Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: THE VISITOR (1980)

(Italy - 1979; 1980 US release)

Directed by Michael J. Paradise (Giulio Paradisi).  Written by Lou Comici and Robert Mundy.  Cast: Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Lance Henriksen, John Huston, Joanne Nail, Franco Nero, Sam Peckinpah, Shelley Winters, Paige Conner, Wallace Wilkinson, Elizabeth Turner, Steve Somers, Neal Boortz. (R, 90 mins/Unrated, 109 mins)

A longtime cult favorite thanks to its constant airings on late-night TV throughout the 1980s, the utterly delirious Italian horror film THE VISITOR is like nothing seen before or since.  For years, the following this film had in America was based on its butchered 90-minute US cut released on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit throughout 1980 and quickly shipped off to TV.  This US edit excised nearly 20 minutes from the original European version, with a good chunk of that being important exposition at the beginning of the film.  Code Red released the uncut version on DVD in an impressive transfer with some great extras in 2010, finally allowing fans to see the intended version and it's a bit of a double-edged sword:  on one hand, the film is still completely looney tunes, filled with confused actors, memorable set pieces, some impressive set designs, some incredibly striking imagery, and what looks like the most dangerous and impractical staircase ever built in a residence, but on the other, the clarification of several major plot points significantly reduces the jawdropping WTF? factor that US fans knew and loved for so many years.  In its intended 109-minute form, THE VISITOR is still completely preposterous, but its preposterous plot elements now make some semblance of sense.  Don't misunderstand me: this is a mandatory piece of head-scratching cinema, but people seeing the uncut version without experiencing the truncated US cut that so many of us were so thoroughly baffled by for so many years might not see what all the fuss is about among the people who love this thing.  The two versions of THE VISITOR provide a rare example where some fans might actually prefer the chopped-down version just for the sentimental value.

Filmed mostly in Atlanta, GA in the summer of 1978, with some interiors (including the memorably-designed house where much of the climactic action takes place) shot in Rome at De Paolis and Cinecitta, THE VISITOR was produced by Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis, an Egyptian-born producer/director who first gained notoriety a few years earlier with his 1975 Italian EXORCIST ripoff BEYOND THE DOOR, which he directed under the pseudonym "Oliver Hellman."  BEYOND THE DOOR, with Juliet Mills as a pregnant mom who turns into a vile, vomiting, obscenity-spewing hag when her fetus is possessed by Satan, became a surprise box office hit despite a lawsuit by Warner Bros., irate over its similarities to THE EXORCIST (this didn't stop Italian producers from unleashing a flood of EXORCIST ripoffs for the next several years).  Assonitis then produced and may have directed some of 1976's FOREVER EMMANUELLE before ripping off another American blockbuster with 1977's TENTACLES, a JAWS imitation that replaced a great white shark with a mutant octopus stirred from the ocean depths some by illegal drilling done by an oil company whose unscrupulous owner is played by a seriously slumming Henry Fonda.  If you're wondering why Fonda is appearing in an Italian ripoff of JAWS, you might want to ask John Huston, Shelley Winters, Bo Hopkins, and Claude Akins the same thing.  And while it's not completely ridiculous to cast Huston (born in 1906) and Winters (born in 1920) as siblings, I have to question what compelled Assonitis to make it a plot point that Huston is the younger one.  It's just that kind of movie.  TENTACLES had an unusually overqualified cast for such a low-grade affair, but if you listen to the commentary track by longtime Assonitis production associate Peter Shepherd on 1986's Assonitis-produced CHOKE CANYON, you'll hear some great stories about Assonitis being the kind of producer who paid well-known but past-their-prime actors duffel bags full of cash that was stored above the ceiling tiles in a rented office.  Fonda shot his three or four TENTACLES scenes--which consist of his character making some angry phone calls that are vague enough ("Why wasn't I told about this?" and "Just take care of it!") that I remain convinced he had no idea he was in a movie about a giant mutant octopus--in one morning at his own dining room table.  That's right:  Assonitis brought a skeleton crew to Fonda's Beverly Hills home, got the shots he needed and Fonda was handed a bag of money.  They worked so quickly that Fonda audibly flubs a line at one point and they just left it in, as I'm sure the Hollywood legend wasn't about to listen to any of this "Let's try that again" bullshit.  With that kind of chicanery in his bag of tricks, it's no wonder that Assonitis was picked to run Cannon in its final days after Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus left and before the plug was mercifully pulled.

