Italy: there is perhaps no other country with so rich, so bountiful a culture of the arts. It’s the soil from which opera grew, the birthplace of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Caravaggio, the hub of the fashion world, and it’s the very land where La Rotunda and the Colosseum stand to this very day.
But it’s their inventiveness in the art of the cinematic pseudonym that towers above even the most celebrated of structures. Each finely crafted by the artisans of the industry to soothe the average American with a strongly-rooted aversion to foreigners. To fool one into believing you’re watching a film that is totally not from Italy, we swear.
There was director Claudio Fragasso who masqueraded before unsuspecting moviegoers as Clide Fergusson, and Umberto Lenzi who deftly transformed himself with the everyday American name Humphrey Humbert. Yet there was one nom de plume concocted by a man with a tenuous-at-best grasp of the English language that, simply, transcended the form. A name that could only exist in one place, a name that could only be attached to one film. That name is Michael J. Paradise, that film is The Visitor, and that place is here, in The Midnight Void…
Thanks to Star Wars, The Omen, and Carrie, outer space, devil children, and telekinesis were all the rage back in the late 1970s. The obvious move was, of course, to blend them all together into one movie, but most were satisfied with merely ripping them off individually. Ovidio G. Assonitis is not most people.
The world’s only known Egyptian-born Greco-Italian producer, writer, and director, he was already well-versed in the art of the cheap knock-off having helmed Beyond the Door—the first of Italy’s approximately 378 rip-offs of The Exorcist. Before that he produced The Man from Deep River, which has the distinction of launching the Italian cannibal flick; an unfortunate sub-genre that taught us all what the inside of a spider monkey looks like. He then wrote, produced, and directed Tentacles, which has the distinction of being the best (only) film presented in “Tremble Sound.” And later he brought us Sonny Boy, which has the distinction of featuring David Carradine as someone’s mother.
A career comprised of things best left unseen and unheard—that is, until he enlisted a friend of Federico Fellini to do the obvious.
That friend was a commercial director named Giulio Paradisi, but you may call him Michael J. Paradise. The two concocted a way to combine space opera with religious horror with flinging stuff around using your mind. And with some dubiously obtained financing, and a cast of deep-in-the-bottle and desperate-for-a-paycheck Hollywood actors on their way out to pasture, they made… The Visitor—cue theme from The Visitor, which you will never forget, even long after your mind has been reduced to ash by The Visitor).
The opening frame is an intergalactic acid trip, as John Huston—still willing to work with Assonitis post-Tentacles—wanders across a desert planet with a lava lamp sky. Huston appears to have gotten himself just drunk enough to numbly drift through each take, but not drunk enough to see what his character sees: a vision of a little girl covered in shaving cream. It compels him to visit Space Jesus, but not the Mormon Space Jesus. This is the Italian Space Jesus, played by Franco Nero, who’s sitting down for story time with a bunch of bald kids to tell them that Sunday School classic, the tale of the “mew-taunt” Sateen.
You see, this cosmic Satan in a spaceship once crash-landed on earth, impregnated a bunch of human women, and then was pecked to death by a flock of birds. The last of his children was who the director of The Maltese Falcon just saw roaming around space, covered in foam. She’s the soon-to-be-8 year-old Katy Collins, who’s busy shade-tippin’ and making Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball explode. She’s a total piece of shit, you’ll hate her.
Meanwhile, Sateen’s minions are all around us. Or all around Atlanta, Georgia at least. This includes an NBA team owner played by Lance Henriksen, who says things like “we’re always talking about talking about talking.” He’s dating Katy’s mom Barbara (Joanne Nail of Switchblade Sisters), who—unbeknownst to her—has a magical Sateen-blessed womb with the ability to produce more shitty kids like Katy. This, we discover, is the ultimate goal of the followers of Sateen.
Thankfully, John Huston arrives to shave Katy’s head and toss her in a room with Franco Nero, but by this point you’ll wish he were here to strangle her. Speaking of that telekinetic terror, she celebrates her birthday with a group of middle-aged women, opens a present that’s supposed to be a talking toy bird but is actually a gun, and shoots her mother in the spine.
She then performs a gymnastics routine while Barbara undergoes emergency surgery at the hands of a Sateen-approved physician, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down and all smiles. Wheelchair bound, she hires a housekeeper played by Shelly Winters, who I suppose is the audience identification character since she slaps Katy right across the face. Behind the scenes, Winters apparently loved slapping the young actress across the face. This is probably the only joy you have when you go from being a two-time Academy Award winner to playing a housekeeper in The Visitor.
Barbara is then abducted by a semi-truck that looks like the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but is filled with Sateenists in hazmat suits. She’s then returned home, and John Huston—posing as a $5 per hour babysitter—informs her that she’s about to have another little one just like Katy. This sends her rushing to a pickled-in-whiskey—and dubbed—Sam Peckinpah for an abortion, which angers Katy to the point of pushing her mother through a fish tank and stringing her up with piano wire. She also finds time to indignantly stomp around a tenement full of bald men in tracksuits, and drop a fire escape atop a hotdog stand.
Left with no choice, John Huston builds a runway and calls in a cadre of interdimensional Sateen-killing birds. One of them pulls a knife. It’s magical.
A magic the filmmakers would never again recapture, a magic we—the viewers—will never again experience. As boring old Giulio Paradisi, Paradise went on to make Spaghetti House. Which, as you’ve probably already guessed, is about black militants overtaking an Italian restaurant in London—a common fear at the time. Assonitis would follow with Piranha II: The Spawning, which served only to piss off James Cameron, and to cause 6 year-old me to believe that flying piranhas were an actual thing.
The only way for us to recreate this mescaline-dipped masterpiece is to slide into a warm, welcoming kerosene bath and light a match. Actor Lance Henrikson claims he only did the film for a free trip to Italy. But for us it’s a journey to another place. A place where a game of Pong stands in for the struggle between god and the devil, where we can become indoctrinated in the teachings of Franco Nero, and where we can always depend on the knife-wielding birds of an intergalactic heaven to have our backs.
Welcome to Paradise.