Cinema Delirium: The Visitor And The Art Of The Italian Copycat Movie

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Italian cinema used to be regularly mocked by critics for the way it would immediate rush out cheap imitations of American hits, sometimes even masquerading as sequels, in the hope of cashing in on a cinematic trend. “Look at these guys”, they’d say, “making low rent copies of much better films”. But they tended to miss the point. Yes, Italian horror, science fiction, sex and action cinema was dominated by films that sought to capitalise on the success of high-profile movies, but rarely did they simply rehash the stories. Instead, more often than not, they took the basic theme and made something entirely new. Not always good, but certainly original. That’s why so many fans of exploitation cinema have so much affection for these films, because quite often, they had more verve and entertainment value than the films they were inspired by. Even if they couldn’t match the quality of the inspiration, they could come up with something unique and demented.

Look at Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, which cheekily took George Romero’s modernist Dead films and turned them inside out, taking the zombie back to its voodoo roots before setting itself up as a prequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Fulci’s film might not have the intelligence of Romero’s movies (or might, if you, like me, think that the subtext and social commentary of Romero’s films has been somewhat overblown), but it’s a more potently visceral horror film, one where you can almost smell the decay and the heat. The film has only a passing resemblance to Romero’s work – far less a similarity, for instance, than there is between Night of the Living Dead and The Last Man on Earth, an Italian horror film made four years earlier – and Fulci’s subsequent zombie films – City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, House by the Cemetery – went even further in to their own direction, more Lovecraft and gothic goriest than Romero. There’s no question that if Dawn of the Dead didn’t exist, then neither would Fulci’s films (or other Italian zombie films of the era), but to dismiss the films as mere copycat productions is extremely short-sighted.

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There’s something admirable about the way Italian producers could crank out films inspired by a box office hit and yet make them something original. In fact, as the filmmakers were often working in anticipation of a trend, they sometimes not only made a film rather different from the original inspiration but actually almost entirely dominated a genre that had failed to take off. Conan the Barbarian failed to set the box office alight enough to kickstart a sword and sorcery boom, but the Italians nevertheless took the idea and ran with it – almost all the sword and sorcery films of the early 1980s are Italian movies that are ostensibly imitations, but which all have more vim and vigour than the movie that inspired them.

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Some films would take inspiration from various sources – the Italian post-apocalypse movies like Bronx Warriors, Endgame, Warriors of the Wasteland and others are part Mad Max 2, part Escape from New York, as well as cherry-picking from a host of other films. The Humanoid began life as a copy of The Island of Dr Moreau, before 1977’s big hit turned out to be Star Wars, and the story was reworked as a space opera. Star Crash might not have existed without Star Wars, but it takes its inspiration more from Barbarella and other comic book movies (and Star Wars fans who turn their noses up at cheap cash-ins have tended to keep very quiet about the fact that their favourite movie only existed because George Lucas couldn’t buy the rights to Flash Gordon, and so instead made a blatant copy – thankfully allowing the Flash Gordon film to be made a few years later in a style that owes a lot to Italian comic book sci-fi). the fact that both The Humanoid and Star Crash are much more entertaining than the film(s) that inspired them is an added bonus.

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Then, there are the notorious Black Emanuelle films. This series was a shameless rip-off of the French erotic hit Emmanuelle, a film whose producers seemingly employed the worst lawyers in the world – how else could a rival series get away with using the same character name, albeit it a minor spelling alteration? But while the Emmanuelle films were glossy travelogues with soft focus, software sex scenes, the Black Emanuelle movies became increasingly bizarre, pitting Laura Gemser against white slavers, cannibals, snuff movie merchants and other outré characters. The rarely seen uncut version of Emanuelle in America offers a heady mix of bestiality, hardcore sex and hard gore violence that must’ve been an eye-opener for anyone who wandered into the cinema expecting to see Sylvia Kristel engaging in stylishly empty sex scenes.

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And then there are the Exorcist copies, the worst of which – Beyond the Door, for instance – simply rehash the story with clumsy vomiting and blasphemy sequences, but which often take the basic idea and add in extra doses of both Catholic guilt and Catholic taboo-shattering, adding an emphasis on Satanic rituals while frequently turning the possessed protagonist into an adult, all the better for adding gratuitous nudity and sexual deviation. Massimo Dallamano’s The Night Child (aka The Cursed Medallion) is probably the one furthest removed from the source material, not even bothering with a token exorcism, vomiting and head-spinning scene. Instead, the film is a surprisingly subtle – perhaps too subtle – story of a little girl (played by Italian horrors creepy child of choice, Nicoletta Elmi) who becomes the conduit for dark forces as she travels to Italy with her BBC journalist father Richard Johnson. At the other end of the scale was L’Ossessa, a film that might hold the record for the most alternative titles (The Eerie Midnight Horror Show; The Sexorcist; Enter the Devil; The Devil Obsession; The Tormented; The Obsessed; and more, depending on which video label picked it up at any point), which mixed kinky sex and devil worship to the point where it could be sold as either a horror or a sex film, depending on the market.

