During the 1970s, international film producer Ovidio G. Assonitis was known for his attempts at re-creating Hollywood box office gold with several Italian made efforts which were blatant rip-offs. BEYOND THE DOOR (1974) was a highly successful EXORCIST clone, while TENTACLES (1977) took its inspiration from JAWS. However, THE VISITOR (1979) takes elements derivative of a number of impressionable American films (including THE BIRDS, THE OMEN, THE FURY and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), but the end results are not so much a carbon copy, but rather an over-the-top, unique melding of science fiction and horror that is arguably Assontis’ best work in terms of entertainment value.
An aging being from another world (or somewhere that’s not Earth) travels to our green planet (Atlanta, Georgia, to be exact), using the name Jerzy Colsowicz (John Huston). His mission is an intervention, to save an eight year old girl named Katy Collins (Paige Conner), who is not only evil in nature, but has special telekinetic powers, mostly used destructively. Katy’s divorced mother Barbara (Joanne Nail) is dating successful basketball team owner Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen), who wants to marry her and have her bear a child, something which she is not willing to do. Barbara’s ability to bear these “gifted” children is recognized by a power conglomerate run by Dr. Walker (Mel Ferrer), and they’re disappointed with Raymond’s failure to follow through on their master plan.
During Katy’s birthday party, a wrapped box which is believed to shell a toy bird actually hides a loaded pistol; in Katy’s eager hands, a bullet is triggered and thrust into mom’s back. Barbara's accident (she's left paralyzed and wheelchair-bound) was part of the conglomerate's plan to make her more vulnerable in the hopes of giving in to marriage and having a child, but again, she wants no part of it. Dr. Walker takes a different approach, abducting poor Barbara when her car breaks down off the highway late one night, impregnating her while she’s out cold. Not knowing what has happened, she is told by Jerzy (who first enters her life in the guise of Katy’s agency babysitter!) of her being with child, which he claims must not be born, as he continues his efforts to save Katy’s soul by taking her back with him (to wherever he came from).
This plot synopsis may not make sense to you, and keep in mind, there’s a lot more than what was just described in the far from linear story (apparently the script had a number of hands involved, including the producer, director and some of the actors). It make take more than one viewing to fully understand, but the complex structure of THE VISITOR (known in Italy as “Stridulum”) is actually coherent, if you allow it to be, and it’s an ambitious tale of good vs. evil with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. Like with TENTACLES, the film features an incredible, all-star cast of mostly Hollywood legends, and believe it or not, none of them appear to be sleepwalking through their roles. John Huston is well seasoned as the angel/savior character, and only appears embarrassed with the material when he’s grimacing in front of cheesy blue screen cosmic effects.
Shelley Winters (who had just played Huston’s “older” sister in TENTACLES) portrays a housemaid who’s sort of a guardian for Barbara (she knows of Katy’s evil nature, as she had “one of her own”), Glenn Ford is the police detective desperate for answers after Barbara's unfortunate shooting “accident” (his attack by a hawk while driving, and the subsequent mass of crashing stunts is a sight to behold) and Franco Nero is a Christ-like figure (in a David St. Hubbins Spinal Tap wig) who moralizes in front of a community of bald children, while setting up the story for the sure-to-be confused audience (most of Nero’s scenes were removed from the U.S. version). The strangest bit of casting is director Sam Peckinpah, in a cameo as Barbara’s ex husband, an aging doctor working in a clinic/hospital. Peckinpah couldn’t remember his lines correctly, and as you’ll witness, his voice was dubbed by another actor.
But even with all the big names in tow (Henriksen was still a few years away from international stardom), the female leads in Paige Conner and Joanne Nail are most impressive, and thankfully are involved with the disc’s extras. With her natural Georgian accent, Conner plays one of the most hateful, brattiest and foulmouthed little antichrists ever on screen, and she had good on-screen chemistry with Houston in particular. Nail (who you might remember from Jack Hill’s SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) is equally good as the strong-willed, but naïve Barbara, and you’ll be hard pressed to find another female movie character who takes so much physical abuse within the course of two hours. The film was made in and around Atlanta (with some interiors done in Italy), and makes great use of the city, including such landmarks as Underground Atlanta and an abandoned warehouse, the roof of which doubles as Jerzy’s headquarters. The music by Franco Micalizzi has to be one of the most over-scored movies of all time. It’s not that it’s bad (it’s actually quite eccentric, loud and very Euro), it’s just the way it over emphasizes certain scenes is almost comical.
Code Red DVD presents THE VISITOR for the first time in the U.S. in its uncut 108-minute form, which doubtless we’ll be more coherent for those who’Ave only seen it in a truncated version. The film is presented widescreen in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and looks excellent. Colors are vividly reproduced and rich in texture, picture detail is sharp throughout, and there is nothing in terms of dirt and debris on display. The English language is presented in a mono track, with the original source material containing some slight, unaffecting scratchiness in parts, but dialog always comes out fine, as does the aforementioned music score.
Code Red has furnished THE VISITOR with two audio commentaries. Actress Joanne Nail is joined by moderator Marc Edward Heuck, as she goes into detail about her character, working with the other actors (sharing some great bits about her screen time with Peckinpah) and writing pieces of dialog with Henriksen when needed (the commentary is a good one that stays focused on the film throughout). The other track has actress Paige Conner joined by moderators Scott Speigel and Jeff Burr, as she discusses her getting cast in the film in Atlanta, her working relationships with the filmmakers and the actors (she didn’t get on well with Winters but got on great with Huston), and all the fun stuff they make a child actress go through when making a wild film like this. Conner and Nail also share their thoughts on the featurette, "Revisiting The Visitor," where Assonitis shows up briefly, as does the film's Atlanta production manager Stratton Leopold (who relays a humorous anecdote about the way Assonitis stashed the cash to bankroll the film). The Cannes promotional trailer for the film, as well as trailers for various other Code Red DVD releases rounds out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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