Retro Review: Revisiting THE VISITOR, The Most Insane Non-Indie Horror Movie Ever Filmed in Atlanta

Posted on: Jul 12th, 2014 By:

Contraband Cinema presents THE VISITOR (1979); Dir. Michael J. Paradise; Starring John Huston, Paige Conner, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, Lance Henriksen; One Night Only, July 12 @7:00pm, Eyedrum; Tickets $7.00 at the door and actress Paige Conner will be attendance.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Early in THE VISITOR, an 8-year-old girl opens a wrapped present at her birthday party. Because we’ve been watching the movie, we know that the present contains a tacky statue of a bird, but now the girl inexplicably finds a gun. She grins, points it at partygoers, but then casually tosses it onto a table, which causes it to fire a slug into the back of another character, who then waits the length of a dramatic pause before collapsing to the ground. The entire incident goes from gift-giving to gunfire tragedy in less than 10 seconds.

The reaction among my friends watching the film in my living room was loud. “Wait, what?” “What the hell just happened?!” After a few moments and a few laughs, they calmed, awaiting the explanation that was sure to come.

But, of course, this is THE VISITOR we’re talking about. Explanations aren’t on its agenda, not when every second of screen time is another opportunity to smash a morsel of blazing, brain-melting insanity directly into the film. This is a movie in which legendary Hollywood director John Huston plays an “intergalactic warrior” matching wits with his greatest nemesis, a pre-tween telekinetic and her pet falcon. This is a movie in which director Sam Peckinpah plays an abortion doctor and Lance Henriksen an evil basketball team owner. This is a movie in which skating rinks and street food shops are the sites of supernatural murders. This is a movie in which the fate of the universe is decided in late-1970s Atlanta. But, above all, this is a movie that exists.

THE VISITOR fits loosely into the subgenre of supernatural child movies that bloomed in the wake of William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973). Instead of a demon, little Katy Collins (Paige Conner) is under the sway of an evil intergalactic force named, of all things, Sateen, whose fractured soul is being reborn into children on Earth. I think. Honestly, the film is a tough to puzzle out, as if its heady ideas were being translated through some unfamiliar language which, in a literal sense, they were. The film was an Italian-American coproduction, written and directed by Italians and then translated into English for the sometimes-baffled American cast. But the film also routinely garbles cinematic language, connecting scenes and images that don’t make logical sense, dropping plot threads as soon as they’re introduced, and failing to explain, well, anything. In THE VISITOR, a guardian can tell a character that nothing bad will ever happen to her again about five nanoseconds before someone runs that character into a glass aquarium, and it’s not just OK, it’s expected. Anything less insane would belong to another movie.

THE VISITOR is the fevered brainchild of Italian schlock producer Ovidio Assonitis. He was The Asylum of his day, grabbing any idea that had traction in the public and churning out his own low-cost replica. From THE EXORCIST he invented BEYOND THE DOOR (1974). From JAWS (1975) he developed TENTACLES (1977) (also starring Huston!). From PIRANHA (1978) came, well, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981). Right away, however, something felt a bit different about THE VISITOR. The production had a whiff of class about it as Huston’s name and cachet attracted more big names to the cast, including the likes of Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters and Glenn Ford. Assonitis even shot scenes in Rome, Italy, before moving the production to the tax-friendly vistas of downtown Atlanta.

Paige Conner in THE VISITOR (1979). Drafthouse Films.

For locals the film not only exists as a virtual tour through a past version of the city—including looks at Underground Atlanta, The Omni and other retro locales—but as a dubious legacy for some of the Atlanta’s most famous figures. The credits reserve a special thanks for Mayor Maynard Jackson, who worked hard to bring the production to town, and the film owes memorable scenes and locations to the cavalier whims of Ted Turner. According to legend, Assonitis wagered the fate of the production on a Hawks game with Turner. If the Hawks won, the production would get access to Turner’s home as a shooting location free of charge. The Hawks did indeed win, and the production not only gained access to Turner’s home, but the Omni as well for a key scene in which the possessed little girl explodes a basketball with her mind. (Supposedly, eagle-eyed fans can spot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the scene as well as radio personalities Neal Boortz and Steve Somers. So there’s that.)

