Review: 'The Visitor'

A leaking lava lamp of insane cult film imagery that transcends its significant camp value on the strength of its demented (but undeniable) craft, “The Visitor” – a restored director’s cut of which Drafthouse Films is now distributing into theaters as a midnight movie some 34 years after its initial release – plays like a remake of “The Bad Seed” as filtered through the acid-tinged mind of Alejandro Jodorowsky. The brainchild of “8 1/2” assistant director Giulio Paradisi (billed here for his first and last American production as “Michael J. Paradise”), this inexplicably star-studded 1979 oddity has been rescued from the brink of oblivion and reborn as a gleefully bonkers experience you never knew you’ve always wanted, and perhaps the most fun you can have in a movie theater without risking permanent brain damage.

The plot, such as it is, is perhaps best described by Drafthouse Films’ official boilerplate:

“In this unforgettable assault on reality, legendary Hollywood director/actor John Huston stars as an intergalactic warrior who joins a cosmic Christ figure in battle against a demonic 8-year-old girl, and her pet hawk, while the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. Multi-dimensional warfare, pre-adolescent profanity and brutal avian attacks combine to transport the viewer to a state unlike anything they've experienced... somewhere between Hell, the darkest reaches of outer space, and Atlanta, GA.”

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “how is that any different than ‘About Time’?” Well, perhaps a few more details might help clarify what makes this more than just your ordinary film about an intergalactic war between the director of “The Maltese Falcon” and a prepubescent girl who likes to harass her babysitters. “The Visitor” begins with Aryan Space Jesus telling his cadre of bald Padawan about an amorphous space creature named Sateen, who – during a routine prisoner transfer between space jails – escaped (or something) and transferred his evil vibes to some Earth folks for safe keeping. Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail, who looks like a cross between Olivia Wilde and the mom from “7th Heaven”) is the unknowing vessel for birthing Sateen’s progeny, her daughter Katy (a convincingly sociopathic Paige Conner) being the wicked child mentioned above. Naturally, Sateen needs Barbara to have a second child so that Katy can mate with him (#incest) and continue his proud lineage of vague malice, so Sateen dispatches Lance Henriksen (unfortunately not playing himself) to try and impregnate Atlanta’s least eligible single mother. John Huston, a trans-dimensional soldier of peace who assumes human form as Jerzy Colsowicz, is dispatched from the heavens as the cinema’s most unexpected intergalactic c**k-block (sorry, Zod).

“The Visitor” is obviously a very silly thing, but it’s also so consistently tone-deaf that it eventually develops and settles into a cinematic syntax of its own strange invention. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not the film was intended to be a laugh or if the man who worked as as Fellini’s apprentice was possessed by the vapor trails of the genius to which he was exposed and – like the Mr. Brainwash to Fellini’s Banksy – set off on his own quixotic quest to make great art. At the end of the day, all that matters is that Paradisi’s film defiantly explodes through the fragile glass ceiling of Z-movie kitsch, eclipsing its expected status as merely a fun time capsule or a cinephile curio (though, by the time a dubbed Sam Peckinpah shows up as Barbara’s family doctor, the hardcore audiences to whom this sort of re-release appeals will certainly have gotten their money’s worth). Sure, “The Visitor” looks like the weirdest driver’s ed video ever made, but beneath a synth score that seems reverse engineered for parodic value and editing so atonal that the film feels like a Godardian rebuttal to a generation of popular genre cheese, there’s real craft here. No, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that “The Room” director Tommy Wiseau learned everything he knows about reaction shots from the scene in which Katy accidentally shoots her mom in the back with a gun that someone gave her as a present at her birthday party (!?), but the madness in this film is so precise and unerringly sublime that the giggles it elicits are all couched in a genuine sense of awe.

Consider the film’s first earthbound set-piece, set during a professional basketball game in which one of the competing teams is owned by the villainous Lance Henriksen character. The sequence certainly ends in hilarious fashion, as Katy rigs the game by telekinetically causing the basketball to explode in the hands of an opposing player mid-dunk (and everyone is all “oh, that sure was weird, YOLO”), but the moments that anticipate the action are compellingly unorthodox. Paradisi’s off-kilter collage uses dislocated sound to superimpose pointed dialogue with verité-like sports footage. The results feel like a hodgepodge of stock or stolen footage, but the fact that the well-populated arena is clearly under the influence of the filmmakers creates an eerie feeling of manipulation that ultimately overwhelms the silliness, the scene unfolding like an Stephen King novel written in Comic Sans.

The plot certainly isn’t meaty or coherent enough to sustain interest, but whenever “The Visitor” is in danger of being consumed by its vulgarity, a deliriously well-staged car chase or a brilliant display of associative montage comes along to command your attention. Who could forget how Paradisi crosscuts between Katy’s gymnastics routine and her mother regaining consciousness in her hospital bed? Or the figure-skating routine Katy demonstrates at a mall ice rink, which might be the most traumatic thing to happen to Atlanta’s hockey community since the Thrashers left town? Or the fun house climax that knowingly borrows from the iconic hall of mirrors sequence of Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai”? Perhaps its the little details that cohere the intelligent design of the film’s warped internal logic, like the sinister single-source lighting when Katy rides her mom’s motorized ramp up the staircase in their house, or how her eyes sparkle when she first meets John Huston (a common reaction, no doubt). “The Visitor” might be a hot mess, the byproduct of tailspinning egos and the best drugs movie money could buy in the late 70s, but it certainly isn’t an accident.

And the alchemy of the film’s construction eventually implores the viewer to confront a veritable tidal wive of discomforting ideas. “Lee Daniels’ The Omen” “The Visitor” is a schlocky jumble of deliberate choices made by actual humans and their actual human brains, and its convincing wholeness adds a wildly unexpected credence to its themes. While it would be hard to argue that the film expresses particularly illuminating thoughts about any of its various concerns, Paradisi’s film isn’t too distantly removed from the likes of Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin”, especially in regards to how vividly it confronts the psychic perils of motherhood, the pressures of raising the next generation, and the hurtful bias with which society reacts to perceived failures of parenthood. When Katy spins around in her Dr. Claw swivel chair and bluntly tells her mother “you leave me alone too much”, the cult trappings of the film’s alien warfare drain away to reveal a genuinely human sense of hurt. So while “The Visitor” is definitely funny, and not always intentionally so, it’s too genuine to be dismissed as kitsch. It’s said that kitsch aims to copy the beautiful, not the good, but “The Visitor” is simply true to itself, and for that it deserves to be remembered as a singular adventure, definitely of its time but nevertheless worthy of yours.

SCORE: 8.1 / 10

"The Visitor" is now playing in select theaters (view a full schedule here). It will be available on VOD in February 2014.

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