Scarefest: The Visitor

“Maybe this just isn’t the right time to bring children into this bad, mixed-up world. Some of them are confused: they think that the forces of evil are stronger than the forces of good.” –Jane Phillips (Shelley Winters), in The Visitor

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This article was written as a contribution to Scarefest, a series of pieces by commenters on film website The Dissolve, organized by commenter Miller. The week before it ran, I alerted Miller that I was changing my Scarefest entry to The Visitor, and another commenter asked, “Are you writing about how scary it is that it’s so bugnuts insane?” I assume he was kidding, but my short answer is yes. Yes, I am.

The 1979 film The Visitor, directed by Giulio Paradisi (as “Michael J. Paradise”), has long had a reputation as a hard-to-find cult oddity; after a restoration and rerelease by Drafthouse Films in 2013, it became more widely available on disc and VOD. TCM ran the restored version as part of its “TCM Underground” series last summer, and that’s where I saw it. I didn’t know a lot about it, other than having seen the bizarre trailer Drafthouse put together for it, and knowing that the film was considered extremely weird even among cult horror aficionados. I was prepared to have my mind blown, but I wasn’t prepared for The Visitor to actually be, you know, scary.

The plot isn’t easy to summarize except in broad outlines: businessman Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen) has made a deal with a shadowy organization dedicated to perpetuating the bloodline of an evil alien being referred to as Sateen. His girlfriend Barbara (Joanne Nail) has one child, Katy (Paige Conner), now eight, but Barbara is afraid of Katy and reluctant to have another child. Because of this, the organization pressures Raymond behind the scenes—their plans for world domination require that Katy have a brother—and Katy, in whom Sateen’s influence is already strong, alternately wheedles and punishes her mother for her obstinance. In the mean time, Jerzy (John Huston), the “visitor” of the English title, stalks Katy on behalf of Franco Nero’s character, a Christ-like figure who lives somewhere (in outer space? or is it Heaven?) with a congregation of bald children and who is opposed to Sateen. Is the visitor’s mission to kill Katy or save her? A lot of other stuff happens in the margins, but that’s basically it: a blend of New Age contactee mysticism and 1970s devil-child horror. So far, so good.

I: The Sleep of Reason

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So why did this movie, much of which is absurd on its surface, freak me out? For one thing, the film’s late-‘70s style took me back to my childhood, and not in a good way. I’m just over 40, so my memory of the 1970s is filtered through the subjective haze of being a young child then. The ‘70s were pretty strange to begin with, and even more so when you have no reference for much of the adult world. Much of what was considered “grown-up” moviemaking (and a lot that was aimed at kids) back then was characterized by, to use President Carter’s infamous term, the “malaise” of the time, and for me that resulted in a lot of free-floating unease, even when watching things that were ostensibly light. You just never knew when things were going to take a dark turn. The gauzy, soft-focus cinematography, cheesy cop show music, and swinging suburban styles of The Visitor were all intimately familiar to me, to the point that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t seen this movie as a kid (I’m still not sure).

My reaction is a subjective one, but is there anything more subjective than fear? Like laughter or arousal, the fear reaction is fundamentally irrational; it can be controlled on the viewer’s part, and there are techniques filmmakers can use to evoke it, but at a base level it touches something that cannot be reasoned with. In my case, that reaction has always been close to the surface: I could hardly watch scary movies or TV shows as a kid, even tame fare like The Twilight Zone, because being afraid or tense wasn’t a pleasant sensation for me like it is for many kids. I was drawn to fantasy, but even something that wasn’t scary at first could come to haunt me, taking on a life of its own as I lay in bed, waiting for sleep, which in many phases of my childhood had its own terrors in the form of realistic nightmares. The Visitor falls flat as a vehicle for ideas or even as a story: too many things happen without explanation, there are abrupt tonal shifts and weird distortions of sound and image, and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. But is that not an accurate description of a dream?

In dreams, anything can happen, and ordinary events and objects can be invested with emotional power greater than they have while awake. The very first scene, a (possibly allegorical) confrontation between Katy and Jerzy in a gold-lit field, is overtly surreal, and typical of the over-the-top visual flourishes in the movie’s more fantastic sections. As Katy approaches, thick snowflakes swirl around and stick to her face; eventually, only her eyes are visible. It’s spooky, like something from Altered States or Ridley Scott’s Legend (Scott also came to mind later in the film when the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta are seen through a smoky haze, like the future Los Angeles of Blade Runner).

But the first scene that really threw me is relatively mundane: at her birthday party, Katy eagerly opens a box which was supposed to contain a mechanical bird purchased by her aunt in an earlier scene. Through Sateen’s power (or something), the box contains a gun, which Katy excitedly waves around and then tosses onto the couch, where it goes off and hits Barbara in the back. Katy shrugs, like, “oops?” Barbara spends the rest of the movie in a wheelchair, paralyzed by a bullet to the spine. It’s a crazy scene, but part of its nightmare power is how casually it occurs, and the mismatch of typical “suspense” build-up with gleefully committed violence that literally comes out of nowhere.

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Later, after Barbara has recovered and started getting back to a normal life, she is stranded with Katy while driving at night. A semi truck, of which we can only see the lights, pulls up on the side of the road in front of their car. Barbara is worried, and Katy openly mocks her fear. Barbara is right to be afraid: the truck is a mobile operating room, and after she is rendered unconscious agents of the conspiracy artificially inseminate her to speed up their plan. The imagery is straight out of an alien abduction report: stranded motorists, lost time, the dim memory of an operation (I suspect that it is this sequence, and a few scenes of glowing lights in the sky, that led to criticism of The Visitor as a knock-off of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and a surprise pregnancy.

