Think of Ovidio G. Assonitis as the filmic equivalent of a poor cover band. Toiling under the belief that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — or the most lucrative, at any rate — this Greek producer would often mastermind cut-rate Italian rip-offs of Hollywood smashes. Thus, 1973's The Exorcist led to 1974's Beyond the Door, 1975's Jaws was followed by 1977's Tentacles, and 1976's The Omen inevitably led to 1979's The Visitor.
The Visitor (Photo: Drafthouse Films)
But with the last-named, Assonitis wasn't content merely mining one film, so in addition to the Damien-like activities, viewers are also treated to a healthy dose of science fiction, with the ingredients including flashing extra-terrestrial lights inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, John Huston looking like a distant cousin to Obi-Wan Kenobi, and even a guest appearance by a space Jesus played by an unbilled Franco Nero.
But there's more, much, much more. Indeed, The Visitor is one of those films that must be seen to be disbelieved. It's frequently awful, yes, but there's a hypnotic quality to its messiness, as if director Giulio Paradisi, billing himself as Michael J. Paradise (almost as great a fictional name as Holly Golightly, Humbert Humbert and Rufus T. Firefly), and the four writers (including both Assonitis and Paradisi) were daring viewers to look away for even one second.
The plot finds the space Jesus and his emissary, given the name Jerzy Colsowicz (Huston), attempting to stop a child that's carrying out the evil bidding of the nefarious Sateen (Sateen? Gee, I wonder how in Lucifer's name they came up with that moniker) in the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta, Ga. Eight-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner) is the daughter of Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail), a decent woman who nevertheless has a womb capable of producing super-babies. Barbara's boyfriend (Lance Henriksen), part of the evil cabal working on behalf of Sateen, wants her to become pregnant with another bad seed, this one male. Luckily for Barbara, some unlikely angels come to her aid. There's of course Jerzy, who looks after her in those rare moments when he's not posing as a babysitter(!), playing first-generation arcade game Pong or hanging out with bald men on an Atlanta rooftop. But there's also a housekeeper played by Shelly Winters, who holds the honor of being the worst performer to ever win more than one Oscar for emoting. Here, she's relegated to mainly discussing astrology and slapping Katy when she gets lippy.
The all-star slumming doesn't end with Huston and Winters (who co-starred in Assonitis' Tentacles). Reliable Glenn Ford turns up as a detective who gets cussed out by pint-sized Katy and who's attacked by a falcon in a manner that recalls Elizabeth Shepherd's demise in Damien: Omen II (which incidentally also featured Henriksen in an early role), and famed director Sam Peckinpah, immersed in the drugs-and-booze-infused stage of his life, appears (dubbed) in one scene as Barbara's ex-husband.
I'm not bothering to assign a star rating to this film because what would it do with one? By no discernible measure is this a good movie, but you could do worse than catch it with a receptive crowd. The Back Alley Film Series is presenting the uncut version of The Visitor this week, so that's the perfect opportunity to check out this trippy oddity.
(The Visitor will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, at Crownpoint Cinemas, 9630 Monroe Road. Admission is $10. For more information, go to www.backalleyfilmseries.com.)