Around when I entered the 4th grade, my budding interest in film compelled my parents to recommend to me the infamous no-budget sci-fi clusterfuck that is 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Seeing as I was an aficionado of CGI-laden blockbusters like Independence Day, they knew I would get a kick out of the film’s ramshackle production values—and I did, going so far as to throw a Plan 9-themed birthday party, complete with an arts-and-crafts session devoted to fashioning flying saucers out of paper plates to mirror the film’s unconvincing special effects. And so I was welcomed into the realm of the cinematic cult classic, a way of looking at cinema that quickly consumed my viewing habits and my aesthetic outlook. By high school, my friends and I were fervently barreling through the traditional cult canon while also seeking to claim a few obscure films as our own.
Director: Michael J. Paradise
Producers: Ovidio Assonitis, A. Caponetto
Writers: Ovidio Assonitis, Lou Comici, Robert Mundy, Michael J. Paradise
Cinematographer: Ennio Guarnieri
Editor: Robert Curi
Music: Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Lance Henriksen, John Huston, Joanne Nail, Sam Peckinpah, Shelley Winters, Paige Conner
Genre: Horror / Sci-Fi
Countries: USA / Italy
Premiere: March 22, 1979 – Italy
US Theatrical Release: November 21, 1980
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
There are many factors that play into the canonization of a cult classic and inform our enjoyment of it, often simultaneously—to name a few, a film can be “so bad it’s good,” or it might be an undiscovered masterpiece ahead of its time, or it might be an unusually shocking and salacious artifact from earlier time, perhaps one that suffered censorship in its initial release and therefore cannot be appreciated fully until years or decades later. Sometimes, these rationales for consumption get a bad rap, as if ironic appreciation cannot coexist symbiotically with genuine emotional investment and exultation. However, part of what we’re celebrating in these films is the boldness to take the thrilling and entertaining risks that the more mannered mainstream avoids. And yet with thousands and thousands of low-budget curiosities waiting to be admired and anointed, it sometimes seems like cult film aficionados find themselves scraping the barrel for new and novel obscurities.
While 1979’s The Visitor is not quite the sort of top-tier cult classic around which lore has accrued for decades, it’s still a captivating oddity whose collision of ripped-off sci-fi and horror tropes and bizarrely grandiose art cinema aspirations, yields a campy yet rote thriller interrupted by flashes of peculiar brilliance.
The plot concerns 8-year-old Katy Collins. Unbeknownst to her mother Barbara, Katy is the earthling spawn of an evil cosmic being named Sateen, although it’s hard to see how Katy’s foul mouth, overwhelmingly malicious demeanor, and increasingly frequent use of telekenesis haven’t tipped Barbara off. In any case, Sateen’s powerful genes will only be passed on if Barbara births a Sateen-descended brother with whom Katy can mate. Unfortunately for Barbara, her husband (and Katy’s stepfather) is part of a global conspiracy to ensure that exactly that happens. All the while, a mysterious being going by Jerzy Colsowicz arrives from space intent on preventing this catastrophic sequence of events.
If you’re getting whiffs of The Exorcist and The Omen films, you’re not off-base—the film’s producer and storywriter, Ovidio G. Assonitis, was known for near-plagiaristic recreations of Hollywood fare, and The Visitor is no exception (at the risk of spoiling a couple of the film’s most enjoyably baffling scenes, let’s say that The Birds serves as a crucial influence as well). Strangely enough, the cast features two of Hollywood’s great iconic and iconoclastic filmmakers: John Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, plays Jerzy, the film’s “visitor.” Meanwhile, Sam Peckinpah, the vagabond auteur responsible for a string of notoriously violent ‘60s and ‘70s westerns, appears as Barbara’s hilariously cynical doctor.
The Visitor’s story seems to crawl by at first, but we’re treated to some wonderfully skewed montages throughout. And as the plot’s cosmic conflict finally ramps up, its duller facets are jettisoned in favor of a series of spectacularly kinetic and clever setpieces building towards its awesomely weird climax.
The Visitor, in its original, uncensored cut, has now been restored and rereleased both theatrically and on Blu-ray and DVD by Drafthouse Films, whose Austin theater the Alamo Drafthouse has apparently gotten a lot of mileage out of The Visitor as a midnight movie. It’s not hard to see why: it’s a lot of fun and has some great moments, and its jarring, stylized patchwork of clichés and experiments will please even the most seasoned midnight moviegoer.
That said, it’s not essential viewing, and is certainly a far cry from the celebrated 1970s horror and sci-fi standard-bearers that it so assiduously apes. As much as parts are enjoyable, it still made me wonder if today’s cinephiles ought to shift their attention away from dragging past obscurities into the contemporary film landscape and more toward identifying and encouraging the makers of tomorrow’s cult classics. After all, such a strategy might help shatter the impasse at which we find ourselves: an era in which industrial support for new and exciting ideas and approaches is at a nadir even as cinema’s technological barriers for entry are rapidly disintegrating. Expecting innovation and excitement from the future, rather than the past, may not remedy this situation wholesale, but it seems like an urgent first step.