Thursday, March 6, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE VISITOR (1979)

(Italy - 1979)

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. (Unrated, 109 mins)

(Note: for a more in-depth review of the film, click here; this is a follow-up piece specifically covering the 2013 re-release by Drafthouse Films and the just-released Blu-ray)

A couple of years back, Drafthouse Films, the distribution offshoot of cinehipster mecca The Alamo Drafthouse, managed to create a legitimate cult movie sensation out of the delirious 1988 martial arts actioner MIAMI CONNECTION (and lest you think they're only showcasing "bad" movies, they also did a fine job of resurrecting the legendary, semi-lost 1971 Outback nightmare WAKE IN FRIGHT).  Late last year, they tried to go for another MIAMI CONNECTION with the original 109-minute uncut version of the insane 1979 Italian horror film THE VISITOR.  While the re-release wasn't greeted with the same level of enthusiasm as MIAMI CONNECTION, it did bring some increased notoriety to an utterly batshit, singularly unique film that's been patiently awaiting its day in the sun.  Released on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit in America in a truncated 90-minute version in 1980, THE VISITOR was quickly consigned to late-night TV and video stores to be discovered by cult movie aficionados, Eurotrash addicts, and insomniacs who, for the most part, kept it to themselves for the next 30 or so years.  With its perfect storm of past-their-prime actors, an incoherent script, and Italian filmmakers ripping off blockbuster American hits like THE OMEN and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, it's the kind of B-movie that only could've happened in the late 1970s.  Perhaps one reason that the re-release of THE VISITOR didn't catch on like MIAMI CONNECTION did was that, while completely bonkers, it's not as MST3K hilarious as MIAMI CONNECTION, and also because it wasn't quite as obscure.  Code Red released a fine DVD special edition of the uncut version (1.85:1 anamorphic) in 2010, with a great transfer and a wealth of extras, including two commentary tracks--one with star Paige Conner, moderated by filmmakers and VISITOR superfans Scott Spiegel (co-writer of EVIL DEAD II) and Jeff Burr (director of LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III), and another with star Joanne Nail, moderated by cult movie expert Marc Edward Heuck.

None of those Code Red-produced extras (which included interviews with Conner, Nail, producer Ovidio Assonitis, and Atlanta location manager and future John Carpenter associate Stratton Leopold) are carried over to the new Drafthouse Blu-ray, so if you bought that DVD in 2010, you better hang on to it.  The Conner and Nail commentaries are essential listening for VISITOR nerds, even if Conner has to repeatedly tell Spiegel and Burr that the movie was shot over the summer and she didn't need permission to be out of school, that Spiegel is incredulous over "no writers being credited," despite a "Written by Lou Comici and Robert Mundy" credit at the beginning of the film, and, in a real whopper, Spiegel declaring "Mel Ferrer and Jose Ferrer are brothers."  Burr: "Are they?"  Spiegel: "They're at least first cousins."  No.  Wrong and wrong.  No relation.  Drafthouse's Blu-ray (again framed at 1.85:1) may not have the extensive bonus features that Code Red offered but it does make itself unique with a great Lance Henriksen interview.  A relative unknown at the time with small roles in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, NETWORK, and DAMIEN: OMEN II under his belt, Henriksen recalls the film as a "hodgepodge...with space babies, birds, and Jesus Christ," and often asked himself "What were they thinking?  Where was the narrative in this thing?  I had no idea what I was doing." He says that shooting was sometimes problematic because director Giulio Paradisi refused to speak English and the dialogue sometimes felt like it hadn't been translated accurately. He doesn't think very highly of the film itself but has fond memories of working with the veteran actors and thought it unusual that Assonitis actually showed up at his agent's office and told him "You're going to sign this contract and you're going to Rome, and you're going have a good time."  Henriksen also recalls dragging a group of his friends to Times Square to see the movie in a 42nd Street grindhouse, where someone in the balcony yelled "I want my money back!"  (Henriksen: "There were 30 people in the audience, and 15 of them were my friends").

In addition to a short segment with cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri, where he discusses some locations and visual effects, co-writer Comici is also interviewed and has some even more wild stories.  Initially hired because he spoke both English and Italian, Comici's main responsibility was taking Paradisi's ideas and forming them into a story ("Giulio didn't have a story, he just had scenes").  Paradisi, a former assistant to Federico Fellini who primarily worked in TV commercials and nature documentaries, had some insane ideas (Comici: "He wanted elephants in one scene because he thought people liked elephants..." and "He was always trying to work in scenes of people on the toilet") and was even fired at one point during pre-production before (and Comici stresses that he heard this second-hand) "one of Giulio's relatives put a gun to the producer's head and told him to hire Giulio back."  Comici's involvement in the film ended when he showed up at Assonitis' office with a complete script and handed it to Paradisi who, without even looking at a single page, dismissed it and threw it out of the fourth-story window.

If Comici's memories seem slightly embellished, then wait until you read the Blu-ray's accompanying booklet, written by Zack Carlson, featuring an interview with Assonitis.  Assonitis has been prone to hard-to-swallow statements in the past, like saying he never saw THE EXORCIST before making the blatant EXORCIST ripoff BEYOND THE DOOR, and while it's not impossible to believe that other writers--including Oscar-nominated SERPICO and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER screenwriter Norman Wexler--made some uncredited script contributions, you can't help but question the producer's claim that, upon visiting an ill John Huston a week before his death in 1987, he noticed a VHS copy of THE VISITOR on a table near the cinema icon's sickbed.  Carlson's essay is nicely-done and he obviously displays a great affinity for the film, which he describes as a "distinctly European skull-wrecker," and "disorienting, uncomfortable, misanthropic, and a genuine masterpiece."  Code Red's DVD looked superb and they deserve a significant amount of credit for making this available before the hipsters had the chance to embrace it.  But Drafthouse's Blu-ray, an HD upgrade from the same materials provided by Assonitis, takes it a slight step further, and I'm in favor of anything that makes this one-of-a-kind, looney-tunes mindfuck as accessible as possible, and I have no doubt that anyone who's cherished THE VISITOR for as long as I have finds the idea of this being on Blu-ray almost as nuts as the film itself.

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