It’s unclear whether the city or Turner were grateful for the chance to contribute. THE VISITOR flopped miserably (and predictably) at the box office, perhaps because the world just wasn’t ready to see Franco Nero (DJANGO [1966]) as Jesus Christ or to see Lance Henriksen attacked by a ceramic switchblade bird. The film made a paltry amount of money at the box office, and that’s just counting the money they got to keep. In an interview on the film’s DVD, Henriksen talks about the film’s legendary badness and his embarrassment at a screening in New York when he heard audience members demanding their hard-earned money back. Henriksen’s opinion of the film represents the consensus at the time of its premiere, but time has a way of changing the story, and THE VISITOR’s story has changed.

The film’s first supporter was supposedly Huston himself, who immediately recognized something special hiding among the frames of the film and kept an elusive VHS of the movie near his deathbed. It took longer for audiences to catch on, but a few did, and a passionate cult helped the film become a regular at midnight screening and trendy repertory houses. Audiences came for the irony and stayed for the film’s unrivaled uniqueness. THE VISITOR doesn’t make a lot of sense, but compensates with mood. THE VISITOR has a dreamlike tone, cultivating something like madness out of its odd juxtapositions of tone and images, or of the powerful performances in service of a story that can’t be unraveled. The film appears assured and confident in the story it’s telling, leaving audiences wondering if the answers are in there after all, just waiting for a keystone piece of information to unlock them. Does it make sense that Henriksen’s evil, but certainly human, tycoon character needs to marry his girlfriend in order to create another wicked psychic child? Probably not, but Henriksen seems to believe it, so why shouldn’t we?

The big coup for THE VISITOR in its reassessment came earlier this year, when Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the trendsetting Alamo Drafthouse theater chain in Austin, Texas, released a wonderful new Blu-Ray edition of the film, made with the kind of loving care and attention usually reserved for a Criterion Collection release of a prestige classic. It’s safe to say that more eyes have been on the film in the past year than in the past few decades, and the movie seems to be well on its way to a complete rehabilitation.

By this point in the article, you probably have an idea if THE VISITOR is for you. If it is, then I highly recommend seeing it as soon as possible, and Eyedrum, along with Contraband Cinema, are giving you the chance. Saturday night, July 12, the art gallery is hosting a screening of the film with actress Paige Conner in attendance. Alongside the film will be an art exhibit featuring “new and original pieces based on this unique film by a variety of local artists.” This is a special opportunity to experience a forgotten piece of Atlanta cinema history in the midst of its revival and rediscovery.

THE VISITOR, at long last, has arrived.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Mike Malloy Rewinds Back to the 1980s Home Video Revolution with His Latest Documentary Feature

Posted on: Jul 15th, 2013 By:

Mike Malloy. Photo credit: Andramada Brittian.

Video may have killed the radio star, or so that ’80s song goes, but it launched a lifelong passion for cult action movies in Kool Kat of the Week Mike Malloy. Now he’s paying homage to the format that revolutionized the way people accessed and watched movies from the late 1970s to the 1990s in the documentary series PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND: THE STORY OF THE ’80S HOME VIDEO BOOM, for which he is seeking funding through a Kickstarter campaignThe timing couldn’t be more perfect with VHS tapes, like 33rpm LPs, enjoying a renaissance among collectors, both old and new.

From his slicked-back hair to his Retro bowling shirts, Mike looks like he ought to be playing the stand-up bass in a rockabilly band. Instead he’s devoted himself to “playing” tribute to a side of cinema that often doesn’t get a lot of love from mainstream critics. At age 19, he signed his first book contract to write the first published biography of Spaghetti Western star Lee Van Cleef (for McFarland & Co.) Since then, he went on to write articles for a wide spectrum of national film magazines, served as managing editor of fan favorite Cult Movies Magazine, has spoken about movie topics at universities, ghost-wrote several fim books, and served on the selection committee of the 2006 Atlanta Film Festival.

