The Visitor: Celebrating One of the Most Brilliantly Weird Sci-Fi Films Ever Made

John Huston, an evil kid and an army of holy pigeons - it's all part of the 1979 sci-fi horror classic, The Visitor...

Beneath all the glamour and champagne that comes with Hollywood stardom, there lies a cold reality: acting’s still just a job. Even the most celebrated actors lose their lustre eventually; sooner or later, even the biggest stars stop getting calls for the best parts in the biggest movies.

This is why it’s sometimes fascinating to look back at the movies of the 1970s – particularly big disaster flicks and low-budget B-pictures. By then, actors from the golden age of Hollywood were entering their twilight years, and still keen to keep on working – which is partly why we saw Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones choking on smoke and fumes in The Towering Inferno, Jimmy Stewart flailing about in a submerged passenger plane in Airport ’77, and Olivia de Havilland cowering from clouds of bees in The Swarm. The roles may have been thankless, the situations faintly embarrassing, but at least the actors involved had a reasonable defence: “Hey, at least I’m working.” 

Few movies of the 1970s, though, were as laden with ageing stars in unusual or flat-out bizarre situations as The Visitor. It’s a sci-fi horror film that, on the face of things, looks like a typical product of its time. Produced and co-written by Italian movie mogul Ovidio G Assonitis, it’s a cynical collision of stuff that was popular in the 1970s: it pilfers from a bit of The Exorcist and The Omen here, a sliver of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind there, plus a bit of The Lady From Shanghai (or just as likely, Enter The Dragon) for good measure.

Assonitis also gave the world such films as Beyond The Door – an Exorcist knock-off made in 1974 – Piranha II: The Spawning – a Jaws clone and loose sequel to Joe Dante’s original – and many more genre pictures besides. Assonitis’ films were on a serious downward trend through the 80s and 90s, until he was producing American Ninja sequels for Cannon Films towards the end of his career.

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The Visitor, on the other hand, is of an entirely different calibre from those movies mentioned above. For one thing, there’s the cast, which is quite extraordinary: here you’ll find a young Lance Henriksen share a Rome sound stage with the wonderful Shelley Winters; The Big Heat and Blackboard Jungle star Glenn Ford prowling around as a seasoned detective; stage and screen star Mel Ferrer as a sinister doctor; and the great actor-filmmaker John Huston as a mysterious space warrior. 

The plot really is something else – that is, if you can even call it a plot. The bulk of the story’s set in Atlanta, Georgia, which becomes the earthly battleground between the forces of light and darkness. It all hinges around a wealthy single mother, Barbara (Joanne Nail), and her eight-year-old daughter, Katy (Paige Conner) who may or may not be the embodiment of all evil.

In a truly extraordinary opening sequence, Jesus Christ – played, improbably by Django and Enter The Ninja star Franco Nero – explains to a bunch of bald children that an evil alien entity named Zatteen, once thought thwarted centuries earlier, has since fallen to Earth, where he uses his powers to create new, evil beings after his own image. The innocent-looking Katy, with her goofy smile and hair in bunches, turns out to be the latest of these incarnations, and so John Huston, who plays a kind of space exorcist, shows up in Atlanta to rid our planet of Katy’s evil.

The Visitor, then, is like a fractured remake of The Omen movies mixed with some of the sci-fi mysticism of Philip K Dick’s later novels (though oddly, Valis, which has a few parallels with The Visitor, wasn’t published until 1981). But even this description doesn’t quite boil down just how weird and fascinating The Visitor is; like a number of Italian genre movies, it’s less concerned with logical flow than individual set-pieces – but thanks to director Giulio Paradisi (here credited as Michael J Paradise), those set-pieces are by turns horrifying, tense, and immensely funny. 

Paradisi sets his stall of oddments out early with a nail-biting basketball game. Barbara, the wealthy single mother, has a new boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her; his name’s Raymond, he’s played by a young and sparkly-eyed Lance Henriksen, and he happens to be the wealthy owner of an Atlanta basketball team.

Shot on location, the game unfolds in an unsettlingly real documentary style; we watch as the Atlanta team claw back a narrow lead over their rivals; the clock ticks down the seconds to the end of the game, and it looks as though the rival team’s star player (real-life basketball center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) is about to score a zero-hour victory. But then Katy shows off her unearthly, telekinetic powers in explosive fashion – and the result is so extraordinary that we couldn’t possibly spoil it here.

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The Visitor only continues its surrealist odyssey from there. We quickly learn that Raymond has a sinister reason for wanting to marry  Barbara, and that Katy, for her part, is willing to do just about anything to get her mother to agree. As in The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby and other horror movies of the era, there’s a nasty child seemingly capable of anything, secret organizations and a string of harrowing freak deaths. 

The hodge-podge of stolen ideas shouldn’t work as well as it does, but Paradisi somehow gets away with it all thanks to some surprisingly deft camera-work and sheer brio. The cast also put a lot of work in; Henriksen looks mildly panicked, but Joanna Nail gives her role of the unluckiest mother in history everything she’s got. Her character’s put through such a physical and emotional wringer that you can’t help but empathise with her, and Nail’s saucer eyes really sell the tension in some of The Visitors best scenes of suspense. A sequence on a benighted highway, with a broken-down car and a mysterious truck covered in blinding lights, is as nail-biting as it is ridiculous.

Paige Conner’s also curiously brilliant as the evil child at the centre of it all. With her acid tongue, spiteful expressions and pet hawk, she makes The Omens Damien Thorn look like one of those wholesome kids off Disney Club.

Then there are some of the situations that members of The Visitors veteran cast find themselves in. It’s fascinating to see Glenn Ford told to cram a gun up his backside by an eight-year-old kid from hell; or Sam Peckinpah show up for one scene to talk about an abortion; or Shelley Winters appear as a Mary Poppins-like nanny who won’t take backchat from spoiled brats – even if they are demonic beings from space. Best of all is John Huston, who’s about as close as the movie gets to a protagonist. Sure, he spends most of the film hanging around on Atlanta rooftops or staring at shoddy special effects, but then, Huston also gets to march into battle with an army of space combat pigeons. It really is a majestic moment. 

Paradisi, who co-writes as well as directs, stages all these moments with surprising class, at least relative to the moderate budget. You won’t find anything quite as slickly done as Friedkin or Polanski here, but Paradisi does know how to stage a moment of suspense – and how to pay it off with an extraordinary jolt that is impossible to see coming. One scene, involving a locked door, a fish tank, Shelley Winters holding a dead bird, is a true jaw-dropper.

The Visitor, perhaps understandably, was a bit too febrile for audiences in 1979. Even with the all-star cast of veterans, it quickly vanished without trace, and Henriksen doesn’t appear to be too fond of his early leading role here. But thanks to a wonderful transfer courtesy of Drafthouse, The Visitor still lives – and watched in 2018, it’s remarkable just how entertaining it all is. Little of what happens makes sense, necessarily, but there’s never a dull moment, from the opening scene where John Huston watches a phantom figure emerge from a cloudy desert (all shot with cheap VFX) to the noisy, bonkers climax.

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We can only imagine what these stars of Hollywood’s golden age thought about The Visitor (legend has it they all signed up so they could get a free trip to Rome), but we’d argue that Paradisi’s film is pure entertainment – cinema at its most unfettered, illogical and outrageous. It’s nothing less than the ancient struggle between good and evil, 70s disco style.