Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Giulio Paradisi's The Visitor (1979)


The Visitor begins with an on-screen message thanking both the governor and mayor of Atlanta, Georgia for their "helpful assistance" in the making of the film. Attached to any other movie, such comments would suggest appreciation, and while I'm sure the producers of the film are grateful for the city's cooperation, the note in this case can retroactively be read as an apology. Part of a late-'70s trend in European film production whereby independent producers would essentially co-opt American genre successes for grindhouse gentrification, The Visitor is unique in that while it fails in most every traditional respect with regard to narrative clarity or construction, it doesn't fall short as either entertainment or as a piece of craftsmanship. In fact, it excels at both, and as a result endures as one of the era's most indefinable, inconceivably progressive pieces of cinematic nonsense.

Directed by Giulio Paradisi, an Italian television director working under the American pseudonym Michael J. Paradise (because we like our European-flavored schlock served up by Anglophilic hands, apparently), the film is built around a ridiculous framing device featuring a Christ-like figure (Franco Nero) who summons an interstellar prophet (John Huston) to stop a young girl (Paige Conner) and her mother (Joanna Nail) from spreading the literal and figurative seed of the evil, unseen Santeen. (Subtlety, if you have yet to ascertain, isn't a primary concern here.) Somewhat inevitably, the film all but abandons this setup as we proceed to careen between negligible asides and elaborate set pieces which bring these and a good half-dozen more characters (played by an unmatched ensemble including Shelley Winters, Glenn Ford, and, why not, Sam Peckinpah) together across the Peach State's urban expanse. The original script by Lou Comici, commissioned with no knowledge of who would ultimately direct, was extensively reworked by Paradisi, and it shows. Assimilating devices and sequences straight from Hollywood's horror vault (there are obvious lifts of everything from The Birds to The Omen to Close Encounters of the Third Kind), The Visitor exists as a kind of hodgepodge of other, more successful genre entries, but in its playful, some might say ignorant, retrofitting of its predecessors, the film is satisfyingly irreverent, even invigorating.

For all his stupefying narrative gymnastics, Paradisi is nothing if not a talented stylist. Among other characteristics, he has a penchant for technically challenging tracking shots and tricky camera moves. Many sequences establish a displaced perspective, positioning the camera behind objects (often times banisters, fences, or shutters), adding to the visual tension as Paradisi and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri glide their lens between various bits of action. A centerpiece ice-skating sequence set within a giant shopping mall is particularly impressive, as the demon-seed schoolgirl ducks, dodges, and eventually disposes of her assailants in an array of superhuman feats of strength. Paradisi positions himself and his camera within the rink, and in a series of moves which predicts nothing less than what Scorsese does with a boxing ring in Raging Bull he appears to broaden and constrict the coordinates of the space, changing angles and widening the audience's viewpoint with each setup. The climatic action scene, which brings together the daughter, the mother she's crippled, and the visiting deity in an absurd display of avian home invasion that even Hitchcock couldn't have dreamt up, is equally notable, the practical effects imperfect but effective in their resourcefulness. Even the bookending sequences which seem to take place on an alien planet otherwise unmentioned employ makeshift diopter effects and in-camera experiments which call to mind Brian De Palma as quickly as Raúl Ruiz.

But despite these stylistic similarities and the film's positioning as act of blatant genre pillaging, The Visitor's closest contemporary may actually be the work of Chilean provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky. Like that celebrated cult figure's ambitiously mounted and occasionally nonsensical output, The Visitor is a similarly acid-damaged, hallucinatory audio-visual assault, equal parts spiritual allegory and sensory affront. If it lacks Jodorowsky's singular thematic focus and unforgiving way of reflecting those ideas via imagery and montage, it more than makes up for it in synapse-snapping, forehead-slapping imagination, which cast and crew makes no attempt to harness. It thus never even begins to allow itself to strain under its many concepts and for better or worse manages to stand as both a testament to unbridled creativity and as a supreme example of cross-continental exploitation run amok.

Image/Sound:
Drafthouse Films' new Blu-ray of The Visitor supersedes the out-of-print Code Red DVD and eclipses it in a number of areas, despite being single-layered. Making the jump to high definition, the picture, though limited by its source, is mostly clean of artifacts while still evincing a film-like appearance. Colors seem natural, if not demonstrative, while contrast is balanced and instances of depth and detailed are maintained. Audio, meanwhile, is also rendered in HD with a 2.0 track attempting to handle the film's array of sounds and effects. The results are problematic, but it's probably less of an issue with the new track itself than it is the original audio, as dubbed voices, music, and animal and action effects are all forced into the sound field with little regard for separation or balance. The mix therefore does what it can with volatile elements; there are some annoyingly shrill sounds on occasion, but dialogue is upfront and is mostly audible despite being piped in from a variety of sources.

Extras:
Extras are slim and not overly revealing of the project's inception, which to be honest adds quite a bit to the film's lasting allure. In a new video interview, Lance Henriksen, one of the film's supporting players, discusses his experience on set with John Huston and Shelley Winters, but otherwise just sort of jokes about the film and its cult legacy. Screenwriter Lou Comici and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri are more serious in their respective interviews, with the former offering some particularly interesting and funny tidbits about working with tyrannical director Giulio Paradisi. Finally, a small booklet is included with the package and features a short but satisfying interview with producer Ovidio Assonitis.

Overall:
One of the era's most indefinable, inconceivably progressive pieces of cinematic nonsense, The Visitor arrives on Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films, synapse-snapping, forehead-slapping imagination intact. [Slant]

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