Assonitis has always had a reputation for hiring directors just to fire them so he can take over the filming himself, with the most famous example being his Italian-made sequel PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1982).  Assonitis asked PIRANHA producer Roger Corman if he had any promising employees he thought might be a good candidate to direct, and Corman gave him special effects technician and art director James Cameron, who had worked behind the scenes on Corman productions like BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) and GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) and did some matte work on John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). Cameron and Assonitis butted heads throughout the filming of PIRANHA II, with Cameron, unable to communicate with the all-Italian crew, required to run everything by Assonitis and usually being told no.  Knowing what we know now about Cameron's mercurial, control-freak nature, this was a match made in Hell from the start, and eventually, after catching Cameron sneaking into the editing room to undo his ordered changes, Assonitis fired him and finished the film himself.  Most of what's in PIRANHA II is Cameron's work, and while he went on to fame and fortune two years later with THE TERMINATOR, the "king of the world" still insists PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING is "the greatest flying piranha movie ever made."

Assonitis' paw prints are all over THE VISITOR, a combination ripoff of THE OMEN and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, with much of his usual tech crew present, and TENTACLES alumni Huston and Winters showing up for another bag of that sweet Assonitis cash (some sources erroneously list Henry Fonda among THE VISITOR's cast, but he's not in either version and was never involved, and this likely stems from someone somewhere confusing this with TENTACLES).  But according to co-stars Paige Conner and Joanne Nail (SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) on the DVD extras, Assonitis actually left the directing to the director on THE VISITOR, Giulio Paradisi, a former assistant to Federico Fellini.  Credited as "Michael J. Paradise," Paradisi works with cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri to create some truly vivid, memorable images throughout the film. Some of the visual effects are rudimentary and might've worked a bit better if most of the budget wasn't going to the big-name cast, but there's a stylistic ambition to THE VISITOR that's undeniable and often breathtaking. How much of the film's singularly unique look is Assonitis and how much is Paradisi's time spent with Fellini is up in the air. Yeah, it's a cheesy Italian horror movie, but it's trying its utmost to be the weirdest, most batshit insane Italian horror movie you've ever seen.

The plot centers on eight-year-old Katy Collins (Conner), who lives with her divorced mother Barbara (Nail) and her boyfriend, Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen), the owner of the fictional Atlanta Rebels NBA team.  Raymond keeps pressuring Barbara to marry him, but she refuses.  She loves him, but never wants to remarry, and she has a fear that something unnatural within her has been passed on to Katy, a bratty, incredibly self-absorbed child who can be politely described as a sociopath.  Unknown to Barbara, it's no accident that she's met Raymond.  Raymond has sold his soul to a cabal of evil and limitlessly wealthy one-percenters headed by Dr. Walker (Mel Ferrer).  Walker and his mystery men (one is played by then-Atlanta-based radio host and future Libertarian talk radio hero Neal Boortz!) have given Raymond financial success with his basketball team in exchange for access to Barbara, the one woman of her generation who possesses the genes of "Sateen," a cosmic demon who needs Barbara to give birth to a son to pair with Katy in order to be reborn through them and rule the universe.

