When a film begins with Franco Nero as a blue-eyed Jesus telling a story to a bunch of bald children in white robes, it suggests two things: first, the director has an eye for startling imagery; and second, he's as loony as Ed Wood.
Nearly 35 years after Michael J. Paradise's film descended on the world, arousing a wave of incredulity, awe, laughter, and indifference, it returns to the Brattle Theatre — fully restored and with additional, even more inexplicable footage — to wow cult fans, connoisseurs of the absurd, and cinephiles intrigued by the evolution of the sci-fi and horror genres in the '70s and '80s.
However apt the comparison might be, Paradise does differ from Wood in a couple of significant ways. Like, casting – Wood might have bagged Bela Lugosi for "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959), but Paradise boasts enough faded Hollywood glory to fill every seat on "Hollywood Squares." The great auteur John Huston, for example, plays Jerzy Colsowicz, one of Jesus's homeys and a super-being of some kind on a mission to planet Earth to rid it of 8-year-old devil child Katy Collins (Paige Conner). As he arranges rows of lights for a landing strip on top of an Atlanta skyscraper (this will make no more sense in context) attended by a bunch of bald guys in track suits (baldness – a motif!), Huston's look of wry knowingness suggests he's thinking, "This check will help pay for 'Wise Blood' (1979)!"
Katy, however, is well connected. Her mother, Barbara (Joanne Nail), is cozy with Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen), the owner of a basketball team (allowing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to make a cameo) backed by a mysterious cabal of powerful men sitting around a conference table. For helping him buy up an all-star squad of players, they expect Armstead to impregnate Barbara with another devil child. Apparently one is not enough, probably because Katy spends her time talking trash, playing with her sinister pet raptor (the Maltese Falcon?), and practicing gymnastics. But then "accidents" happen, which attract the attention of Glenn Ford as a detective. Shelley Winters also drops by as a housekeeper and greets each weird development by singing an eerie rendition of "Shortnin' Bread." And I haven't even mentioned Sam Peckinpah's turn as Barbara's ex-husband, a bitter doctor working in an inner city clinic.
More to the point, Paradise differs from Wood in his lack of innocence; anyone who can pack this many movie allusions into 108 minutes is no babe in the woods. Indeed, he had a lot to draw on, because "The Visitor" arrived at the height of a sci-fi and horror film revival, when "serious" directors — ranging from Roman Polanski in 1968 with "Rosemary's Baby" to Steven Spielberg in 1977 with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" — embraced genre conventions and made them their own.
Paradise stole from them all. But unlike these directors, his ambition was coupled with delusional ineptitude. Luckily for him and the film world, low-budget Italian producers were also thriving at this time, and one of them, Ovidio G. Assonitis of "Super Stooges vs. Wonder Woman" (1974) fame, put up the money for Paradise's vision.
Perhaps Assonitis, too, was unprepared for the director's moments of unlikely genius, such as the montage in which Katy vaults the parallel bars as her mother spins frantically in a wheelchair. That, and some mind-blowing, tacky images reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky, make this a welcome, if wacko, "Visitor."
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.