The Forgotten: Adventures in Babysitting

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The funniest one-line review I've read recently was by one "Doc Scot" on the IMDb, for Stridulum, AKA The Visitor, an Italian-American supernatural thriller with a surprisingly starry cast. "Did John Huston lose a bet?"

One might equally ask, "Was this film paid for by some insane religious cult?" One of the ones with a private science fiction mythology? Not the Scientologists, I guess, but a group of also-ran maniacs like Rael (who seem to have compiled their holy text from old Peter Gabriel songs). Certainly the film comes with a heap of spacey mumbo-jumbo backstory, delivered in a massive info-dump by Franco Nero as Jesus in scene two, information that doesn't seem to explain what follows, but goes on and on and hints at some kind of obsessive evangelical mission on the part of director/co-writer Giulio Paradisi.

It sounds like I don't think much of this film, but I may actually be obsessed myself. I love this misbegotten thing. Dealing with a sort of extraterrestrial antichrist / champion gymnast / ice skater / little girl (the terrifying-when-she's-nice Paige Conner) at large in Atlanta, Georgia, the movie also finds time for a subplot about basketball, and a few games of Pong. And the cast features Lance Henriksen, John Huston, Shelley Winters, Glenn Ford, Mel Ferrer and a frail-looking Sam Peckinpah, who appears to be dubbed, and totters on for one scene to give his daughter an abortion (intriguingly, the Italian cut features a whole different set of shots here than the US version, and I bet abortion is not on the agenda. But as I don't speak Italian, I can't confirm this).

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The daughter is the crisply-named Joanne Nail, an immaculate hairspray and lipgloss sculpture of a woman, whose chitinous-smooth surface is so inhumanly perfect that it's hard to feel for her, despite the fact that she gets shot in the back, knocked-up by non-consensual surgical procedure, aborted, pecked by a falcon, driven into a fishtank in her wheelchair, kicked downstairs and garroted on her chairlift. After which she still looks pretty near perfect.

Joanne is the mother of the New Age alien antichrist kid, and a baffling corporation/secret society of which her husband (Henriksen) is a member wants her to produce a brother for the brat, since for unexplained reasons she's the only woman alive who can produce these nightmare wunderkinder. John Huston's role is a little unclear, but he seems to be part of a rival sect (just him, Jesus Franco Nero, and some bald people) who want to remove the existing kid from society and raise her in splendid isolation, extracting the evil from her (this, it turns out, is achieved by having the child mauled by flocks of savage doves).

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You might be thinking, "This sounds like a strange film," and surprisingly enough I wouldn't disagree with you. But there are solid reasons why it exists. Egyptian-born producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, known as the rip-off king, had been doing quite well (and he's still at it) making low-budget features designed to, shall we say, echo the plots of recent big-budget studio hits. Tentacoli (1977) followed in the wake of Jaws, for example, and detailed the misadventures of a marauding octopus. Like Stridulum, this featured Huston, Winters, and also Henry Fonda. Meanwhile, Atlanta-based distributors Film Ventures International had a hit with Grizzly (1976), a movie predicated on the correct assumption that if Spielberg could clean up with a piscine variation on Ibsen's Enemy of the People, nothing was to prevent somebody with a few bucks to spare from churning out their own ursine alternative. It was natural that these two companies would get together, and even more natural that they would look to knock out a knock-off of The Omen.

Since schlockmeisters are a fiercely proud people, it wouldn't do to simply recycle the Satanic boy-child narrative of Richard Donner's soapy horror, so the idea of a science fiction twist must have come readily enough. With Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind a current sensation, a film where nothing the aliens do makes any sense at all, the more ineffable aspects of Stridulum start to make sense, not so much as narrative, but as part of a late-70s tradition of non-Cartesian, logic-free storytelling by sensation.

I don't mean, by this lengthy and tedious explication, to rob this film of its glamorous mystery. Nothing could do that. From its opening Lynchian diorama of desert rituals beneath a milk-clouded sky, the movie is defiantly inexplicable, its most baffling moments saved for precisely when you think you've got your bearings. When Shelley Winters, astrologically-inclined housekeeper, tells Nail "I'm here to protect you. Nothing bad will happen to you any more," we sort of relax a little, feeling something has somehow been cleared up. And then, while Shelley stands uselessly staring, the pre-pubescent demoness, screaming at the height and breadth of her young lungs, steers Nail's wheelchair into a big fishtank. Lethal slomo smash. Fadeout.

Fade up, and Nail is completely unharmed, with not a mark on her.

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Also, in the alien abduction during which Nail is impregnated, the abductors operate out of the back of a truck, rather than the more standard UFO. This has the effect of making the whole sequence far more disturbing. While the impregnation is going on, the heroine's abandoned car is discovered by two comedy negroes straight out of a depression-era pre-coder, jabbering about their fear of ghosts and spookiness. Only a smattering of jive-talk updates the attitudes to 1979. I know this movie was made in Atlanta, but still...

The whole film is so oddly confident in its visuals, which are elegant, dynamic, eerie and sensual, with a lovely seventies diffusion laid over everything. The sound design is frequently extremely effective, with strange pulsing sounds throbbing away, 2001 astronaut breath, and a sophisticated restraint shown, allowing some events to happen without making a sound of their own at all, a relief in this age of total foley. And then John Huston will amble into shot in his safari suit, an exuberant funk arrangement of Also Sprach Zarathustra blasting away behind him, and the movie nosedives into the absurd. Huston also turns up as a babysitter, claiming to have been sent by "the agency." Which is true, but not in the way poor Nail thinks.

Based on this effort -- Lance Henriksen stabbed in neck by brass pigeon -- Giulio Paradisi (Or Michael J. Paradise), a former assistant director to Fellini -- Glenn Ford's eyes pecked by hawk (note the recurring bird imagery, and shrug helplessly) -- is a filmmaker worthy of further study, for his constantly gliding, probing camera, epic sense of space, and possibly congenital insanity. None of his other films appear to be available, but I list them in case they come your way: rock musical Terzo Canale (1970), Ragazzo di Borgata / Slow Boy (1976), Tesoro Mio (1979), Spaghetti House (1980). I covet his career.

Spaghetti House, in which Rita Tushingham is held hostage by black militants in an Italian restaurant, sounds like a film for the ages.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Responses

6 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Paul Duane

    I used to eat in an Italian restaurant that had a framed poster for Spaghetti House on the wall. Until now I had never made the connection with this truly inexplicable film (which played on normal telly, as if there was nothing at all odd about that, back in the ’90s).

  • David Cairns

    No medium which broadcasts this can be called “normal telly!” I tell you, there’s something very odd going on with this movie.

    I hope Spaghetti House is going to show up one of these days. And what was Paradisi’s relationship with Rita Tushingham, who stars in TWO of his movies?

  • diarmid

    A lot of these Forgotten columns make me want to check out whatever film you’ve written about. This one, though, I feel certain I can skip — I doubt it’s anywhere near as entertaining as your article. The “late-70s tradition of non-Cartesian, logic-free storytelling by sensation”, indeed. Wonderful.

  • David Cairns

    Honestly, the movie DOES live up to the sum of its insane parts. You can have hours of fun boggling about it afterwards.

  • Fernando Martín Peña

    I’ve goy a super 8mm. print of this film and I agree that it is amazing though it does not make any sense.

  • Robert Karol

    Just saw this play on the big screen in LA. Pretty spot-on, the only thing is that Peckinpah is supposed to be that ex-husband that Nail mentions early in the film.

    But I do love a lot of the visuals, especially the way that every aspect of 70s architecture/design is exploited for maximum creepiness.

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