Saturday, September 13, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Visitor (1979) **½

R, 108 min.
Director: Michael J. Paradise
Writers: Ovidio Assonitis, Lou Comici, Robert Mundy, Michael J. Paradise
Starring: Joanne Nail, Paige Conner, John Huston, Lance Henriksen, Shelley Winters, Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Franco Nero

I’ll admit it. I’m not above film snobbery. I’ve been known to praise movies that are a statement against the mainstream and nothing more. I like to see things in movies that I haven’t seen before. One of my favorite against the grain directors, Werner Herzog, has said that we are starving for new images. While many arthouse films are predicated on the ideal to provide these original images, not all of them do it well.

“The Visitor” is one of these unusual films of original images. It also fails to provide them in an entirely competent way. It may seem an incomprehensible mess to some. It really isn’t, however. It’s just sloppy. That’s where my disappointment with it comes from. I love many of the things in this film, but its strangeness is sabotaged by poor filmmaking and storytelling techniques, making it seem as if it’s more mysterious and unique than it actually is.

The story is basically the same as the much more successful, both financially and artistically, original “The Omen”. Instead of a little boy born of Satan, we have a young girl born of an alien named Sateen. Sateen? Really? Couldn’t stretch the name any further than that? Sateen has birthed a long line of offspring in an attempt to rein his own version of Hell on Earth. Unlike the boy in “The Omen”, the girl playing this film’s demon child is over the top with her acting. She’s just a brat, not a force of evil.

Set against Sateen’s plan is a mystical warrior played by John Huston. Yes, that John Huston. He’s not exactly a figure you feel like trusting, and I don’t think that’s just “Chinatown” residual. I think it’s a poor directorial and writing choice. He and an uncredited Franco Nero’s unveiled Christ figure have a collection of children in space that seems disturbingly like a fetishist’s brainwashed harem.

Anyway, the old man and the young girl go to war with each other with the girl’s mother set as their battlefield of choice. What they do to this woman over the course of the film is like some torturist’s how to manual. At times “The Visitor” plays like a snuff film starring Joanne Nail. The punishment this woman must endure is horrid. Obviously, the filmmakers are playing off the wonderful scenes with Lee Remick in “The Omen”. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Nail could easily be mistaken for Remick in a crowd. Here her ordeal seems like cruelty rather than good horror storytelling, however.

And yet, there are some bright spots to the movie. It has a wonderful atmosphere. It is strange and has enough of that European feel to it to suggest that Hollywood would never touch it, even with the wonderful cast of Hollywood legends it boasts in supporting roles. Sam Peckinpah never acted in enough films. Glenn Ford was reintroduced to audiences in “Superman: The Movie” and provides some good moments here as a detective who suspects that something stranger than a spastic teen is responsible for the shooting of her mother at a birthday party. And a young Lance Henriksen launches his career as a dark figure in the shadows presenting himself as a concerned friend.

Despite some striking images, the film is edited together in a jumbled mess that suggests a story that doesn’t make much sense for no good reason whatsoever. I wanted to like this movie and probably did enjoy it more than I should have. I can see how it reached its cult status, leading to a rerelease in theaters last year by Drafthouse Films. This has lead to a video restoration that many movie snobs will seek out and many will praise as a forgotten masterpiece. Sometimes “masterpieces” are forgotten for a reason.

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