As I see it, my job as a reviewer is threefold. I endeavor to describe what a given movie is about, convey a sense of the viewing experience1, and give you an idea of how I felt about it.
With The Visitor, I am at a loss.
The film opens with a blue-eyed Christ-figure telling a story to a group of bald children. The story is about Sateen, an intergalactic criminal who fled to Earth. On Earth, Sateen mutated and developed psychic powers which he used to wreak havoc. Another alien defeated Sateen using an army of birds, but not before Sateen impregnated a slew of Earth women. Those women continued Sateen’s legacy through their children. John Huston then enters the room. He says he’s confirmed Sateen’s latest incarnation is an eight-year-old girl in Atlanta, Georgia. He’ll be leaving at once.
Cut to Atlanta, where we meet the aforementioned girl, Katy, her mother Barbara, and her mother’s boyfriend Ray. Lance Henriksen plays Ray, continuing the film’s surprising casting.
Katy is, indeed, pure evil. She’s got a demonic falcon who helps her off a few unfortunate souls who end up on her bad side, including a detective played by Glen Ford.
In time we learn that Ray is part of a shadowy cabal of Sateen worshippers that want Barbara to bear a son. This son would also possess the powers of Sateen and the cabal could harness them for its own ends. It’s not clear why they can’t use Katy, but this is a minor quibble compared to the rest of the film’s plot holes.
John Huston turns out to be the titular Visitor. He’s God, who’s also an alien, and presumably the one who sent the birds to destroy Sateen originally. He’s not there to kill Katy, but to take her back to his world where he’ll teach her not to be evil. Most of the time though, he hangs out on a skyscraper roof with a cadre of bald interpretive dancers. He gives his name as Jerzy Colsowicz and poses as a baby sitter in order to confront Katy. It’s an odd confrontation. The two play Pong on a giant projection screen and dance around the fact that neither of them is human.
Shelly Winters plays a nanny hired by Barbara. Her scenes are notable for the instance where she slaps young Katy. According to legend, she really did slap the young girl. Hard. I like to think that it’s true.
Completing some kind of bizarre casting bingo card, Sam Peckinpah turns up as Barbara’s ex-husband. She visits him for an abortion after the Sateen cabal takes matters into their own hands following Ray’s failure to impregnate Barbara. Unlike John Huston, who appears lucid and sober in his scenes, Peckinpah was allegedly a nightmare to work with and his scenes ended up dubbed.
If all this seems a little disjointed and bizarre, then I have successfully conveyed a sense of the viewing experience.
The horror elements are, at times, gruesome. In a scene that would make Lucio Fulci proud, a bird pecks at Glenn Ford’s eyes, forcing him to crash his car. Other times, they’re laughably stilted. Like when Katy makes a basketball explode on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Yet, the film is also, at times, visually striking. An early sequence will get your hopes up. A giant sun fills an orange sky. Two cloaked figures stare each other down across a desert as a sandstorm engulfs them. Scenes like this hint at greatness, but the film can’t string enough of these moments together. It is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.
If nothing else, The Visitor left me with a strong desire to read a biography of John Huston. If only to understand how the legendary auteur ended up starring in a film so bizarre.