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The Visitor (1979): revisiting heaven, hell and Huston

4 May, 2015 — by Christopher Ratcliff0

36 years on and the critically loathed The Visitor is the bad movie that's still more entertaining than most 'good movies'

If you don’t take time to sit down and learn about The Visitor, the cult film to end all cult films, and prepare yourself adequately then who knows what sort of danger you’ll unknowingly expose yourself and future generations to.

The Visitor

If I told you there was an Italian film made in 1979, set in Atlanta, Georgia that stars John Huston, the ageing director of Hollywood classics such The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen, playing an intergalactic exorcist, sent to Earth by a Space Jesus to stop the devil incarnate who has taken the form of an eight year-old girl to spread his evil across the globe, and also features Kareem Abdul Jabbar, a killer eagle concealing a flick-knife, Shelley Winters and one of the best soundtracks of the 1970s, you’d probably tell me to go and get fucked.

And you’d be right to do so.

Original 1979 poster, the artwork of which has absolutely nothing to do with the film itself.

Filmed explicitly as a rip-off of The Exorcist, The Visitor actually steals from so many defining sci-fi and horror films from the same era that it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other.

Certainly there are obvious elements taken from The Exorcist and its dreadful sequel The Exorcist II, as well as the quasi-mythological horror of The Omen, the homicidal fowl from The Birds and the homicidal child from Bad Seed, but it’s The Visitor’s cribbing from the more expansive cosmological palettes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: a Space Odyssey that really sets this film apart.

Let’s not be under any kind of illusion though, The Visitor is still a terrible movie, but it is deeply fascinating and never less than entertaining for every second of its running time, which is a damn sight more than you can say for The Exorcist II.

As Lance Henriksen, whose earliest starring role was in The Visitor, said in a recent interview with Drafthouse Films: “I hope you all have seatbelts on when you see this movie so you can’t run away.”

The film begins with Franco Nero (the original Django and one of the baddies from Die Hard 2 expanding his range here by playing the role of Space Jesus) explaining to a room full of bald space-children the mythological background to the film. Background that you will immediately forget, mainly because you’ll be distracted by Franco Nero’s bizarre pronunciation of mutant “moo-tAnt” and some atrocious dubbing.

the visitor space jesus
They really shaved these children bald.

Basically there’s an age-old devil named Sateen who is locked in an eternal war with the intergalactic forces of good. As Space Jesus explains, their last encounter ended in a “blood drenched battle that claimed thousands of lives.” Although in the film this just manifests as a staring contest between John Huston and a small child set inside lava lamp where the loser turns into pocket-lint.

visitor sateen
I can’t look at this for long.

During Space Jesus’s history lesson, intergalactic psychic traveller Jerzy Colsowicz (John Huston) ambles in to deliver some bad news to Space Jesus: Sateen is back, in eight-year-old girl form and living on Earth. This leads to the single greatest reaction shot in history.

Turn the sound way up for this…


It’s almost impossible to recount the rest of the film in a straightforward linear way because all of its elements are so randomly stitched together. To be fair, it does have its own internal logic, but it’s the logic of a fucking crazy person. Here are some of the highlights…

An early scene has a guest appearance from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is put out of a basketball game by Katy (Sateen’s child form played by Paige Conner) using her psychic powers so that her Earthly father who owns the opposing team can win. This is never referred to again. Katy’s father Raymond is played by Lance Henriksen, who manages to utterly drip with insidiousness yet still have the look of an actor who doesn’t know what the fuck is going on around him but is heroically throwing himself into the madness anyway.

visitor lance henriksen birds
“Just stand back, don’t say a word and remember that one day you’ll be in Aliens”

Later on, Katy’s birthday party ends with a shooting. Yep, someone bought the eight year-old a gun, which she promptly uses to ‘accidentally’ shoot her own mother in the back. Her mother Barbara (played with admirable conviction by Joanne Nail) then spends the rest of the film in a wheelchair, before a finale that sees her dragged up a flight of stairs by the freakishly strong Katy, who then ties wire around her neck and threatens to garrotte her using a Stannah Stairlift.

