The Visitor October 26, 2016
There’s a delicate little thing called tone that horror movies strive to maintain but rarely can. Classics of the macabre are so much more few and far between than classics of the funny bone tickle arguably because there’s so much at stake for films that fall under the category of the former — a failed set of scares is a failed set of scares and, unlike the comedy genre, it’s hard to redeem a horror movie that characterizes itself as uneven sooner or later.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call 1979’s The Visitor a masterpiece in horror — it’s not as ruthless as it should be and it’s not nearly as eccentric as it could be — it’s a masterpiece in tone: I can only think of a handful in the quote unquote nightmare imitating subgenre (a la The Holy Mountain, The Beyond, or Inferno) that so conclusively transport us into a world of labyrinthine, unnervingly vague terror so convincingly presented that we never come to question the methods of its maker.
The maker, in this case, is Giulio Paradisi (or, as the opening and closing credits call him, Michael J. Paradise), an Italian filmmaker who only directed four features in his lifetime. All lighthearted romps to be forgotten in the decrepit pits of Wikipedia, his only horror picture, The Visitor, is remarkably assured for an otherwise inexperienced artist. Playing out like an accessible collaboration between Lucio Fulci and Alejandro Jodorowsky, it’s mysterious without being off-puttingly ambiguous, ambitious without being obsessive. In store is a lovably weird, sumptuously supernatural tour-de-force in atmospheric paranormality; it is a definitive hidden gem of 1970s horror.
Taking cues from The Bad Seed, The Omen, and The Fury, The Visitor revolves around the desperate attempts by evil inner-spatial force Sateen to impregnate Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail), the only woman on Earth capable of birthing the antichrist. Though she already has a daughter at home (Paige Connor) that scares the shit out of her (either because of her scary lack of a conscience, her nonchalant attitude toward violence, or her unexplained Texas accent that makes her sound like an honorary KKK member), the Sateen are incapable of world domination without a male offspring.
They’ve hired a man (Lance Henriksen) to try to romance Barbara and do the implementation himself, but after several ventures fail do things get more aggressive. In response does Jesus Christ (Franco Nero) send quasi-angel Jerzy (John Huston) to watch over Barbara and her daughter and prevent severe wrongdoing. But thwarting a mightily powerful evil such as the Sateen is a feat even a higher power like Jesus and his disciples might have trouble with, and one can only hope that beating the clock is an attainable possibility.
And maybe it is — if The Visitor were slightly more straightforward and we were more sure that the conclusion really is the conclusion. But since continuity is sorta kinda fucked and since it’s hard to believe that all in front of us is an imitation of some sort of psychedelic reality outlined in malevolence, we’re more prone to treating it all as some sort of strange fever dream we had during a drunken stupor. And for what it’s worth, The Visitor is all the better for it.
Whether it’s Eurotrash that got lucky in its looking and feeling good or if it’s an underrated artistic triumph depends on your stance, but as I’m particularly fond of well-made, hallucinatory frights, I find the film to be ravishingly well put together and comprehensively breathtaking — it won’t incur nightmares, no, but its images and textures dazzle as much as they unsettle; The Visitor is an experience not to be underestimated in its ability to transport.
So maybe the ending’s a little too optimistic for my taste and maybe its baiting for crossover success is warped and oddly obvious — why so much of the cast is taken up by greats of the Hollywood Golden Age is an interesting choice in ensemble assembly. But The Visitor is nevertheless 1970s horror better than Fulci and comparable in its fruitfulness to Carpenter — to get enough is perhaps impossible. It feels so right. A-