In the past few years, Mike has moved increasingly both in front of and behind the camera. He has acted in more than 25 features and shorts. He co-produced the Western THE SCARLET WORM (2011) and directed the short, LOOK OUT! IT’S GOING TO BLOW! (2006), which won the award for best comedy short at MicroCineFest in Baltimore. But he’s garnered the most acclaim, both national and international, for EUROCRIME! THE ITALIAN COP AND GANGSTER FILMS THAT RULED THE ’70s, a kickass documentary homage to that B-movie subgenre which he wrote, directed, edited and produced.

ATLRetro caught up with Mike recently to find out more about how home videos fired his fascination with film, his unique vision for PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND, some really cool incentives he’s lined up for his Kickstarter campaign which collectors will love  and what’s up next for Georgia’s Renaissance man of cult action cinema.

Having written Lee Van Cleef‘s first published biography at age 19, you’ve obviously been into rare cult and B movies since an early age. What triggered your passion for the less reputable side of cinema and why does it appeal to you so much?

I’m a rare guy who’s deep into cult and genre cinema without caring much for horror or anything fantastic. For me, it’s all about a desperate Warren Oates shooting it out in Mexico. Or Lee Marvin with a submachine gun. For some reason, I’m just drawn to gritty tough-guy cinema – which is not necessarily the same thing as action cinema.

How did the home video revolution influence you personally? Having been born in 1976, you can’t really remember the pre-video days, I’d guess, but it must have afforded you access to a whole spectrum of these movies which otherwise would have been hard to track down and see.

And I even missed most of the ’80s video boom, because my parents, in 1990, were the last on the block to get a VCR. But in 1994, I made up for lost time. I had a college girlfriend who had an off-campus apartment, and while she was at work,  she didn’t like the idea of me being on campus, potentially fraternizing with other young ladies. So before each shift, she would take me by the local mom-and-pop vid store and rent me 8 hours’ worth of Bronson, Van Cleef, Carradine, etc. That kept me safely in her apartment, and it put me on the cinema path I’m on.

Videophile Magazine; Jim Lowe and Mike Malloy on the set of PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND.

In Atlanta, Videodrome seems to be the last independent rental retailer still in business and it’s even hard to find a Blockbuster left. And of course, they now just stock DVDs. Now you can order up a movie online and watch it instantly. Do you think we’ve lost something by no longer going in to browse, and was there a particular video store that became your home away from home?

One of our interviewees said something interesting: The mom-and-pop video store business model was based on customer DISsatisfaction. That is, you’d go in to rent CITIZEN KANE, it would be checked out, and you’d somehow end up leaving with SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED (1974). Being forced to browse leads to an experimental attitude in movie watching. That’s a good thing.

VHS tapes can get damaged easily, the picture and sound quality can’t compare to a bluRay (or often even a regular DVD) and they rarely show a movie in widescreen. Why be nostalgic about them, and is it true that the VHS format, like LPs, is having a comeback?

VHS is experiencing a major comeback. There are about 20 little startup companies that have begun releasing movies to VHS again. A certain old horror VHS – of a film called DEMON QUEEN (1986) – sold recently on eBay for $750.00. VHS conventions are springing up all over the country.

I’ve always thought that the format is superior for horror films. If you watch THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) on a soft old VHS poorly transferred from a faded film print, that makes you feel as if you’re watching some underground snuff film obtained from a shady guy in a trench coat. Watch that same movie on a pristine Blu-Ray, and you don’t get that same grimy feeling.

Michael Perkins films a scene at Videodrome, Atlanta's last great independent video store.

There have been other documentaries about home video, such as ADJUST YOUR TRACKING (2013) and REWIND THIS (2013). What will PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND add to the topic that hasn’t been covered already?

PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND will be a three-hour series, spanning six half-hour episodes. Those others just have a feature-length running time. So if mine isn’t the most definitive word on the subject, I’ve really screwed up. I’m sort of glad those docs exist as companion works, because it frees me up to explore some of the weirder corners of the phenomenon I find fascinating. Things like video vending machines and pizza-style home delivery of VHS tapes.

You’ve got a pretty interesting line-up of interviewees, not all of which are big names. Can you tell us about a few of them and how you went about selecting them.