Meanwhile, the mysterious Jerzy (Huston) has been dispatched from an unknown netherworld by a Christ-like figure (Franco Nero) surrounded by bald children to go to Atlanta and prevent Sateen's rebirth.  Jerzy arrives at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (where did he get that connecting flight?) and meets with a group of bald men in jogging suits on top of a downtown building (next to the famous Equitable Building), where he stares off at the Atlanta skyline while they do weird New Age/vogueing moves behind white partitions.  Jerzy starts snooping around the Collins house just as a talking toy bird bought for Katy is somehow replaced with a gun, which accidentally goes off, resulting in Barbara getting shot in the spine and confining her to a wheelchair (Katy's reaction:  a mere shrug).  Skeptical detective Jake Durham (Glenn Ford, with some really distracting dried ointment covering a cold sore on his lower lip) keeps pestering Katy about how the gun got in the house, with his dogged persistence almost immediately resulting in a spectacular OMEN-style demise in an explosive car wreck after getting his eyes pecked out by a bird while behind the wheel (there's an incredible motorcycle stunt in this scene performed by Chuck Norris' brother Aaron).  Along with an annoying, "Shortnin' Bread"-singing housekeeper (Winters), Jerzy ingratiates himself into the Collins house by posing as a sitter from the childcare service, because who wouldn't leave their eight-year-old daughter with a 73-year-old stranger who looks like John Huston?  Considering that this is THE VISITOR, this is actually one of the film's more plausible plot points.  After witnessing her wreak bitchy havoc at an ice skating rink and over a competitive game of Pong (John Huston playing Pong on a huge 1970s projection TV is worth the price of admission, folks), Jerzy lays out the situation for Katy:  that he's there to take her away and destroy the evil part of herself that Sateen needs, and that they have to stop Raymond from fathering a child with her mother.  The inherently evil Katy isn't buying it.  She sneers, sasses, calls him an "old bastard," and essentially says "Game on."

Barbara wants nothing to do with having another child, and when she refuses Raymond's marriage proposal yet again, he's relieved of his duties by Dr. Walker, who tells him that "other measures" are now being taken.  Specifically, Barbara is abducted by a spaceship on a dark highway and impregnated with the child of Sateen and left with no memory of the event (why didn't they just do this in the first place?  Why did they have to buy an NBA team?  Is it just to cram in the exploding basketball sequence that someone concocted?).  When Jerzy finds out Barbara is pregnant, the stage is set for the final battle between good and evil.  Or something like that.

And that's a plot synopsis from the uncut version.  Imagine watching THE VISITOR without any of the "Sateen" stuff mentioned.   All of that material was cut from the US version that was originally set to be released by AIP, but when they folded and became Filmways, THE VISITOR was sold to the short-lived International Picture Show.  As far as the cast is concerned, most of the cuts to the US version affected Ford, Nero, and none other than legendary WILD BUNCH director Sam Peckinpah.  Ford's already small role was even smaller in the American cut (which is a shame because he's really good here), but he gets a couple of crucial additional scenes in the uncut version, especially one unnerving bit where he finds the talking toy bird which repeatedly boasts "I'm a pretty bird."  In the American cut, an uncredited Nero didn't even appear until the very end and had no dialogue.  In the uncut version, he's introduced in the first scene and explains (via someone else's dubbed voice) all of the "Sateen" business and sends Jerzy on his mission.  Also, the opening scene is different in both versions: in the uncut version, Jerzy is shown in some surreal, desolate landscape with a low, flaming sun as a robed, hooded figure walks toward him.  Then, a snowy blizzard hits and the hood flies off to reveal some sort of demon-child underneath.  The US cut opened the same way until the snow hit (with a shortened version of Nero's and Huston's conversation played over the imagery; mind you, we don't see Nero at this point in the US cut).  The snowy part of the sequence was moved to much later in the film, intercut with the aforementioned Pong game as a vision presented to Katy by Jerzy.  Either way works for that, but it's the removal of Nero's character from the opening of the film that completely eliminates any sense of coherence from the very start.  We have no idea who these people are, why Jerzy is in Atlanta, who these bald jogging suit dudes are or why Raymond has these rich assholes prodding him to knock up his girlfriend.  

