Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the world offers up Franco Nero as a bottle-blond space Jesus, Shelley Winters in a maid’s outfit singing “Shortenin’ Bread,” and Glenn Ford getting his eyes pecked out by a frenzied hawk. Nicely played, world—and nicely played, Drafthouse Films, the rising home-video label responsible for bringing Italian director Giulio Paradisi’s 1979 kookfest The Visitor (DVD and Blu-ray; streaming via Amazon, iTunes, and VOD) back into it.
A schlocky, pretentious mish-mash of The Omen, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and bits from a couple of other ’70s smashes, the film concerns an epic intergalactic battle between good and evil, the latest skirmish of which will be fought over a young blonde girl named Katy (Paige Conner) who lives in, um, Atlanta. Paradisi (credited as Michael G. Paradise here) no doubt planned to take advantage of the Southern mecca’s then-new crop of “futuristic” architecture (the Omni complex plays a key visual role). In any event, Katy is possessed by the spirit of the diabolical Sateen—not Satan—unbeknownst to her hot ’70s mom (Joanne Nail) but definitely knownst to the hot mom’s boyfriend (a baby Lance Henriksen), part of a nefarious plot to get her knocked up again with the interstellar antichrist (or something). Nothing stands in the way except a bunch of Z-grade visual effects and the redoubtable actor/director John Huston playing an intergalactic warrior for peace while wearing safari togs, a squashed bucket hat, and a game if somewhat puzzled expression. (A badly dubbed Sam Peckinpah also makes an appearance.)
As bad as The Visitor is, though, it’s also kind of brilliant. Every set is an ad hoc star-filtered futurama, ’70s-style, and every music queue is full orchestra with a chik-a-wah funk band and synth throb underneath. And for every cruddy effect or laughable turn, there’s an indelible burst of crazed exploitation energy—Katy unwrapping a surprise birthday present to find a loaded automatic, or crusty Ford careening down an Atlanta interchange with a screeching raptor attached to his face. You’ve seen lots of flicks like The Visitor, truth be told, but rarely any versions this intense, this genuinely bizarre, and this entertaining.
Drafthouse recently resurrected a more well-known cult title that’s been out of circulation: Abel Ferrara’s 1981 grindhouse classic Ms. 45 (DVD and Blu-ray; streaming via Amazon, iTunes, and VOD). Here mute, mousy Thana (Zoe Lund, credited as Zoe Tamerlis) leaves her job at a crappy Manhattan fashion house one afternoon and is raped twice on the way home (the first attacker is Ferrara in a clown mask). So far, so sleazy. But Thana overcomes her passivity long enough to overcome her second attacker, and takes up his gun—in the titular caliber—for a revenge spree, blowing away catcallers, lecherous slimeballs, and soon, anyone with a pair.
Like The Visitor, Ms. 45’s exploitation cruddiness stands out. The blood is house-paint red and copious. The male characters are all venal swine. But there’s a bit more to Ferrara’s film than its 42nd Street bona fides. His visceral skill with a camera allows him to depict Thana dismembering her attacker in about four deft, discrete shots, and he’s got enough trad Hollywood chops to make the most of repeated comic bits with the landlady’s dog. It’s the psychosexual realm where Ms. 45 really plays over its head, however. Thana signals her newfound murderous agency by slathering her full lips with blood-red lipstick, and the more men she blows away, the cuter and sleeker her outfits get. By the time she dons a nun’s habit to lay her vengeance down on a Halloween party full of costumed revelers, Ferrara’s crazed urban saga feels like it’s amounted to something.
The company name Grindhouse Releasing seems to promise more of the same, but its hot resurrected title on offer right now is the 1968 John Cheever adaptation The Swimmer (DVD and Blu-ray; streaming via Amazon, iTunes, and VOD). Languid and controlled where The Visitor and Ms. 45 run feverish, director Frank Perry’s film follows hale, WASPy Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) as he emerges clad only in swim trunks from the bucolic Connecticut woods to take a guest dip in some friends’ pool. He announces a scheme to swim all the way back to his house, miles away across the 'burb, by stroking across a string of backyard pools. But he doesn’t make it too many laps before his interactions with the pools’ owners telegraph that perhaps Ned’s life isn’t as perfect as his teeth, his tan, and his flat gut.
Perry’s treatment of the story bears its share of old-Hollywood melodrama, but Lancaster’s role feels far more reflective and modern than, say, the drippy score. He’s onscreen in almost every frame, wearing nothing but a glorified Speedo, and delivers a remarkable performance from a position of thoroughgoing exposure. A contemporary viewer is sure to arrive at the story’s conclusion well before the film does, but it’s easy to see why Lancaster counted it his favorite of his own works.