Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Visitor (1979)

As a B-Movie Fanatic, few things are as delightful as discovering there is a "lost" B-Movie out there to be experienced. Even moreso when the film is positively insane. Sometimes "lost" is a stretch, of course. Miami Connection was a lost film before Drafthouse Films gave it a well-deserved second life, but The Visitor has actually had a Region 1 DVD release (albeit out of print as of this writing) so it's hard to say it was honestly lost before Drafthouse Films gave it the same second chance and allowed me to experience the film in the best possible way to see a bizarre Italian/American sci-fi horror film--a midnight showing.

The film begins right off the bat with a dose of weirdness of the sort that we will be seeing a lot of over the course of its running time. A mysterious old man we will come to know as Jerzy (John Huston!) is alone on an alien landscape when he is joined by an imposing stranger in a black cloak. A storm whips up as the two stare each other down and as a blizzard overtakes the two, the black robe comes off to reveal a little girl, whom we will come to know as Katy Collins (Paige Connor), with those distinctive John Agar eyes from The Brain From Planet Arous. The child backs away from Jerzy and vanishes and he strides calmly in the direction she appeared from.

Cut to what the IMDB insists is Jesus Christ (an apparently uncredited Franco Nero!), though "Blond Space Jesus" is more accurate, telling a white room full of bald children the story of how the galactic criminal Sateen escaped custody and fled to Earth, pursued by an intergalactic peacekeeper. (I think the peacekeeper was Jerzy but I'm going on memories from 12AM here) The peacekeeper summoned an army of birds to take down his fugitive, but Sateen simply transformed himself into an eagle and killed all but three--until he was "fatally wounded. In the brain." (Insert the first of many, many instances of uproarious audience laughter here) However, before he died Sateen mated with human women--and Space Jesus's storytelling makes it sound as if Sateen did this whilst dying off a brain injury instead of before the fight--so that his evil could survive. Jerzy enters the room to be greeted warmly by the children and to tell Space Jesus that he knows that the current spawn of Sateen's evil that they are looking for is an eight year-old girl named Katy Collins.

Now we meet our main protagonists for the remainder of the show at the final minutes of a basketball game in Atlanta, Georgia. On the sidelines are the team's owner, Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen!), and Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail). Barbara is the mother of none other than Katy Collins, who has a seat on the sidelines in a completely different section of the arena. Katy removes her sunglasses just as the opposing team is about to make a basket that could tip the score in their favor--and the ball explodes before it can enter the basket. The reaction of everyone involved suggests that a basketball exploding in the middle of a game is a routine occurrence, so I'm now rethinking my complete lack of interest in watching the sport.

In bed afterward, Raymond attempts to convince Barbara to marry him. This is apparently not the first time he has tried but she refuses him again, explaining that even though it has been 7 years since she divorced her husband (who will later turn out to be played by Sam Peckinpah--yes, that Sam Peckinpah), she is just not ready. Part of this is that she is scared of her own daughter and thus does not want to have any more children.

It's not hard to see why Barbara is scared. She comes home to find Katy waiting for her, and in a foul mood for being left alone with yet another babysitter who fell asleep on her. (I don't know if we're meant to infer the babysitter's unconscious state is Katy's doing, but it sure looks that way) Here we are also introduced to Katy's pet kestrel, which seems like a really awful pet for an eight-year-old to have--but hey, rich people. Katy's foul mood lightens somewhat when she begins to beg her mother to give her a baby brother.

Unbeknownst to Barabara, Katy and Richard have identical goals, which we find out when he goes to meet with a strange group of men seated at a conference table in a mansion. The leader, Dr. Walker (Mel Ferrer!), explains to Richard that they made him successful and got him close to Barbara with a very specific purpose. Babara's womb* is very, very special--it is capable of producing children like Katy, with very special abilities. This sinister group--who are either aliens like Sateen or in league with them--wants Katy to have a brother because they want to continue producing more people with these terrifying abilities. If Richard can't deliver, he is expendable.

[* "But wait," you say. "If Barbara's womb is the source of Katy's power, doesn't that mean that Barbara must be Sateen's child instead of the mother of one?" To which I say, don't think about it. You don't need the aneurysm]

At Katy's birthday party, a friend of Barabara's gives the young girl a bejeweled toy peacock that, for some reason, constantly says, "I'm a pretty bird," in a voice suggesting it was recorded on a dying tape recorder. However, somewhere between the peacock being wrapped and it being given to Katy, it becomes a handgun. Katy is delighted--her irises and pupils going all John Agar--and goes to show her mother by tossing the gun onto a table where it promptly goes off and paralyzes Barbara from the waist down.

Detective Jake Durham (Glenn Ford) is assigned to investigate the mysterious shooting. He quickly finds it a troubling case, as nobody can figure out how or when the gun got into the gift box, the peacock is unaccounted for, and most troubling of all: the gun has no serial number. The serial number hasn't been filed off in an attempt to hide the gun's true owner from prosecution, either, it was simply never there. Durham follows Katy when she takes her bus to school--in a sequence that made the audience gasp for real, because Paige Conner is almost hit by the school bus in question as she walks out to board it! Katy is on to him, however, and confronts him after the bus disgorges its passengers. She is less than helpful, merely responding to his questions by growling obscenities at the detective before running off to class.

