How John Huston, Sam Peckinpah And Shelley Winters Ended Up In Italian Weirdo Epic THE VISITOR
In 1968, Stanley Kubrick said, “In an infinite, eternal universe, anything is possible, and it’s unlikely that we can even begin to scratch the surface of the full range of possibilities.”
A decade later, a crew of Italian exploitation filmmakers unlocked the secrets of space and time. They made The Visitor.
In this unforgettable assault on reality--restored and presented uncut theatrically for the first time ever in the U.S.--legendary Hollywood director/actor John Huston (The Maltese Falcon; Treasure Of The Sierra Madre) stars as an intergalactic warrior who joins a cosmic Christ figure in battle against a demonic 8-year-old girl, and her pet hawk, while the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.
According to writer/producer Ovidio Assonitis, none of this was part of the initial plan. “The idea was basically just to make a horror movie.” Assonitis and other writers -- including Saturday Night Fever scribe Norman Wexler -- set out to author a fright feature for the looming ‘80s. “We were looking at other films, yes, and science fiction novels. But honestly, The Visitor was influenced mainly by video games.”
This hardly seems like it could be true, but neither does anything else about the production, especially considering Assonitis’ humble creative background beforehand. “I’d produced and directed a horror film shortly before called Beyond the Door, which was very successful. So we set out to do it again.” The main difference between these projects was the fact that Beyond the Door was a (very well-done) take on The Exorcist, while The Visitor was unlike anything that had ever been produced or seen by humans before.
By 1979, Euro-exploitation companies had endured plenty of critical links between their work and popular contemporary films, but there was little chance of The Visitor being compared to anything besides a rabies-induced nightmare. Sure, the script had elements of Hollywood films like The Birds and The Omen trilogy, but the grand sum was light-years beyond what any sane filmmaker would dare.
Which raised the question: Who’s willing to take on the project? Enter TV director Giulio Paradisi, renamed “Michael J. Paradise” for American palatability. “I had directed,” Assonitis recalls, “but I always considered myself a producer rather than a director. I only directed when I couldn’t use a director I wanted. So I spoke with Paradisi, who was one of the top directors of nature television at the time. He had a great visual sense, and I knew it’d be perfect for this movie.”
With the script and director in place, the next step was assembling the cast. Many Italian horror and action films would draft a recognizable American actor to increase their international appeal. But few had the guts to call on the living giants of Hollywood. “I had a strong relationship with John Huston. He was my good friend. We had met in Mexico when we were preparing to shoot the film Tentacles. It was courageous, I guess, for me to cast one of the great directors in a film I was making when I had so little experience at the time. He understood that, and we became close. In fact, a lot of the ideas for The Visitor’s story came from talking with him. He even looked like someone who came from... far away. Another planet or another time.
“The project was very unusual, but I will tell you that Huston trusted in me 100 percent. I asked him if he might want to do this movie, and he immediately said yes. Without reading the script. And when he did read it, he was contractually already engaged to do it. (Laughs) He called once he’d gone through everything, and he said, ‘Listen... this will either be a marvelous movie or a piece of shit.’”
The primary shooting location of this Italian-galactic epic? Atlanta. “We were influenced to shoot there by their governor, who wanted to bring more film production to Georgia. They’d set up a studio there, which was unknown to the general public. We were in a strange city; very rich in one way and very poor in another. So the evil and good of the story were already there, you could say. We had the participation of the state government and the mayor, who was a black democrat. We had the support of many people, including Ted Turner. He was involved in so many things out there, even then, including the sports teams. So we made a deal with Turner over a basketball game: if Atlanta wins, we get to shoot at his house! He accepted, Atlanta won and we shot many scenes in his house. He was an unusual man, but he kept his word.”
With legendary filmmaker/personality Huston on board, more big names followed. “Shelley Winters was another close friend of mine so she came in on the project. We had Glenn Ford, who joined because he liked the script! And we used Franco Nero to play the galactic Christ figure. I know Nero well, so when I was shooting, he was like, ‘Hey, give me a role, give me a role!’ The part could have been played by anyone, but he has that intensity, so we figured... why not? He didn’t even want to be paid, to tell you the truth. He just wanted to be on the bill with John Huston and the others.”
Unfortunately, not everyone involved was as easy to deal with. Sam Peckinpah, brilliant director of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, had come on to play a small but important part in the film. He hadn’t performed on screen in years, but the crew and other cast members were very excited to work with another master. “He wanted to do it as he was working to finance his next movie, and he had some personal financial problems at the time. I thought it’d be good for the film, having both Huston and Peckinpah, so we decided to have him out for three days of shooting. Unfortunately, we ended up needing to cut down many scenes because he was impossible to work with. He’d come with bodyguards, he made problems in the hotel. He was wild. So in the final film, there’s just the one scene with him in the hospital, where there had originally been many more scenes with his character in the script.”
