Last night I celebrated New Years in the traditional manner: booze and dystopian sci-fi. Nothing makes you feel more thankful for the future when the new year rolls around and it’s not as bad as Brazil, Strange Days, or Clockwork Orange.
The cinematic viking funeral for 2015 turned out to be a strange trip. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York from 1981 followed by The Visitor from 1979. Escape from New York is a personal favorite that I hadn’t seen for several years. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies. In fact he once owned a VHS tape with Escape, Blade Runner, and Road Warrior on it, all taped off HBO one month.
But I’d never seen The Visitor. In some circles, it’s kind of a well known film, but I don’t think of it as a well regarded film. More a cult “classic.” But weirdly enough, I was able to glean a little bit of writing/publishing wisdom from watching it. Most important being, there is more value than risk in doing your own thing.
I found it impossible to watch The Visitor without thinking of it as an attempt to capitalize on the success of recent movies. And who could blame them, really? I frequently think of Star Wars, which came out just two years prior to The Visitor as a game changer for sci-fi films for a few decades. Everyone wanted a piece of that pie. But you also had movies like The Omen (1976) generating a huge buzz with veteran actors and a God vs. Evil narrative. As a producer in the late seventies, how much must it have sucked to try and chase those tigers?
We see that in the fiction game now. Vampires were huge, everyone started writing/publishing vampire novels. Then zombies. Then apocalypse. There are cycles and trends. There are always people leading the charge with original ideas that they’re passionate about and a bunch of people ready to surf the wave with similar projects that they’ve either had ready or have planned for a while. And then there are the ones chasing that wave not really clear what that wave was.
The Visitor is a prime example of the latter.
Here’s the IMDB description for those too lazy to have clicked through on the above link:
The soul of a young girl with telekinetic powers becomes the prize in a fight between forces of God and the Devil.
What this description leaves out is an alien bloodline, space Jesus, psychic control of birds and a few hits of acid out of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s private stash. It also features veteran actor/director and champion beard grower John Huston as this khaki-clad eponymous “visitor” come to mentor/kill/confound the central young girl. Speaking of, the young girl bears an uncanny resemblance to another troubled young girl *Cough*Exorcist*Cough*. Like The Omen, you also get old-school Hollywood mainstays Glen Ford, Mel Ferrer, and Shelly Winters, plus a young, evil Lance Henrickson. You get this weird light show near the climax that evokes Close Encounters of the Third Kind so hard it’s impossible for me to think it’s coincidental. You get an alien psychic bloodline with a bearded mentor that might as well be carrying a light saber. And let me say it again because it bears repeating: space Jesus.
Despite a few well shot scenes, it’s a largely incoherent and crazy as fuck. The music defies description. Sort of a seventies action movie vibe with a disco element. And it’s dropped into the movie without any rhyme or reason. Here’s 10 minutes of it to satisfy your curiosity:
Even now in the brilliant sunshine of the first day of 2016, I don’t really know what the hell I saw. I don’t know if I liked it. But it was fascinating in the way a fatal circus accident is fascinating. For fucksake, it had a cameo from Kareem Adbul Jabar in a basketball sequence early in the movie (one of my favorite in the movie, weird and unnecessary as it was).
I wish I knew what kind of movie this would have been if it hadn’t been built on the ideas and expectations of the movies that came before. But I also don’t know if The Visitor could exist without the DNA of all those other movies. Take away all those influences and I’m not sure what’s left.
Ultimately it failed in it’s primary mission–to get a piece of that fat Star Wars pie. It wasn’t an expensive movie to make. IMDB estimates put the budget at around $800,000, which wasn’t even a lot by 1979 movie budget standards. Alien, the other sci-fi horror of note to come out that year had a budget in the $11 million range. But even so, The Visitor failed to make a mark as anything other than an oddity. And I doubt they made their money back. Alien, however did okay.
And here’s the weird thing–Alien itself was built on other influences, namely the art of H.R. Geiger and the 1965 Mario Bava film Planet of the Vampires. But these influences were used to inspire a entirely original masterpiece an not a mishmash of dissimilar elements. Also, watch Planet of the Vampires. It’s not as extreme as Bava’s more straight up horror films which require a strong stomach.
Oh, and the number 1 film for 1979 for the curious among you? Kramer vs. Kramer. A movie that could not possibly be further from everything The Visitor was trying to be.