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'The Visitor', or the Joy of Truly Awful Films

Are you a lover of irresistibly inept cinema? Here's a genre classic.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Jan 2014TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

"Holy shitballs!" might be the first thing that comes to mind after a viewing of The Visitor.

"Holy" because the film is about an intergalactic showdown between the forces of good and evil, featuring a Jedi-like John Huston, a cross-eyed Christ figure with a curious resemblance to Lemmy from Motörhead, and a crew of bald tykes in matching gold turtlenecks.

And "shitballs" because there is no getting around it: The Visitor is a terrible film. A cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs, banana-split insanity, sprinkled with nuts and drizzled with awful sauce. That's okay, because more importantly it's a lot of fun to watch. Certainly it doesn't make one ounce of sense, and maybe that is just what one needs at the moment. The world seems a bit more crazy than usual.

In the past few weeks, I've watched films about crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka, civil war in the Congo, atrocities in Syria, murder, mayhem and horrors aplenty. It is hard to shake the feeling that humans are bad news for everything on the planet, from coral reefs to mountain gorillas. But they are especially hard on other humans. Ukraine erupts, and the debate around abortion rages on. On Twitter, people maul each other like rabid bears, and then Justin Bieber gets arrested. What is there to belieb in anymore? I simply don't know.

Where to go for escape, a little levity or some sweet relief? I offer The Visitor, a 1979 film showing at Vancouver's The Cinematheque this weekend, as a welcome respite from the unrelenting grimness of reality. Sometimes you need a certain brand of craziness to right the vessel once more, and this film has a boatload.

Try to follow along

The film is also a nice trip back to the seventies, a time when things made even less sense. This is clear from its opening moments, which reveal a cosmic no man's land full of roiling, boiling clouds and an ominous Tangerine Dream soundtrack supplied by off-screen hippies. Into the scene strides John Huston to square off with a girl in knee socks and a sack of flour on her face. Rest assured: this is about as reasonable as the plot gets. "Abandon all hope of narrative sense, ye who enter here."

Without warning or ceremony, the scene cuts to a nice room full of white couches and tropical plants, where Jesus is explaining the origins of evil to a group of young cancer patients. Apparently, some entity named Sateen flew the celestial coop and is being pursued by a cloud of angry pigeons that wish to peck his head. I suppose I might turn to evil as well if this was always happening to me. Who or what exactly Sateen is is never fully explained, but he has the power to possess young children.

The evil one has set up camp on Planet Earth and is traipsing about wearing a satin baseball jacket and the world's biggest sunglasses in the form of a little girl named Katy Collins (played by the terrifyingly saber-toothed Paige Connor). Eight-years-old and mean as sin, Katy may not look like the personification of evil, but she is already up to bad business, busily throwing NBA games for the sheer hell of it and wandering about with a pet falcon on her shoulder.

The fact that a kid in Atlanta has a bird of prey at her beck and call, and no one even comments on it, is only the beginning of The Visitor's weirdness. Don't worry too much about this type of plot detail, though -- no one else obviously did, and it will only hurt your brain. Surrender to the delirious and delicious badness, lick it off your fingers like cinematic Cool Whip, and then dip in for some more. There's a whole tub of the stuff.

Atlanta may not seem like the most obvious place to launch an evil world takeover, but Sateen isn't the most organized of evil entities. Sateen needs another kid, a boy that Katy can mate with, to create a race of super evil children to rule the universe. Katy's mother Barbara is in possession of a magical uterus, able to issue children of canny and uncanny powers. If only Barbara (the terminally pretty and perpetually dull Joanne Nail) would let her boyfriend knock up her, but she's not into it. Barbara is only interested in maintaining a casual relationship with her lover Raymond Armstead, played by the googly-eyed Lance Henriksen (soon to graduate to far better films).

Meanwhile, in a downtown Atlanta boardroom, a shadowy cabal of old white men is plotting to take over the world, one uterus at a time. If this sounds like the Republican Party, you're not far off. It always comes down to men controlling women and their unruly v-parts, and so it is here as well. If only they could penetrate Barbara's womb with Lance Henriksen's googly penis! But no such luck.

It gets terribly weirder

Interspersed with the ongoing lunacy are moments of quite ordinary interaction between mother and daughter, who talk, cuddle and snipe at each other. "You leave me alone too much," Katy informs her mother, and she's probably right. Despite her dedication to evil, Katy doesn't actually seem that bad. Sure, she mouths off to adults in a Georgia twang so thick it could shatter glass, and occasionally she sics her pet falcon on nosy cops. But who hasn't wanted to do such things?

