As I’ve said on previous occasions, I don’t like “evil child” movies. I think they’re obvious and silly. The juxtaposition of an innocent face with an evil soul is dull, and you shouldn’t be scared of anything you can dropkick. Michael J. Paradise‘s The Visitor feints towards the tired horror sub-genre, but instead goes for something much grander and bizarre. The film fearlessly bounces back between sinister B-movie and an operatic cross between extraterrestrial science-fiction and biblical inspirations. Paradise can’t always escape the tediousness of his nefarious and diminutive villain, but nothing can overcome the exalted presence of John Huston playing God.
The Visitor opens on a surreal note where an old man with a white beard (Huston) stares down a young girl on an otherworldly plane as snow bears down upon them. We’re then treated to a prologue where a long-haired hippie-type type relates the story of an evil alien criminal named Sateen who was pursued across the galaxy by Commander Ya-way (I’ll admit it took me a moment to parse out “Satan” and “Yahweh”). Sateen eventually crashed down on Earth, propagated with human women, and his descendants carried his evil. In the present (1978 when the film was released), Barbara (Joanne Nail) is an innocent woman who can bear such an evil child, and she’s already had one. Katy (Paige Conner) is clearly up to no good, but a council of sinister elders led by Dr. Walker (Mel Ferrer) want Barbara’s wealthy boyfriend Ray (Lance Henriksen) to make her bear a son. Ya-way, going by the pseudonym “Jerzy Colsowicz” comes to stop Katy before she can manipulate her mother into having another child.
The standard “evil child” movie works in a simple way: loving parent and/or guardian slowly becomes aware child is evil by realizing that all the horrible “accidental” deaths of supporting characters were caused by said child’s supernatural powers. Katy is evil and definitely has those powers, but Paradise plays a fascinating game of batting us back and forth between two different tones. One moment, we’re in an overtly sinister horror film where even the most mundane circumstances, such as a basketball game or a birthday party, can quickly become ominous. The next moment, John Huston is on top of a building while bald men dance behind white screens and the score plays a funky, bombastic tune. Katy’s actions aren’t keeping us off balance; it’s the way Paradise is presenting them.
Early in the movie, there’s a moment that’s so out of left field and shocking that I almost thought it was a dream sequence. I won’t spoil what it is because the kind of impact it leaves is repeated throughout the film. Paradise constantly lulls the audience into a sense of complacency and then sucker punches us with a scene that’s so jaw dropping in its lunacy that we have to wonder what kind of reality he’s playing in. The movie was shot in the unassuming locale of Atlanta, which only adds to the odd nature of the film. Unlike New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, there’s nothing grandiose about the city (especially in 1978), so the humble setting provides a baseline to emphasize the madness of the plot.
It almost becomes overwhelming, but Huston is the guiding force that takes command when the picture needs it the most. Paradise will go right up to the line of Barbara’s persecution becoming tiresome, and then we’ll get a scene of Huston owning every frame. Plenty of actors have played God over the years, and Huston plays him as completely unflappable. He’s not bored or disinterested in his task. He just has the quiet confidence to see it through to the end.
I’m deeply impressed that Paradise was able to take a clichéd villain fighting an all-powerful deity and still give their conflict weight. We still want to see Katy get a biblical smackdown even though Conner plays the character as an unremarkable brat with superpowers. Nevertheless, when their big showdown finally arrives, it draws out far too long, and we see that no matter how grand the circumstances, it’s still a weak antagonist. Beyond the obviousness and silliness of that kind of character, the evil child lacks agency. They exist to infuriate, and we sit there knowing that the world will continue to ignore her wickedness because, to crib the title of another evil-kid movie, who can kill a child? But if that’s what the story requires, The Visitor knows you’re going to need far more than a worried parent and a priest. You’re going to need a divine John Huston.