Blu-ray Review: The Visitor

Starring: John Huston, Lance Henriksen, Glenn Ford
Director: Giulio Paradisi (as Michael J. Paradise)
Rating: 6/10

the-visitor 1Whatever you think of The Visitor (1979) as a whole, you’ve got to love the first few minutes. We start with a character who might be an Old Testament prophet (hey look, it’s John Huston!) peering into a swirl of peach-coloured clouds, whence emerges another figure, which lowers its hood to reveal a face grotesquely covered in a crust of snow and ice. Cut to a futuristic sci-fi Jesus (hey look, it’s Franco Nero in a wavy blond wig!), having a Jackanory moment with a bunch of baldy children, and laying out an extravagant cosmic-theological backstory to do with the forces of good and an evil mutant called Zatine who in times past went about knocking up Earth women with his cursed seed. By now you’re muttering, “Zardos!” under your breath. Where do you go after an opener like that?

How about Atlanta, Georgia? Er, do we have to? Seems we do, because this is the home town of Barbara Collins (heythe-visitor 3 look, it’s… no, don’t know her), who carries Zatine’s genes and who has already given birth to one demon child, little Katy (Paige Connor). But as if that weren’t enough, there’s a plot afoot to get her impregnated again, this time with a boy child. However, she’ll be lucky to last that long, because Katy – a spoilt, obnoxious brat who gets away with having the kind of potty mouth that sees Regan in The Exorcist sent to bed and sprinkled with holy water – really seems to have it in for poor old mum. Confined to a wheelchair after she gets accidentally shot in the back when a gun turns up mysteriously at Katy’s eighth birthday party, Barbara is only too happy to welcome the assistance of a housekeeper (hey, look, it’s Shelley Winters!) and a babysitter in a wrinkled safari suit (hey, look it’s John Huston again!).

the-visitor 2And hey look, it’s Glenn Ford, playing an inquisitive cop investigating the shooting. All of these big names are used shamelessly for their instant recognizability and given little or no opportunity to act, but Ford is treated with particular shabbiness – sworn at by Katy (she tells Glenn Ford to go eff himself!) and then bundled off to have his eyes pecked out and endure a hideous, lingering death in a burning car. Meanwhile, Huston swans around like the Man from Del Monte, while the evil committee has another go at getting Barbara preggers and more craziness ensues.

The Visitor doesn’t quite live up to the kitsch promise of the early scenes – it seems to the-visitor 4run out of ideas, or perhaps the producer and director didn’t have the budget to indulge themselves as they would have liked – but it’s fun, in an incoherent, slapdash The Omen-meets-Superman-meets-Carrie-meets-Demon Seed kind of way (there’s even a cheekily overt nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). In the end, you’re not quite sure what the plan was, but hey, you can see a film that makes sense any day of the week; how many movies can you name that include a death by pigeon? A couple of the stunts are decently handled as well, including an eerily real-looking sequence where Katy drags Barbara up the stairs by her ankles and knocks her down again. And talking of Barbara, the unsung Joanne Nail gives a sweet and touching performance as this most distressed of damsels, so much so that it’s a puzzle that her career fizzled out in TV movie limbo.

The HD transfer is on the whole very good. There are a couple of scratches to the print in the opening optical effect, and just a touch of softness in some of the two-shots, but otherwise it’s extremely clean and crisp, with no grain to speak of. The creamy hues of sci-fi Jesus’ space age parlour-cum-conservatory look suitably virginal and airy, and all of the more elaborate set-ups – for instance, a long shot from upstairs in the Collins’ house of Huston’s character talking to Barbara – have plenty of depth and detail.

the-visitor 5Among the extras, there’s a lively 9-minute interview with Lance Henriksen (who played Barbara’s disloyal beau). He has a chuckle about the film’s shortcomings and describes what it was like shooting in Rome surrounded by frenzied Italians – “I had no idea what I was doing.” In another 9-minute interview, screenwriter Lou Comici talks about his efforts to incorporate the various whacky ideas dreamt up by director Giulio Paradisi (aka Michael J. Paradise), and how, after all his labours, Paradisi threw his finished script out of a window without even glancing at it. He also gives some insights into the production’s internal politics (apparently Paradisi was fired, then hired again). There’s also a 4-minute chat with cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri. He talks about his and the director’s background in TV commercials (which perhaps explains all the Man from Del Monte stuff), and says that 80-90% of the film was shot in Atlanta, with just a small portion filmed in Italy. More interview excerpts – including the views of Paige Connor, who played Katy – can be found in the accompanying booklet (Connor reveals that Shelly Winters, contrary to her big-hearted public image, was horrible and slapped her painfully hard during their on-screen tussle. Another illusion shattered.)

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