Durham eventually decides to do some investigating of the Collins abode on his own time. This accomplishes two things; the first is that he runs afoul of Katy's kestrel (which, hilariously, tends to be intercut with close-ups of an eagle whenever it is attacking someone), and the second is that he finds the talking peacock hidden in a house plant. He'll never get to make anything of his discovery, however--and not just because the justice system tends to frown on evidence obtained through entering a residence without a warrant. Katy's kestrel has followed the detective and proceeds to enter his car and peck repeatedly at his eyes (Italians love eye violence), causing him to drive off a hill. In a hilariously cruel turn of events, his car rolls over into a chain link fence in such a way that the car becomes wrapped in the chain link. A group of onlookers are helpless to do anything but watch the hapless detective struggle against his confinement before the leaking gasoline ignites and he is killed in the subsequent explosion. The kestrel watches all this with silent, malevolent satisfaction.

It is here that two characters actually join the story proper. The first is a new housekeeper for the Collins, Jane Phillips (ShelleyWinters). She adds very little to the story, other than being suspicious of Katy and having the extraordinary ability to slap the demon child and not die. The second is Jerzy, showing up claiming to the new babysitter the agency sent over. He reveals quite quickly to Katy that he knows about her powers, but Katy is unimpressed. As well she should be, as for an intergalactic peacekeeper Jerzy is fantastically shite at keeping the peace. (Another link to The Brain From Planet Arous!) While he was communing with Space Jesus, setting up interpretive dance recitals on rooftops, and occasionally watching Katy from afar--Detective Durham was getting flambeed, after all. Durham won't be the last to suffer under Jerzy's watch, either.

In a sequence that has to be seen to fully appreciated, Katy goes ice skating at a mall. Jerzy watches her from a level above and then decides to get a closer look by walking down a narrow staircase that appears to be at least a mile long. While he is doing this, Katy somehow gets all the boys at the rink to chase her and all of them end up slamming violently into the walls of the rink--all juxtaposed with shots of poor John Huston stepping carefully down the stairway and at times seeming to be farther away than he was in the previous shot. This climaxes with the last boy vaulting over the ice rink wall and smashing through the window of a restaurant. (This was greeted by uproarious laughter and applause by the audience)

The thing about a movie like this is that you'd think it would build toward its inevitable climax in some manner so that Jerzy has to intervene in order to save the world from Katy's wrath and the machinations of the secret society Raymond works for. It really doesn't, however. Katy's cruelty escalates in that she begins to turn it on Barabara, but ultimately it feels as if Jerzy just eventually decides to actually do something instead of just talking about it. And it seems like Jerzy only knows the one way to handle this situation, because he calls in another avian cavalry. Pigeons and doves, to be precise, so that the climax of the film resembles nothing so strongly as that of The Exorcist II: The Heretic if it was directed by John Woo.

I've obviously left a lot out of my description of this film. After all, I didn't take notes and I was exhausted during my actual viewing of the film. However, this film is a delightful experience. Its plot is so nonsensical that I am certain I briefly drifted off and came to at a couple points and was no less lost than when I was fully conscious. The director, "Michael J. Paradise" (actually Giulio Paradisi), has no awareness of how comedic most of his inserted reaction shots are, and while the score is nowhere near the level of sublimely inappropriate as The Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds, it has a particular funkadelic refrain that sounds like it belongs to a 70s cop show. This refrain first blared itself at us during a close-up of the stern expression on Space Jesus's face after Jerzy announces that they're looking for Katy Collins and the audience positively howled.

The film was produced by Ovidio G. Assonitis, so this makes the second film of his I've seen (the other being Piranha II: The Spawning). I know Tentacles by reputation, but have not seen it, but like that film Assonitis somehow conned John Huston and Shelley Winters into starring in minor roles in such a manner as to be able to sell them as being major players in the film. This film does not feature a live octopus being torn apart on camera so it has a distinct advantage over Tentacles.

I am not certain why this one is not spoken of more often. It does not quite reach the deliriously wonderful heights of something like The Manitou, but I would still put it firmly in the same company. It is, nominally, a rip-off of The Exorcist that comes at it from an entirely different direction--but it also throws in The Omen, The Birds, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Rosemary's Baby, and possibly even Star Wars--John Huston is, essentially, introduced to us as Obi Wan Kenobi. It is true, the film is largely plotless and meandering: but I cannot bring myself to hate something that aims to take on so many diverse elements from so many bigger films way beyond its means.

I cannot see this one quite earning the cult that Miami Connection did, but I for one am firmly in what little cult there is for it.

I also have to laugh at the fact that Wikipedia claims a lot of audiences took issue with the dishonesty of the film's poster. I disagree. Sure, there is no giant floating eyeball with lighting coming from it--but the talons clearly belong to the kestrel and there is an attempted garroting. For this sort of film, that's truth in advertising!

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