Upon discovering her condition, Barbara goes to her ex-husband (played by Sam Peckinpah!) and pleads with him to help her get an abortion. When she returns home from that operation (still in her wheelchair), Katy savagely attacks her. No pretenses now! And again, the sudden eruption of violence, while motivated by character and plot, is surprising in its intensity. Even Damien usually cloaked his actions in the plausible deniability of a “freak accident.”

II. The Sound of Nightmare

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The Visitor’s Italian title, Stridulum, is appropriate: Latin for “whizzing or hissing,” and surviving in English in the word “stridulation,” for the buzzing sound insects make by scraping their legs together, it’s a clue to how important sound is in The Visitor. Both Sateen and his enemy (a spaceship-flying “Commander Yahweh”—shades of Chariots of the Gods!), have birds as an important part of their back story; Katy keeps a hawk called Squeaky who obviously represents her diabolical heritage and with whom she communicates, and the visitor summons a flock of birds during the climax of the film to scourge Katy of Sateen’s influence (I think). I suspect that birds are so important to The Visitor because they’re a convenient artsy symbol for the soul, and also because, post-Hitchcock, birds are creepy. Either way, the soundtrack is full of echoing, distorted screeches and bird calls (in addition to analog synthesizer sounds—another skin-crawling part of my childhood—and the aforementioned funky cop show music). Whenever Katy is about to use her psychic powers (as at the birthday party), we hear the eagle cry, or see a glimpse of Squeaky, or both.

Then there’s the mechanical bird that was supposed to be in the box: it’s a gold and blue knick-knack that says “I’m a pretty bird” in a synthesized drone, followed by a whine of feedback, on a constant loop. Even in the first scene, when Katy’s aunt buys it, I’m not sure how anyone could hear that and think of the bird as anything other than a prop in a horror movie. Later, when a detective (Glenn Ford!) is trying to figure out where the gun at the party came from, he finds the bird and takes it with him in his car. It’s still talking as he drives his car down the freeway with it on the passenger seat. “I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo,” et cetera, until Squeaky attacks the detective and he drives the car off the road, where it bursts into flame before he can escape. Squeaky strikes again!

Sound also plays a role in the scariest scene in the film, the scene that I actually had to turn off for a few minutes to get myself together before I could finish watching it: early in the film, Katy is shown playing Pong on a big-screen TV, hidden by the chair in which she is sitting. The electronic blip of the game is the counterpoint to the conversation she has with her mother. Much later in the film, after Katy has been institutionalized for her violent behavior, Barbara returns home to her empty house and hears: blip . . . blip . . . blip. The game is turned on, Katy is in her chair. After Katy’s brutal attacks, just her presence in the house again is scary, but the whole sequence following is . . . well, it scared the hell out of me, but it is also much stranger than anything I’ve described yet, so I won’t spoil it.

III. All in the Family

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Paige Conner doesn’t look like she’s eight years old in this movie: maybe ten. It could be that she’s big for her age or I could just chalk it up to the precocity of child actors. In any case, her Katy Collins is a miniature tyrant, controlling and profane. Her poor mother is constantly put-upon, and her would-be stepfather mostly stays out of her way. Even when Katy’s words are pleading, her tone is commanding or threatening. Only Jerzy and a suspicious housekeeper (Shelley Winters) really see her for what she is, but take opposite approaches to dealing with her.

By coincidence, I had an older sister who would have been about Katy’s age in 1979, and while she wasn’t the holy terror that Katy is in the movie, I’m sure it affected my reception of this movie. The trappings of a late ‘70s girlhood cheek-by-jowl with the freaky events of the movie was unsettlingly close to my childhood nightmares and brought to the surface more anxiety than I realized I still carried with me.

Domestic abuse was an issue that got a lot of attention in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as if the lid had finally come off a closely-held secret and now everyone was free to sort it out in public. I’m fortunate that I didn’t grow up with firsthand experience of family violence, but it was something I became aware of thanks to the new openness about it. Nowadays, when I hear about Mommie Dearest at all, it’s as a camp classic: “No more wire hangers, ever!” et cetera. It wasn’t funny to me as a kid, however: Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford terrified me. I might have chosen that movie for Scarefest, except I haven’t gone back to watch it since then.

The Visitor pushes some of the same buttons for me. I’m not kept up at night by its cosmic battle of good and evil, or the slow-motion mayhem, or even the bird attacks: those are par for the course with science fiction and horror movies. I enjoy that stuff. What really shocked and disturbed me was the sudden eruption of violence in otherwise very mundane settings, worst of all between family members. For such an unreal movie, it feels an awful lot like someone’s issues being laid bare.

Now that I’m an adult, I see my childhood anxieties from the other side: my daughter is eight years old. I love her. She’s a good kid. But even in the best of relationships there are moments: children can be shockingly amoral and single-minded about getting what they want. As a parent, it’s natural to wonder about and be frustrated by those moments, and fearful not of our children but for them. I’m also not proud to admit that there are moments I feel like Shelley Winters’ Jane, just wanting to slap some respect into the “bad” kids. Is that what this genre of horror boils down to? Is that the root of The Bad Seed and The Good Son and “It’s a Good Life” and The Omen and all the rest? Is it simply the recognition that children can be brats, taken to the nth degree?

Possibly. But I think it’s more general than that: even the people closest to us have sides to them that are unknown to us. They share our lives and homes, but their thoughts are no more visible to us than those of strangers halfway around the world. The Visitor taps into the fear that we don’t really know the people around us: the “Visitor” could be a stranger, or someone we’ve known our whole lives.

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