The surprising number of Hollywood legends appearing in The Visitor is equally bizarre and impressive. Not only do we have John Huston, who shot the brilliant Wise Blood in the same year, but Sam Peckinpah, the irascible director of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs who makes a brief appearance as a doctor whose bedside manner consists of gruffly saying to a distraught Barbara “God why does everything have to happen to you.”

There’s also Shelley Winters, playing Jane Phillips an intergalactic nanny sent to keep an eye on Katy whilst her mother Barbara is confined to a wheelchair. This mainly involves slapping the evil child in the face repeatedly. According to Paige Conner, Shelley took great pleasure in doing this for real and Conner refused to go anywhere near her for the rest of the shoot…

She was just a witch. She knocked me down on the floor a couple of times. I couldn’t stand her. She just looked at me and said “I love scenes where I get to hit children”

Paige Connor’s turn as Katy is one of the most remarkable things in this movie. She’s particularly hypnotic in scenes where she gets to be a horrible little brat. Her dialogue to the detective investigating her mother’s shooting contains such choice phrases as “go fuck yourself,” “you’re a child molester” and “I bet you do dirty things to children,” She also tells him the gun that was bought for her birthday can be found “up his ass”.

Even more impressive are the sickeningly touching scenes where Katy is pretending to be a loving child purely to get her own way. Katy wants a brother so she can mate with him and bring Sateen fully into the world. Therefore her demands to her parents come off as intensely creepy on multiple levels.  “You and momma could make love and give me a baby-brother.”

That's why you don't put your head in the tumble dryer.
That’s why you don’t put your head in the tumble dryer.

There are other great things about this movie too. The soundtrack in particular, by Franco Micalizzi, and recently reissued by Mondo, is truly outstanding. Imagine the funky swagger of Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme mixed with Italo-disco and some luscious orchestral strings but with the occasional terrifying moment of urgency.

Even at its worst, The Visitor is so bemusingly crap that you can’t help but be charmed by it. Check out the finale when the swarm of animated space-birds descends on Barbara’s house to rescue her from the clutches of Katy and her father. God has taken the form of what appears to be an obviously plastic eagle and despatches Lance Henriksen with a concealed blade that springs out from its talons. It’s a masterpiece of shitness.

It’s a miracle that the film is this watchable or even remotely entertaining. The perplexing nature of The Visitor can be blamed on its Italian director Giulio Paradisi (here hilariously credited as the much more ‘American friendly’ Michael J Paradise). In an interview with Drafthouse, the screenwriter Lou Comici states that the director (who had previously served as a first AD for Fellini) needed serious reigning in. The concept for The Visitor was entirely Paradisi’s own but he didn’t really have a story, just a collection of barely connected scenes.

When discussing a scene set in an ice rink, Paradisi asked Comici to include elephants in the background. When Comici questioned why they should be there, Paradisi snapped back “people like elephants, put them in anyway”. Paradisi also insisted on multiple scenes where characters were sat on a toilet, plus a thankfully unfilmed scene involving testicle mutilation.

visitor_drafthouse 2014 poster
Drafthouse Films’ 2014 reissue poster.

There is also an unsubstantiated rumour that when Paradisi was fired halfway through shooting, he used certain violent gun-owning connections to ensure he was immediately rehired by the producers. Soon after this, Comici was unceremoniously fired by Paradisi and his script literally tossed out the window in front of him.

That much was probably already clear just from watching the film. But hey, Paradisi clearly had a vision and he damn well stuck to it no matter how balls out crazy and maddening it seemed to everyone else. Perhaps that’s what makes The Visitor so watchable rather than utterly execrable, its absolute conviction and belief in itself. Much like The Room, it has no awareness that what it’s doing is wrong, there’s no level of irony or a sense of tongue-in-cheek. Just a unique vision that refuses to be swayed by common taste or indeed common sense. It’s something to be admired in a small weird way.

Plus, you know, it’s got a Space Jesus in it.

For more in-depth and slightly wayward film analysis, check out our movie features section including this account of German cult favourite The Wave.

The Visitor

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