Revisiting The Visitor

Drafthouse Films goes old-school weird with re-release of '70s-era oddity

Drafthouse Films goes old-school weird with The Visitor re-release

still from Drafthouse Films The Visitor with John Huston
Giulio Paradisi's The Visitor, starring John Huston Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films
still from Drathouse Films The Visitor with children and Franco Nero as space Jesus
The Visitor, starring Franco Nero Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films
Theatrical one sheet poster for Drafthouse Films The Visitor
Theatrical one-sheet for The Visitor, designed by Seek and Speak Photo courtesy of Seek and Speak
still from Drafthouse Films The Visitor with John Huston
still from Drathouse Films The Visitor with children and Franco Nero as space Jesus
Theatrical one sheet poster for Drafthouse Films The Visitor

Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the Alamo Drafthouse, has searched the globe far and wide to bring movie geeks independent films that are off the beaten path. They also haven’t been afraid to dig through the past to unearth some mindbending oddities overlooked back in the day, hoping to find a new audience that can appreciate their brilliance.

Starting November 1, Drafthouse Films will be releasing to theaters a film that they believe deserves a second chance: The Visitor. Initially released in 1979, this psychedelic horror/sci-fi mashup not only features an amazing cast that includes legendary director John Huston, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters and Sam Peckinpah, it also blends elements from classic films, including The Omen and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

"Outside of a small, in-the-know group of devotees, The Visitor is often marginalized as a critical failure and labeled a forgettable, cheesy cable TV staple of the early 1980s." — Evan Husney, Drafthouse Films 

To talk about the story behind The Visitor and why film fanatics should check it out, Drafthouse Films Creative Director Evan Husney spoke with CultureMap.

CultureMap: What's the story behind The Visitor? How did some of these big names become involved with such an outlandish film? And what became of the film after it was initially released?

Evan Husney: The producer, Ovidio G. Assonitis, had a relationship with John Huston prior to The Visitor. According to Assonitis, Huston agreed to act in the film without even reading the script, and when he finally read it he told them, "Listen, this will either be marvelous or a piece of shit." It wasn't until the film was completed when Huston remarked to Assonitis, "I didn't realize we were making this kind of movie. Congratulations!"

Shelley Winters was another friend of Assonitis', and Franco Nero was very active in the 1970s and was happy to play an intense, cosmic Christ figure and be billed next to other legends of business. Sam Peckinpah, the brilliant director of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Wild Bunch, signed on to act in the film to help finance his next film. However, he was in a bad way — heavily drinking on set and very difficult to work with. Assonitis had to overdub his audio and cut a lot of the scenes he appeared in. 

Despite getting Huston's approval, The Visitor enjoyed a short life on screen and was eventually released to US VHS in a neutered, even less logical form. Assonitis also told us, “Long after The Visitor was finished, I was invited out to visit John. 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.”

"The passion my colleagues and I share for this one-of-a-kind brain-wrecker is strong enough to attempt righting its wronged 30-plus-year rep." — Evan Husney

CM: How did The Visitor come to the attention of Drafthouse Films? What made them decide that this film needed its own re-release decades after it first came out?

EH: The Visitor, for me personally, has always been an all-time, list-topping favorite and one of my initial go-to recommendations for adventurous cinephiles. Outside of a small, in-the-know group of devotees, The Visitor is often marginalized as a critical failure and labeled a forgettable, cheesy cable TV staple of the early 1980s. We have shown the film many times at the Drafthouse, and every time it continually overwhelmed audiences. The passion my colleagues and I share for this one-of-a-kind brain-wrecker is strong enough to attempt righting its wronged 30-plus-year rep and make an effort to induct this slab of insanity into the canon of cult midnight classics. 

CM: The Visitor is a unique blend of genres and style, so how would you describe to other film fans — what would you compare it to in order to convince people to see it?

EH: In the dawn of 1970s American blockbusters, European production companies emerged stateside, attempting to recreate box office gold by cloning Hollywood. The Supreme Court-banned Jaws copy, Great White, is perhaps the most infamous example. Producer Ovidio G. Assonitis had success with his very Exorcist-esque Beyond the Door (which is actually a good movie) in the then-burgeoning drive-in market and set out to repeat success with something infinitely more ambitious, taking inspiration by artfully fusing elements from The Omen, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Birds, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fury and Star Wars, alongside a baffling cast.

You could say The Visitor is "similar" to these aforementioned films, as they are heavily referenced, but really the film is more akin to the experience of watching some of the decade's most immortal psychedelic masterpieces, like The Holy Mountain or even Hausu

"In re-releasing these older films, its also important to us to reintroduce them in the market with a different context in an effort to preserve, or, in some cases, create their legacy." — Evan Hunsey 

CM: Drafthouse Films mostly focuses on releasing current films outside the mainstream, but what does Drafthouse Films want to accomplish out of finding films that may be largely forgotten? Is there an ongoing search to find some of these old gems?

EH: A huge part of the Alamo Drafthouse brand is the discovery and worship of oddball films from decades past, and from the very beginning we wanted to work that into what we were doing with Drafthouse Films. Also, my background in distribution prior to Drafthouse was reissuing older cult films in boutique special editions, and I wanted to continue doing that work.

In re-releasing these older films, its also important to us to reintroduce them in the market with a different context in an effort to preserve, or, in some cases, create their legacy. Most of the repertory films we have released were initially poorly received or wrongly marketed. The raging 1980s Taekwondo action flick, Miami Connection, for example, was essentially a forgotten film, and for 25 years existed as a failure that haunted the producer/star Grandmaster Y.K. Kim. When we re-released this film last year, it was extremely rewarding to see a fanatical legion embrace this film and forever alter its mark on history. 

Our want-list for repertory acquisitions is 10 miles long. There are so many batshit crazy, face-ripping, amazing films we'd love to release (most are Canadian), but the challenge isn't in identifying them. It’s locating the rights, and in most cases, finding the materials. We are hoping to grow the repertory side of our business and find new ways to exploit them. Next up for us is Abel Ferrara's 1982 female revenge classic, Ms. 45

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Drafthouse Films' The Visitor screens in select theaters beginning November 1, with tickets for Austin screenings available online.