‘The Visitor’ 1979 Dir. Michael J. Paradise (Review)

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An alien sunrise heralds a silhouette. The dark shape lifts itself above the horizon as an elderly man watches on from the desert landscape. The sky clouds over like a glass of milk poured into a fishbowl. A snowstorm engulfs both the old man and the silhouette, before revealing that the mysterious figure is a girl in a robe. The girl, coated in snow, moves backward from the man before disappearing. The wizened face of the old man looks on with concern.

This is the beginning of The Visitor, a 1979 film directed by Michael J. Paradise, recently released by Drafthouse Films. It’s being billed as the “Sci-fi/horror epic 1979 couldn’t handle.” While I haven’t seen all of the cinema 1979 had to offer, I’m sure that 1979 would have handled The Visitor just fine, but would have certainly had some questions regarding the film.

The Visitor continues from that sinister and psychedelic beginning to feature a blonde and bearded Franco Nero (Django) as an intergalactic Christ figure telling a story about a demonic entity known as “Satine”, who has infected the bloodline of humans resulting in future iterations appearing on Earth. He’s explaining this story to a group of children before cosmic warrior, Jerzy (John Huston), enters to announce the return of Satine’s bloodline in a little girl named Katie Collins. From this strange opening scene, The Visitor throws us into Atlanta, Georgia, where Katie (Paige Conner) is conspiring to make sure that her mother (Joanne Nail) gives birth to a baby brother by marrying Raymond (Lance Henriksen), the wealthy owner of a basketball team. This new child will also bear the DNA of Satine, giving rise to two evil, super-powered children. Secret cabals, murderous birds, hard-ass housekeepers and space acolytes all play a part in this very strange film that seems more like a collection of scenes, than a whole movie.

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The film has a bit of everything, from demonic myths and space fantasy, to police procedurals and family drama, but there doesn’t seem to be much holding The Visitor together as a cohesive whole. There are things to enjoy about this movie, however. Cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri frames the shots with motive and precision, giving every setting looming gravitas. The two leads in the film (Conner and Nail) give strong performances as Katie and her mother Barbara. These two performers remain the only consistent elements regarding the mish-mash of scenes in The Visitor, and the film is better for it. Barbara is put through the ringer as she’s tormented both mentally and physically throughout the film. It should also be noted that the supporting players in this film are amazing, featuring legendary directors John Huston and Sam Pekinpah is a coup for such a production, as is the inclusion of veteran actors Shelly Winters and Glenn Ford in key character roles. A young Lance Henriksen is the icing on the cake as a slimy boyfriend working for a secret cult. Fortunately, each of these performers gets a memorable character moment, but unfortunately these characters all feel like they’re from different films.

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In one scene in particular, Katie opens a birthday present to reveal a gun instead of the decorative fake bird her aunt bought for her. Katie excitedly drops the gun on the coffee table, which then immediately discharges into her mother’s back, paralyzing her. What follows, is an investigation subplot featuring Detective Durham (Glenn Ford) that is engaging and leaves a lasting impression regardless of its brevity. We’re treated to another scene that shows Katie causing bullies at an ice rink to hurt themselves. This scene serves as an opportunity to showcasing Katie’s malicious effect on those around her, and is shot like an experimental film, juxtaposing violence with innocence. A following scene features a weird pseudo-alien abduction, an artificial insemination at the hands of a cult that looks like Daft Punk, all of this resulting in roadside assistance from two frightened black stereotypes*. For the most part, these differing scenes are entertaining, but rarely fit together in any organic way. They can be enjoyed separately, but I have trouble discussing them as part of a larger film. Perhaps that’s the best way to take The Visitor, not as a whole but as a series of short films. As a feature it’s strange and disjointed, but as a web series, it’s gangbusters.

The Visitor has interesting ideas, beautiful compositions and a brilliant cast, but ultimately the film is flawed. With its disjointed narrative and visual shorthand, I can’t recommend this movie to those who prefer mainstream cinema. However, audiences who enjoy cult films, particularly those with a psychedelic bent, may be able to look past The Visitor‘s flaws to find the parts entertaining, if not the whole.

Grade: B-

The Visitor was released in select theaters November 1st, will get a New York City release November 8th and will be available for VOD February 2nd 2014.

*This was perhaps the most uncomfortable and odd part of the film. A movie that already features a blonde space-Jesus and a death by bird stabbing. 

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