Meanwhile, Barbara is preoccupied with lip-gloss and sex, just like any seventies mother. This kitchen-sink drama aspect, playing off The Exorcist vibe with its entrance of the uncanny into the ordinary world, has the effect of heightening the weirdness.

Before you can say, "African Queen!", in wanders John Huston, posing as the world's oldest babysitter in order to disrupt the plan to create more Sateenic spawn. If that isn't enough, he comes with a soundtrack, a seventies blast of horns and funk and laser sounds. Huston, with the unlikely name of Jerzy Colsowicz, insinuates himself into the family and sets about convincing Katy that she ought to give up her naughty ways and come back to the room of potted palms and white couches where Lemmy Jesus awaits. Katy is more interested in playing what appears to be the world's first video game, and tells him, "You want my advice, old man? Go back to wherever you came from."

But old Jerzy doesn't give up so easy, and luckily he has help from Shelley Winters, playing a spooky maid. Bless her jowls, Winters gives it the old college try here, smacking the sand out of Katy and crooning "Mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread" as she skulks about the furniture, vaguely rubbing things. There are many things that need rubbing, since the family's apartment is furnished with as much brass sculpture and wicker as Burt Reynold's love nest. If you ever needed a reminder that the seventies hurt the eyes, here's a crash course: enormous bronze modernist sculptures of birds and daisies everywhere. "What exquisite taste," purrs Winters to the lady of the house.

Other actors obviously on the downward slope of their career make appearances in The Visitor like some terrible game of Hollywood Squares, popping in to get their eyes pecked out by birds, or mumbling their lines in obvious embarrassment before slinking away. It's an impressive list, including Glenn Ford (Gilda), Winters (Night of the Hunter) and even Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch).

Meanwhile, things simply continue to happen: Katy shoots her mother in the back with a gun that she gets for her birthday and gleefully shrugs as mama goes down in a spray of blood. Birds attack people, hot dog vendors get squashed and mobile alien impregnation units roam the highway, inseminating unwary motorists.

Despite the ample amounts of plot insanity, it's hard not to actually start to care about these people and their quest: whether it's twinkly John Huston trying to build an intergalactic runway on the top of a building, with the help of a team of baldies in matching tracksuits, or poor Barbara, who just needs a nice safe abortion to save the world. Naturally she goes to see Sam Peckinpah, who works at a charity hospital and crosses his legs a lot.

At some point, I gave up trying to follow along and simply let the film ravish me. There is so much to enjoy. Despite their evident embarrassment, the actors do what they can. And there are moments of genuine rapport, such as Glenn Ford squaring off against Katy, who tells him, "Go fuck yourself." If only Rita Hayworth had done the same.

Tender, awful films

What is one to make of such delicious trashy madness? Certainly The Visitor is the film equivalent of spray cheese, but that doesn't quite explain the giddy joy that attends a film that has gone completely off the rails. One watches with jaw dropped, a slender strand of drool descending in slow motion. There is something visceral, nay, almost carnal in witnessing the truly terrible. The feeling that anything might happen, that anything is possible. The doors of potential have been thrown wide open, and in strides calamity, chaos and Sam Peckinpah.

But badness is also vulnerable, fragile even, which is why really awful films seem to inspire some strange form of tenderness. Whatever the film's faults -- nonsensical plot, hambone acting, or camcorder special effects -- genuine ineptitude has a ring of truth to it. Call it what you will -- the search for authenticity, the quest for the real -- you know it when you see it.

At the time it was made, The Visitor's producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (Tentacles) and director Giulio Paradisi (credited as Michael J. Paradise) were not alone in their decision to stitch together elements borrowed or stolen from other films, like Star Wars, The Omen, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Rosemary's Baby. The film was part of a global movement to make cheap rip-offs of American movies. Italy was once the centre of such magpie thievery, but Australia and the Philippines got in on the action.

There is even a documentary of sorts about the making of the film, although it mostly consists of the two female leads waxing nostalgic about working with the likes of Huston, Peckinpah and Winters. It is the film's producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (pronounce that to yourself and try not to laugh) who steals the show, as he randomly waves a pile of paper in the air and talks about how much money the film made.

At end, it's the Icarus-like quality of The Visitor that hits home. Its mad ambition to fly towards the sun ultimately inspires an odd form of respect. It's God-awful and barking mad, but at least it's trying in its own crazy way to do something. At least I think it's trying -- attacking pigeons, flying hair, and Pong get in the way. So don't miss it at The Cinematheque in Vancouver this week. Take your friends and maybe some other things, because it's definitely a trip that should be shared.  [Tyee]

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