Right, many of these people are very significant without being instantly recognizable. We have Mitch Lowe, the founder of Netflix (and later a CEO of Redbox). We have Jim Olenski, owner of what is considered to be the first-ever video store. We have Seth Willenson, a Vice President at RCA who oversaw their failed video disc format. That’s just several off the top of my head. They all have that level of significance. And we interviewed a bunch of cult filmmakers, because working at the cheap extreme of the video boom was where some of the craziest stories were. Further, we were glad – er, glad/sad – to have been able to document a closing video store in Toronto during its final month.

Gary Abdo and Mike Malloy. Photo credit: Jonathan Hickman.

Moviemakers, and artists of all ilk, have always seemingly been ripped off by others who pocket all the money. What distinguishes the video era in that regard, and are there any lessons filmmakers can apply to the current wild west of digital camerawork and online distribution?

I think the potential for ripping off artists is greater when an industry is in upheaval, when the rules and the financial models are unclear. And you’re right, VOD and streaming have caused the same type of upheaval that the videocassette did in its day. So I love all the anecdotes we captured of swindled ’80s filmmakers fighting back against their underhanded distributors. And I hope today’s filmmakers realize that distributors are now becoming largely unnecessary at all. For instance, I hope Vimeo OnDemand – with its 90-10 split in favor of the filmmaker – is a total game changer.

You obviously went into this project with a lot of background, but did you find out any big surprises or delightful unexpected moments during your interviews/research?

I went into the project feeling proud that I was going to cover not only VHS and Beta, but all the failed video formats – like Cartrivision, Selectavision (CED) and V-Cord II. Turns out, they were just the tip of the iceberg. I now probably have about 15 different also-ran video formats I can touch on.

Left to right: a video vending machine; Mitch Lowe, founder of Netflix.

How different would the world be today if Cartrivision had caught on instead of VHS?

Well, Cartrivision was an early attempt at rights management for movies. The Cartrivision rental tapes couldn’t be rewound at home; that could only be done at Sears, where you rented them. It limited you to one viewing per rental. So it would’ve started the concept of video rentals off on a very different attitude and philosophy. I think part of the reason the ’80s home video phenomenon was such a boom was the freedom associated with it – you could rent a movie of your choosing and watch it at a time of your choosing. You could watch it a number of times before returning. Hell, you could use your rewind button to watch a jugsy shower scene over and over.

Tell us about the Kickstarter campaign. How’s it going and how are you going to use the monies raised to finalize the film?

Since ADJUST YOUR TRACKING and REWIND THIS both successfully kickstarted, I knew this would be an uphill battle. My only chance was to turn what is normally a beg-a-thon into a reward-a-thon. So I created a $75 level for the collectors where they could get so much more than just a copy of the documentary. The very first expense I’ll cover, if I get successfully funded, will be an 8 terabyte hard drive. I really can’t cut another frame until I get it.

PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND tells it like it was: Mike Malloy deals videos out of his van.

You’ve got some mighty cool incentives for donors, including actual vintage VHS cassettes. Tell us a little bit about them.

Not only have many of our filmmaker interviewees donated signed VHS and DVDs of their movies (to say nothing of rare, unused artwork and such), but a lot of these new startup VHS companies have also donated rewards. I’m feeling very supported.

Unlike your Italian-centric EUROCRIME documentary, you’re trying to involve Atlanta as much as possible in PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND, aren’t you?

Local documentarian Michael Perkins (THE BOOKER) is my second-unit director, and Atlanta-based musician/engineer Matthew Miklos is my primary composer. His ’80s synth sound is so authentic. An associate producer (Jonathan Hickman) and at least one interviewee (filmmaker Gary Abdo) are here too. Videodrome has been very cool about letting me shoot re-enactments in the store. I tried to document the closing of another Atlanta institution of the video-rental industry, but it didn’t work out.

Anything else on your plate right now or next as a writer, director, producer or actor?

Later this year, I’m acting in HOT LEAD, HARD FURY in Denver and BUBBA THE REDNECK WEREWOLF in Florida. I wish someone would cast me locally so my pay doesn’t keep getting eaten up by travel expenses!

Editor’s Note: All photos are courtesy of Mike Malloy and used with permission.

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