Film Review: The Visitor (1979)

The Visitor is a very different animal where Italian horror films are concerned. It’s not a giallo or an offshoot of giallo like The Black Cat or Argento’s Three Mothers series. It’s not a zombie film at the least. I’d describe it as fitting closer to Italian Satanic horror films – films inspired by or seeking to mimic Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, and other similar films. These films rely less on plot cohesion and more on mood and tone. It doesn’t quite matter if the motivations of the characters are clearly spelled out or the narrative beats are coherent so long as the emotional beats are.

This is as much through a deliberate artistic choice as through necessity – with the way the Italian film industry works, actors do their performances in their native language and are then overdubbed in the language of the country the film is released in (English, Italian, etc.). The lines of native actors from that country stay with the original actors’ performances, while the rest is dubbed. This, combined with the fact that often the crews on these films don’t necessarily speak English well, means that the performances in these films can be something of a mixed bag. This is the case here.

The plot of The Visitor, as much as there is one, is a mix in particular of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, with a side of SF. In the ancient past, an alien criminal named Zateen came to Earth, pursued by an alien space cop – Yahweh. However, Zateen sired many children before his defeat, and he’s been able to bind his spirit to his bloodline, occasionally emerging through psychically gifted people to wreck havoc. We’re told this by a Christ-like figure (played by an uncredited Franco Nero), to a group of bald-headed children, looking almost like members of a cult – if we hadn’t previously seen an image of Jerzy Colsowicz (John Huston) walking through a psychedelic desert, and seeing an image of Zateen’s latest host – a young girl. Nero’s character (possibly YHWH himself), sends Jerzy to face Zateen’s latest host and their followers.

This sets up the main plot of the story – the young girl, Katy (Paige Conner), wrecks havoc with a rage beyond her years, as a group of Zateen’s followers works to grow the power of their master and bring his reincarnation by getting Katy’s mother pregnant with a son, whose incestuous offspring with Katy will be Zateen’s reincarnation. Meanwhile, Jerzy and a group of bald-headed followers work to flush out Zateen’s followers and to soften up Katy so they can remove the evil from her.

It’s kind of weird how this film is shot – Jerzy and his supporters are depicted in the same sort of shadowy manner that would almost be sinister if it weren’t for the fact that the film set up that they’re working for YHWH – while Katy is acting, straight up, like she’s effectively already the host for Satan (or Satan’s proxy). Lance Hendriksen plays a young member of the Zateenists, tasked with siring a son with Katy’s mother, Barbara.

Joanne Nail plays Barbara and, aside from Paige Connor, she is the standout role in the film. She is playing a woman who is suddenly thrust into a horrible situation that keeps getting worse and worse as the film goes on. And then there’s John Huston as Jerzy. Considering my introduction to Huston was as the voice of Gandalf from the Ranken-Bass Tolkien adaptations, considering the time of this film’s release, and considering that Huston is playing a white-haired, bearded, paternal man, who is apparently something like an Angel, I can’t help but imagine Huston having read the script not long after reading The Lord of the Rings, and deciding that he’s going to play Jerzy like Gandalf, since the Maiar are Tolkien’s version of Angels.

The film’s visuals are also good – it’s clear that the director, Giulio Paradisi – did a lot of location shooting in Atlanta to build up the city’s role in the film, and it gives the movie a vibe that other Italian horror films set in the US don’t have. The internal sets are also very nicely done. I also appreciate the use of a Pong clone in a scene between Huston and Connor as a visual representation of the verbal sparring the two characters are taking part in.

All in all, while I enjoyed the film, I also recognize that part of the roots of my enjoyment of the film is also with the recognition that this is a movie that is very different than how we view horror films, especially in comparison with American and British horror films. If you put your focus on the visuals, you’ll get a much better experience than if you were expecting a film that is totally narratively coherent.

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