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It’s one of the Italian occult films of the 1970s that shows just how far removed from the source material a copycat film could go. On paper, The Visitor, made in 1979, is a copy of The Omen. Or maybe Carrie. Or The Fury. Or The Exorcist. Or Rosemary’s Baby. And so you can see the confusion right away. Because the film takes elements from all these films and their imitators and sequels, as well as a bunch of other less well-known US movies, throws in a spot of Jodorowsky and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, stirs them all together and then throws the whole chaotic mess onto the screen, performed by a genuinely strange cast that includes Franco Nero apparently playing Jesus Christ and no less than two legendary and controversial Hollywood movie directors in acting roles. It’s no surprise that the final film rarely makes much sense, and sometimes becomes entirely incoherent. It’s wildly over-long and often looks as though it is being made up as it goes along. Characters are introduced and then either killed off or forgotten about, the bombastic main theme appears seemingly at random and the movie sometimes stops to allow strange visual effect set pieces. The film ends and then carries on anyway for several more minutes, presumably because someone had forgotten about one important character who needs to make another appearance, and John Huston wanders through the film with the bemused smile of a man who wonders how he got from directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to appearing in this sort of thing.

Make no mistake – The Visitor is a complete mess of a film. It’s also bizarrely brilliant.

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This film is entirely compelling, both as a visual experience, a hallucinogenic trip and a fascinating folly. At no point does it ever become dull; quite the opposite in fact. The longer the film goes on, the less sense it makes and the more fascinating an experience it is. This isn’t a ‘so bad it’s good’ film as much as a ‘so weird it’s great’ one. I mean, in case it didn’t sink in earlier, let me say it again – it has Franco Nero as Jesus Christ! He opens the film, telling a bunch of bald kids the tale of the evil Sateen (which I think we can safely say is Satan), essentially reinventing Christianity as a space opera. Audacious stuff. It turns out that before Sateen was killed by holy birds destroying his brain, he managed to impregnate a handful of women. It’s their progeny and descendants that now sit, ageless, at his feet.

And it seems there is another one to deal with, eight year old Katy (Paige Conner), the daughter of Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail). Barbara is being groomed by a bunch of Sateenists, led by Dr Walker (Mel Ferrer), who want her to marry basketball executive Raymond Armstead (Lance Henricksen) and give birth to a male child who can then mate with Katy and bring about some unspecified event. John Huston is Jerzy Colsowicz, who Jesus has sent to stop this and bring Katy to him for salvation. This apparently involves him watching things from a distance and doing little to prevent Katy’s increasing reign of terror as she develops her powers and becomes an extremely potty-mouthed Bad Seed. Soon, Mom has been ‘accidentally’ shot in the back and paralysed, and Shelly Winters has arrived as housekeeper Jane Phillips, a sort of holy Mrs Baylock from The Omen. Glenn Ford is on hand as a police detective investigating the shooting who comes to a sticky end, and Sam Peckinpah pops up as Barbara’s ex-husband for no good reason beyond someone realising that hell, we can get Sam Peckinpah in this thing!

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As stated earlier, Huston seems pretty bewildered by the whole thing, but still delivers his dialogue with authority, and that’s the strangest aspect of the movie – all the actors are on top form, giving fine performances despite clearly having no idea whatsoever what is going on. It’s an amazing cast for what is essentially an Italian copycat film, and no one seems to be slumming it. And that’s the weirdest aspect of the film – it has so much that is genuinely good, from the performances to the visuals – dated now of course, but often so strange and trippy that they remain extremely effective. And director Giulio Paradisi (under the unconvincing name Michael J. Paradise) fills the movie with fantastic moments. There’s a scene in a hall of mirrors that ends with a shot of Katy reflected in several broken mirrors, her various reflections seeming to represent aspects of her broken psyche, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The film is full of such little flourishes, alongside some impressive action / horror set pieces and the afore-mentioned psychedelic visual moments where Huston hops between… planets? Dimensions? It’s never made clear, but it looks fantastic while it happens.

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How much of the film’s incoherence is intentional and how much accidental is hard to tell. By all accounts, Paradisi wasn’t much interested in the story, preferring a handful of moments he’d conceived that had to be weaved into the narrative – the writing credit goes to Luciano Comici and Robert Mundi, from a story by Paradisi and producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (who had previously directed the disposable Exorcist copy Beyond the Door, which became an inexplicably huge hit in the USA and opened doors for him to make star-studded movies like this, backed with American finance) – whether any of these people worked hand in hand, or simply came up with a series of unconnected ideas that then had to be strung together is anyone’s guess. It’s worth remembering that this film was made at a time when Italian horror was at its most stylised and free-form – it came in the wake of Suspiria, which also took a slight story and used it to hang amazing visual imagery on. But while Suspiria‘s story was minimal, it still made sense. The Visitor rarely does. In the end though, that hardly matters, because the film is strangely addictive and fascinating – you don’t really need to know exactly what is going on to be drawn into the sheer hallucinatory madness of it all.. It manages to be both awful and superb at the same time. It’s derivative as hell and entirely original – unquestionably the most entertainingly delirious example of Italian copycat cinema spiralling out of control that you’ll ever see. It’s a conundrum of a film that is cinema at its most not-giving-a-fuckness. As such, it really should be the next film you seek out to watch. And if for some reason you still have the inclination to dismiss Italian genre imitations from the 1970s and 80s, then I heartily suggest you think again – you’re missing out on some of the weirdest, wildest and more unrestrainedly mad films ever made.

DAVID FLINT