Peckinpah was sent home, and the already bizarre narrative was restructured to operate without his character. “The story was being built and rebuilt day-by-day, even as we were shooting. Sometimes you include things that come out from your subconscious without you knowing it.”
They soldiered forward. “It was a long production. We shot for almost twelve weeks. The strange feeling of the film; that just happened naturally. While we were shooting, we could tell it was going to be something very different than we expected, and we certainly didn’t fight it. Sometimes you write something, and then you find that you have something else in your hands. That happened often with The Visitor.”
Its kaleidoscopically shifting nature opened it up to, well, anything. One memorable segment features child actress Paige Connor battling Huston in a snowy, otherworldly desert. “That wasn’t in the original script. I wrote that scene and decided to produce it myself. I felt that I needed it to improve the science fiction flavor of the film. The picture was almost finished at this point. I decided to rent this immense studio stage; the same one where Fellini did his movies, and we filled it with fake snow. And we shot the beginning and end of the movie there, as well as that strange scene. I wanted that visual impact.” It worked.
Several other scenes contribute equally to the stoically violent recklessness of the film, but equal credit can be given to its indelible score. “The man who did it, Franco Micalizzi, also did Beyond the Door with me. I like his way of trying to create a sound that was more acceptable to Americans than Europeans. For Beyond the Door, he wrote a black soundtrack. With The Visitor, we were at the end of the ‘70s, which was the dawn of home computers. And that really inspired a lot of what was going on within the soundtrack, the special effects, and the visuals in general. We had a major orchestra, but at certain points we hid the fact that there were a hundred musicians, and layered in synthesized music. It created a more alien sound.”
Once they’d wrapped, Assonitis and company immediately set to work on editing and delivering the film. But U.S. distributors weren’t tough enough to share the finished product with domestic audiences. “When The Visitor was released in the US, the cut was very different than the original version, and much shorter as well. They did that without asking our permission. It was a distributor from Atlanta. They really eliminated a tremendous amount of the story. Distributors often change things in a way that they think will be more commercial. Well, sometimes they’re right and sometimes they aren’t. My reaction came too late. They’d made the cuts, and they had no right to do it, but what could I do? There was a conflict, and we were going to take legal action, but the film had already played. It took decades for people to see the complete version.”
Ironically, the “cleaned up” U.S. cut made even less narrative sense than the original. And the critics weren’t any more excited about this than Assonitis himself. “When you come out with a movie like this one, critics are never, never positive. Now, as a producer, I have to make sure that the projects I’m involved with can actually be sold. So sometimes, my internal conflict is between my creativity and the fact that I have to do something that’s marketable. The Visitor was... much more on the creative side of things.”
While the press didn’t openly embrace the film upon its release, Assonitis was very happy to find it pleased its star. “Now, John Huston loved The Visitor when he saw it completed. He said, ‘I didn’t realize we were making this kind of movie. Congratulations!’” Despite having Huston’s approval, The Visitor enjoyed a short life on screen. It was eventually released to U.S. VHS in its neutered form, long after its participants moved on to other projects.
Two decades later, a 35mm print of the complete version began to make the rounds of repertory houses and midnight screenings. The reaction to the film in its unmangled state was overwhelming, and The Visitor began amassing devotees across the world. Assonitis was shocked that anyone even remembered it, much less obsessed over it. “I read what people say about the movie, and they see things in it that I had absolutely no awareness of. And some of these people were not even born when the thing was released!”
Assonitis is still very active in the industry, and seems unimpressed with the fact that he wrote and produced one of history’s most earth-shatteringly unique films. He says he prefers to always look forward; never back. When he speaks of The Visitor, it’s mainly with personal memories of the people involved. Most often, he reminisces about his friend from another planet and another time.
“Long after The Visitor was finished, I was invited out to visit John Huston. He was a week from dying. I got there, and he was very sick. He’d brought together all the women from his life. So he had a 22-year-old girl there beside an 80-year-old woman, all sitting around the same table. That was his farewell. I was the only other man there. And at that time, I saw that he’d purchased a video cassette of The Visitor so he could watch it at home.”
Drafthouse Films is rereleasing The Visitor starting this Halloween. To see where the movie is scheduled to play, click here!
And, you can download three free tracks from the soundtrack right here.