Peckinpah's participation in THE VISITOR has always been one of its more inexplicable elements. Considered unemployable by Hollywood due to his rampant drug and alcohol abuse (painfully apparent on his 1975 misfire THE KILLER ELITE), he briefly dabbled in acting during this time to keep some money coming in, also appearing in Monte Hellman's Italian/Spanish western CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (1978), and getting a jokey "Introducing Sam Peckinpah" credit in the US version.  Peckinpah had the biggest commercial success of his career with 1978's trucker blockbuster CONVOY, but rumors have persisted for years that he spent most of the shoot holed up in his trailer on coke binges while friend and second-unit director James Coburn, on the set because he wanted to get a DGA card and needed some experience, actually directed a large chunk of the movie.  In the US cut of THE VISITOR, Peckinpah turns up late in the film as Barbara's doctor, and she consults him about having an abortion.  He's shot mostly in silhouette, you never get a good look at his face, and his voice is dubbed by veteran expat actor Michael Forest.  In the uncut version, he's specifically referred to as "Dr. Collins," and it's revealed that he's Katy's father and Barbara's ex-husband.  Peckinpah and Nail also have an additional scene before that where they acrimoniously catch up--he's still bitter over the divorce--and she begs him for help.  In the uncut version, you get a clear view of Peckinpah, though his behavior reportedly ranged from uncooperative at best to combative at worst during his brief time on the set and the skidding director was too wasted to remember his lines.  Forest's voice doesn't always match Peckinpah's lip movements, and many shots of Peckinpah talking have him turned away from the camera, probably out of necessity.  On the CHOKE CANYON commentary, which serves as more of a walk through every other Assonitis production, Shepherd recalls "I'm not exactly sure how Sam Peckinpah got involved in THE VISITOR, but we were glad when he left."

But it was the unusual cast and that complete lack of coherence that were major parts of THE VISITOR's appeal to impressionable kids and bleary-eyed insomniacs catching this on TV at 2:30 am back in the '80s and wondering the next morning if the entire film was just strange dream they had. You could've chalked it up to being edited for television but nope, that wasn't the problem.  Renting this on VHS proved that it was just as confusing, only with minor additional splatter and some interesting swearing (young Conner telling Ford "Go fuck yourself!" is a keeper).  Assonitis and Paradisi concocted the basic story for THE VISITOR, with the script written by Lou Comici (who went to write for TV shows like SILK STALKINGS and WALKER, TEXAS RANGER) and Robert Mundy, whose only other screenwriting credits are the forgotten Joe Namath/Barbara Eden comedy CHATTANOOGA CHOO-CHOO (1984) and the Bridget Fonda/Russell Crowe bomb ROUGH MAGIC (1995). 

Georgia native Conner acted only sporadically after THE VISITOR.  She had a small role in the Kristy McNichol/Tatum O'Neal hit LITTLE DARLINGS (1980) and briefly appeared (as the girl with the purse full of potential self-defense weapons) in the famous "Natalie gets assaulted" episode of THE FACTS OF LIFE (at 2:50 into that clip) before logging some time as an Atlanta Falcons cheerleader in the '90s. She now owns a luxury beauty salon in Atlanta.  She's an absolute charmer on the DVD commentary track, sharply recalling details of the production 30 years later and sharing warm memories of working with Huston, who took her under his wing, coaching her on her performance and how to control her distinct Southern accent.  Famed animator Bruno Bozzetto contributed some animation to the climactic bird attack that's quite an extraordinary sequence in conjunction with the memorable score by Franco Micalizzi.  Micalizzi's work on THE VISITOR ranks among the great scores in any Italian horror film. It's so loud, so bombastic, and so catchy that I'm shocked Quentin Tarantino hasn't appropriated it for use in one of his own films.  During this time, Italian film crews were regularly shooting in the Atlanta area (films like the Bud Spencer comedy THE SHERIFF AND THE SATELLITE KID and Antonio Margheriti's CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE had extensive location work in the downtown Atlanta area).  Along with Burt Reynolds' SHARKY'S MACHINE, THE VISITOR makes maybe the best use of noteworthy Atlanta locations (the Equitable Building, the now-demolished Omni, the cylindrical, rotating Peachtree Plaza Hotel, Underground Atlanta) from that era.  If you've never experienced THE VISITOR, in either of its two existing forms, then you're depriving yourself of a time-capsule-worthy piece of vital Italian Eurotrash cinema.  This is pretty close to as crazy as it gets.

11-minute fan montage of VISITOR highlights with selections from Micalizzi's score

6 March 2014:
UPDATE:  Click here for a look at the Drafthouse Films Blu-ray release

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