you’ve nailed down which direction the film is heading in, it completely shatters your notion of the time-space continuum with enough force to rival a thousand screenings of Zabriskie Point. If you miss out on this one, then you have as much regard for cinema as you do for a discarded toenail clipping.” The Cinefamily

‘Holy crap Franco Micalizzi’s score is utterly fantastic and better than Earth deserves. It’s epic and galaxy dwarfing and in complete denial about the nonsense unfolding on screen.’ Kindertrauma

Cast and characters:

  • Mel Ferrer … Dr. Walker
  • Glenn Ford … Det. Jake Durham
  • Lance Henriksen … Raymond Armstead
  • John Huston … Jerzy Colsowicz
  • Joanne Nail … Barbara Collins
  • Sam Peckinpah … Dr. Sam Collins
  • Shelley Winters … Jane Phillips
  • Paige Conner … Katy Collins
  • Ja Townsend
  • Jack Dorsey
  • Johnny Popwell … AAA Mechanic
  • Wallace Wilkinson … Police Captain
  • Steve Somers
  • Lou Walker … AAA Mechanic
  • Walter Gordon Sr. … Thomas
  • Hsio Ho Chao
  • Calvin Embry … Hot Dog Man
  • Betty Turner … Receptionist
  • Steve Cunningham … Jerzy’s Assistant
  • Neal Bortz … Businessman
  • Jack H. Gordon … Businessman
  • Steve Beizer … Basketball Coach
  • Bill Ash … Businessman
  • Charles Hardnett … Basketball Coach
  • Joe Dorsey … Sheriff Paul Townsend
  • Bart Russell … Skating rink patron
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar … Himself [uncredited]
  • Dave Hinchberger … Basketball game patron [uncredited]
  • Franco Nero … Jesus Christ [uncredited]
  • Aron Siegel … Hot dog stand customer [uncredited]

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