If it were the late '70s and you were a wunderkind film artist a bit embarrassed about your zeal for space-opera kids' stuff, you went out and bagged yourself a great to class your movie up: Alec Guinness; François Truffaut; Max von Sydow done up like a disco gladiolus. That tradition is as good an explanation as any for the gorgeous, gloriously strange opening moments of 1979's The Visitor, a Euro-American science fiction horror clusterfuck too messy and weird to have hit back in the day but too inventive and accomplished to have been rotting for so long. (It's been newly released and given an HD transfer by Alamo Drafthouse.)
It opens with an alien desert under a great radiating blob of sun, as two robed, Jedi-like figures square off, space western-style, one in Kenobi brown and the other in wickedest black. The dude in brown reveals himself: John Huston, the consummate writer-director of the studio era, crafter of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, the same year as The Visitor, a pretty good Wise Blood, which means as he loomed there on fake Tatooine for what I hope was a big bucket of cash, he was probably thinking about Flannery O'Connor.
Cue a goofy sandstorm — or maybe those are packing peanuts. The wind teases at his adversary's robes, revealing a little girl in knee-socks and a pink dress, her face flaking, for some reason spackled over like the ceiling of your first apartment.
From there, director Michael J. Paradise — actually Giulio Paradisi, who shot second-unit footage on 8 1/2 — cuts to a goldilocksed hippie fellow (possibly Jesus) giving a speech to shaven-headed children in a sunny space spa. "Sateen was a mew-tant," he explains, in a flat and inexplicable accent, and the kids soak up his story of this Sateen fighting bird armies like they're eggs and his voice is warm hen butt. Come to find out, Sateen's offspring have great power and do great evil — left unchecked, Huston shows up to tell us, these superpowered children could "contaminate the cosmos."
And from there we cut to the film's actual setting: '70s Atlanta, especially its more architecturally adventurous precincts. Katy (Paige Conner), a rich little girl with so-'70s telekinetic powers, is performing cruel, ridiculous stunts: bizarrely altering the final play of an NBA game between the San Francisco Miners and the Atlanta Rebels (!); throwing teen boys around a local ice rink; permanently maiming her mother at a birthday party. Her dad, the Rebels' owner, is the film's strangest sight yet — a young Lance Henriksen, if such a thing can be imagined. Turns out that, despite his millions, he has to answer to an all-white-dude space council that berates him for not having more kids; Henrikson's wife "carries in her womb something that transcends the world of everyday reality," the head councilor says.
With that, and the arrival of Huston on Earth, the film is at last off to its creepy, baffling races: Here's that Bad Seed/Rosemary's Baby/The Fury/Close Encounters in Hotlanta thriller you were looking for, put together like a magpie's nest with even stranger borrowings. There are a couple of scenes inspired by The Birds — here's how not to deal with claws and beaks in your face while you're racing down the highway. There's Shelley Winters as a comedy nanny who sings mammy songs. There's a house-of-mirrors face-off (not up to The Lady from Shanghai level) and the cruelest-ever gag involving one of those staircase chair lifts. There's some Spielbergian magic-of-the-heavens stuff, all lights and no ships, sold by Huston's beaming face but weirdly intercut with the horror and mayhem of the violent climax, which has the tone of a different film of a different genre bearing a different rating.
The great surprise is how, consistency be damned, these individual sequences fascinate. Most are smartly crafted, especially the foot chase between Huston and the girl, or the terrifying abduction the council plots when Henriksen's schlemiel can't get a second baby going. That builds to a bit of hot-potato decision-making no studio would allow in its FX tentpole today: How should a woman terminate her demon pregnancy?
Occasionally, director Paradise proves unmatched to his mad story and its irreconcilable elements — it's a paranoid kitchen-sink thriller touched with of-the-moment science-fantasy utopianism. But mostly this curio boasts a strange, unnerving weight. Its kid hero might be the villain; its male leads fail to rise to their challenges; and its most sympathetic figure — the mother, played by Joanne Nail — faces a choice so hard it's usually not even given to female movie characters. The Visitor is a mess, but a revelatory one, both a ripe, bizarre thriller and a fascinating example of how filmmakers first responded to the interstellar millions stirred up by Spielberg and George Lucas: by thieving the good bits rather than just surrendering.
That point is addressed pretty directly in the film. Huston and Conner, whose little girl character roils with dark forces she can't understand, sit on a couch playing Pong. After some niceties, this troubled child so representative of '70s horror films says, "You want my advice, old man? Go back to wherever you came from. This world is not for you."
The great director rumbles, "It's not for you, either, kid."
They were both right.