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‘The Visitor’ and Drafthouse Films’ Exciting Embrace of WTF Cinema

By  · Published on November 6th, 2013

I was going to review the new reissue of 1979’s The Visitor, but then a funny thing happened. I watched The Visitor.

It’s hardly news to say that this thirty four year old movie is a mental fingerbang that bends genres and somehow teases both brilliance and stupidity, but I’m saying it anyway. Both highly derivative and wholly original, the film cherry picks elements from The Omen, The Fury, Phantasm, and more, and then swirls them together in a psychedelic mélange of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and pure nuttiness as it tells the story of good and evil battling over a young girl’s potty-mouthed soul.

There are a handful of small distributors (including Severin Films, Vinegar Syndrome, Synapse Films) that bring weird and obscure older films to home video, but for most of them that’s their niche. It’s what they do, the very purpose of the label, and those of us who love movies are grateful for it. Code Red DVD is one such example, and a fitting one too as they were the first to bring The Visitor to the U.S. in an uncut incarnation on DVD a few years ago (that can still be purchased here). Their reach is small though, so the announcement that Drafthouse Films had acquired the film for a remastered rollout in theaters followed by a Blu-ray/DVD release was music to the ears (and eyes) of strange-cinema fans everywhere.

It’s great news for many reasons, but most noticeably it’s a reminder that even with Academy Award nominees and critically acclaimed documentaries on their limited roster, Drafthouse Films remains dedicated to resurrecting the occasional gem of WTF cinema too.

WTF cinema isn’t a technical term, obviously, but for the acronym-challenged among you it stands for “what the fuck cinema.” Basically, these are movies that consistently challenge expectations (both visual and narrative) to the point that viewers have literally no idea what to expect. This has nothing to do with plot twists, reveals, or shock endings, and instead has everything to do with leaving an audience in a frequent state of head-scratching awe as the unexpected appears onscreen again and again.

Think Santa Sangre, Society, Holy Motors, or Tokyo Gore Police. It’s no guarantee of quality, and it’s not the kind of thing we see much of anymore in American cinema, but Charlie Kaufman, Terry Gilliam, and David Lynch still occasionally represent with wonderfully weird and/or demented works.

Drafthouse is still relatively young (The Visitor is only their fifteenth release), but they’ve managed to avoid easy labeling thanks to an incredibly diverse catalog of acquisitions. They’re not all winners of course, but their interests include new and old films, domestic and foreign, with the only common denominator being that there really isn’t one. The Oscar-nominated Bullhead sits on their shelf beside adult comedies (Klown), contemporary dramatic thrillers (Graceland, Pieta), and highly praised documentaries (The Act of Killing, A Band Called Death).

And then there are a few examples that approach WTF cinema. The FP imagines a near future where rival gangs fight for turf and respect through Dance Dance Revolution competitions. Miami Connection features a martial-arts-infused pop band who fight motorcycle-riding ninjas on the back roads and beaches of the Sunshine state. Wrong follows one man’s surreal quest to find his missing dog, Paul. And the newly acquired R-100, a favorite of mine at this year’s Fantastic Fest, follows a depressed family man’s descent into the hell of a very unique S&M club.

Which brings us back to The Visitor. It opens with legendary director John Huston standing in a snowy field against a fuzzy blue screen backdrop, but within moments we’re in a room with Jesus Christ (Franco Nero) telling little bald kids the story of the evil Sateen’s capture by Yawheh and eventual escape to Earth. It seems Sateen was a mute ant (or maybe a mutant, who knows really) whose powers grew to include psychic abilities. Yawheh dispatched an army of birds to find and kill him, obviously, but while they gave him permanent brain damage it was too late to stop him from passing on his evil genes through sexy time with Earth women.

Sateen’s latest spawn is Katie Collins, a foul-mouthed little brat who’d just as happily cheat at professional basketball as she would shove her paraplegic mother through a glass waterfall. Huston comes to Earth to save the child, but lucky for us he’s in no rush. This is most evident in a scene that sees Katie chased by aggressive teenage ice dancers while Huston walks very slowly down a long flight of stairs nearby. We also get a cabal of white men cultivating Sateen’s progeny, a simulated (?) alien abduction, the best “accidental” birthday shooting ever, a troupe of Mummenschanz skinheads, a menacing flock of birds on strings, and a cast that includes Lance Henriksen, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, and most improbably, a dubbed Sam Peckinpah!

Is it a good movie? Damned if I know, but it is sincere in its attempt to ape popular films by throwing parts of each into a blender, pureeing on high, and then pouring out the results on screen with little concern for normalcy. It’s also insanely memorable and highly entertaining. Go see it in theaters. Go buy the Code Red DVD. Go double dip when the eventual Drafthouse Blu-ray is released. Not only are you supporting smaller distributors, but you’re also making it clear that there’s an audience for strange, risky, unconventional cinema. Especially ones about bitchy little girls who kill people telekinetically, suggest their mom make love with Lance Henriksen, and tell the director of The Maltese Falcon to “fuck off old man.” WTF indeed.

Whet your appetite with the new poster for The Visitor below, and check out the official page to see if it will be playing near you.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.