This utterly bizarre B-movie is fascinating to watch unfold.
In many ways, 1979’s The Visitor is a hard movie to get a bead on. When I first watched it, my first assumption was that someone handed a born-again Christian $800,000 and several suitcases of drugs, leading to the creation of a psychedelic religious movie with sci-fi and horror undertones. But there may be a simpler answer: The Visitor wanted to combine The Omen and Close Encounters of the Third Kind into a single movie, drawing in the audiences of each.
The end result was far from successful. Despite The Visitor‘s unique premise and star-filled cast (featuring Lance Henriksen, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, and John Huston among others), The Visitor wasn’t able to pull itself together in a way that matched its source material. Sometimes it feels like each scene was cut-and-pasted from different movies with little regard to what lined up. And the occasional technical flub doesn’t help, including cases of obvious post-production dubbing to cover up misspoken lines.
But if you’re looking for a hilarious bad movie night with friends? The Visitor is a fantastic choice. For proof, here are The Visitor‘s opening lines, delivered by Jesus Christ to a group of bald space children.
Once, far away, light years, distances beyond thought, a great slender ship with a tail of fire slid through the black reaches of space. On that ship was Sateen, a prisoner named Sateen. Words cannot describe his evil. His criminality. He had been captured by Commander Yahveh after decades of search and evasion in a blood-drenched battle that claimed hundreds of lives. But shortly thereafter, Sateen escaped in a tiny scout craft. A fantastic escape from that spaceship. And soon he found a hiding place on the planet Earth.
Right from the start, The Visitor is dealing in religious allegory, turning Christian mythology into a bizarre space opera. In itself, that would have might for a fascinating, if controversial film, especially for 1970s. (Which explains why Jesus, played by Franco Nero, is an uncredited role for this film.) But spirituality and spaceships don’t have a big role in The Visitor, it’s just the backstory for a much stranger tale:
Sateen was a mutant, his genes transformed. A mutant with a primal wish to kill, but evolved to new psychic and occult powers. He used these powers to spread destruction and death. In order to find and destroy Sateen, Commander Yahveh tried many methods. One of these methods was an immense army of birds trained to hunt and to kill. But when these birds did discover Sateen, he transformed himself into an eagle and managed to destroy them all. Except for three, which survived and wounded him, fatally, in the brain.
But Sateen, now dead, lived on in another way. Before he was killed, he mated with Earth women, procreating numerous children, thereby transmitting his wicked spirit and evil powers through new generations. Yet the struggle continued, and still goes on. For Yahveh’s descendants pursued the progeny of Sateen, lest their contamination spread through the cosmos.
The Visitor then takes us to Atlanta, Georgia, where eight-year old Katy Collins is the latest descendant to manifest her powers. Katy, played by Paige Conner, is lifted wholesale from movies like The Omen, switching from adorably charming to destructive on a dime. During a basketball match, she causes the ball to literally explode just before the winning shot is thrown, presumably maiming the star player. She unscrews a fire escape from the side of a building using her mind to attack an enemy. On a few occasions, she even exhibits superhuman strength. The weirdest moment, however, is when she replaces her birthday gift (a glass bird) with a psychically-generated pistol, which she uses to casually paralyze her mother.
Katy’s powers are all over the map, but used so inconsistently it’s hard not to laugh at the results. The Visitor relies more on Conner’s age and unpredictably to make Katy appear dangerous. While it’s certainly a solid performance, it’s less threatening than it is shocking, especially when she launches into profanity-filled speeches to show her dark side.
Detective Jake Durham: Now listen to me Katy, isn’t there something you want to tell me?
Katy: Yeah. Go fuck yourself!
Admittedly, the shock value that hasn’t aged well in an era where South Park is an iconic television series, but it’ll probably get a few chuckles out of the audience nonetheless.
Her mother Barbara (played by Joanne Nail), takes the whole “my daughter paralyzed me” incident pretty well. The Visitor keeps flipping between letting Barbara acknowledge that Katy is evil, to downplaying the events and pretending nothing is wrong. She seems to intuit that Katy’s abilities are genetic, and refuses to have additional children for that reason, but at no point does she actually confront Katy about it. Which is unfortunate, considering that by the end of the film, Barbara is The Visitor‘s most frequent torture victim. Within the last half of the film alone, she’s beaten, choked, dragged up a set of stairs, kicked down the same stairs, and forcibly impregnated without anyone rushing to her defense.
And it’s not like people aren’t aware of what she’s going through: Arriving to stop Katy is Jerzy Colsowicz, played by John Huston (director of The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen). Colsowicz is basically The Visitor‘s Christ figure, despite Jesus literally being a character, having arrived from a distant planet to take Katy back with him. The problem is, Colsowicz needs to wait for a vaguely sci-fi apparatus to be constructed before he can pull Katy from Earth, so he ends up observing her while doing little to stop her rampages. (At one point, Colsowicz even pretends to be an agency-assigned babysitter so he has the chance to interact with her directly, an idea that probably sounded less silly during pre-production than it appears.)
What’s odd is that The Visitor spends very little time developing the relationship between Katy and Colsowicz, and far more time on various subplots. The police detective investigating Barbara’s shooting (played by Glenn Ford) takes a significant amount of investigating Katy’s actions, only to be dropped into a lengthy car crash scene for his trouble. Barbara’s boyfriend (played by Aliens‘ Lance Henriksen) is part of a global conspiracy to force her to have a second child that will help them take over the world. Of course, why the cabal of wealthy executives couldn’t just use Katy for that isn’t made entirely clear. There’s a housekeeper (played by Shelley Winters) who claims to given birth to her own evil psychic brood years prior, and wants to defend Barbara from these dangers. That said, she does a frustratingly awful job of keeping Barbara from harm’s way, and seems much more enthusiastic about beating Katy into submission. (According to a 2010 interview, Conner claims she was trained to expect a fake slap only for Winters to literally hit her instead.)
The Visitor also wasn’t helped by various on-set flubs and post-production edits. There are maybe two or three musical numbers within the entire score, but a single track keeps being inserted into the film at random, both for climatic scenes or just when someone walks up a set of stairs. Sam Peckinpah (director of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs) was paid to act in a single sequence as Barbara’s ex-husband and Katy’s father, only for most of his lines to be redubbed. And for some reason, Henriksen and Nail were allowed to improvise their bedroom dialogue, leading this staggering exchange:
[after the exploding basketball scene]Barbara: You know, that explosion… I can’t get it out of my mind.
Raymond: Which explosion? The first explosion (with) one ball or the second explosion with two ball?
Raymond: How come you don’t explode when we’re making love?
Still, with all the plot material featured in The Visitor those points could easily be redeemed with a powerful ending. Perhaps a spaceship arrives in the sky to take Katy away? Or there’s a climatic psychic showdown between Katy and Colsowicz? Not even close; The Visitor ends with the giant flock of birds flying through a space portal to wipe Sateen’s evil from the Earth. Seriously, The Visitor decides that the best way to end its psychedelic religious film is a recreation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, because it wasn’t stuffed full with enough sci-fi and horror films already.
Bottom Line: The Visitor is a mess, through and through, but it’s a hilariously fascinating mess to watch unfold. That so many established actors took part in its development only adds to the appeal, and keeps the film halfway watchable across a two-hour runtime.
Recommendation: Are you in the mood for a sci-fi, horror, religious flick that someone hoped would be a smash hit, but amused and confused instead? The Visitor should be near the top of that list.