The Visitor (1979)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“You’ve been feeling strange lately, Barbara, confused. This confusion has been transmitted to you from another time, another place, beyond human knowledge and understanding.”

The benign, bearded old man who utters these words goes by the name of Jerzy Colsowicz (John Huston), although one suspects that it is his initials which carry the greatest significance (he is also, in case one misses the Judeo-Christian allegory here, expressly a descendant of one ‘Commander Yahweh’). We first encounter Jerzy, in the prologue to The Visitor (AKA Stridulum), chatting on another planet with a children’s teacher/preacher (Franco Nero!) about Yahweh’s ancient and eternal conflict with the evil Zateen – but then Jerzy turns up, prosaically enough, in customs at Atlanta, Georgia’s airport, declaring himself to the official there as a first-time “visitor” to the US. Now Jerzy walks among us, awaiting the arrival of his “very special friends” so that he can confront the latest incarnation of his enemy, eight-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner), and take her away with him before she can create hell on Earth. Meanwhile, Katy’s mother Barbara (Joanne Nail) must resist and endure the occult interventions of a shadowy organisation, led by Dr Walker (Mel Ferrer), that seeks to have her bring a second Satanic (or ‘Zateen’-ic) child into the world.

Michael J. Paradise’s The Visitor is a curio that defies easy categorisation. Mixing the God-bothering moral panic of The Exorcist (1973) and especially The Omen (1976) with the space opera of Star Wars (1977), it depicts an apocalypse unfolding in the modern cityscape of America and the timeless battle between good and evil happening in the here and now – and all these bizarre supernatural goings-on unfold in an even more bizarre sci-fi frame that serves less to rationalise than to confound further. This special blend of theological and cosmological ideas with Seventies paranoia is shared perhaps only by Richard Kelly’s The Box (2009), which in no doubt it helped to inspire. Otherwise The Visitor is entirely sui generis.

Paradise ( Giulio Paradisi) is far less known than the three (!) directors featured in his cast – Huston, Ferrer and Sam Peckinpah (as Barbara’s ex-husband) – but he is nonetheless an arresting visual stylist. Lysergically painted-and-composited backgrounds and lo-fi light shows bring a striking if cheesy otherworldliness to the film’s alien elements; and the film’s cosmic duels are carried out neither with fire and brimstone nor laser guns, but in a far more abstract and surreal fashion. Here birds are the weapon of choice, while one encounter between Katie and Jerzy (who is at the time improbably babysitting the young girl in Barbara’s swanky pad) is expressed through a match of Pong that they play together, and another occurs in a hall of mirrors lifted from Enter the Dragon (1973) – but without the blades or kung fu. The results are indeed beyond human knowledge and understanding, beamed in from another time and place, but confusing in the very best of ways.

Anton Bitel