What would you do with half a million bucks? Maybe buy a nice house, purchase some hot wheels, or perhaps take the family away on a luxurious cruise? Would you spend it on a movie about aliens? Yes, you would?…okay, good to know and thanks for dropping by, Roger Corman. It’s not a small amount of money by any means, but when it comes to making films, you will certainly be limited in what you can make. But if it is something you are passionate about and you want to invest and see what comes of it, why the bloody hell not?
In 2010, the British director Gareth Edwards spent that figure (albeit of someone else’s money) shooting a film about giant murderous monsters, which he edited and added special effects to using a laptop and some Adobe software. The film was called Monsters, and its mind-blowing quality and subsequent high profit turn-over led to Edwards being picked up by the Star Wars team to direct Rogue One a few years later (still the best of the new films in my opinion). “Achievement unlocked,” one might say. But if we reverse back a few decades (and leaving aside the significant matter of inflation), back to when Alien (1979) was made by 20th Century Fox and a budding director called Ridley Scott. Fox spent a hefty US$10 million on the spectacle, a similar budget to Star Wars a few years earlier. It was a slick production and an unforgettable cinematic experience for everyone who went to see it. But more importantly, it made ten times the cost in profit and it would go on to influence many other ‘alien films’, whether related to the film’s story or not. Alien essentially prompted many others to try and replicate or surpass it, and a large budget was seen to be necessary in order to make them successful. A little known Russian-Israeli director called Vladislav (Slava) Tsukerman tended to disagree with this necessity.
Like Edwards, but 18 years earlier (in 1982), Tsukerman wrangled a budget of half a million dollars out of an obscure Soviet Union production company called Z Films Inc. to make his very own ‘alien film’. This was called Liquid Sky, and after a fairly successful release on the festival circuit and at midnight screenings throughout the US, it would go on to become a cult favourite around the world. Tsukerman had made several independent films in the USSR and Israel in the 1960s and 70s, but after arriving in New York in 1976, he and his wife embarked on a project that would end up being Liquid Sky. So what makes it stand out, and why is it a ‘Midnight Movie’, I hear you ask? Well, brace yourself for some headfuckery!
This is the IMDB summary:
‘Invisible aliens in a tiny flying saucer come to Earth looking for heroin. They land on top of a New York apartment inhabited by a drug dealer and her female, androgynous, bisexual nymphomaniac lover, a fashion model.’
I could just end this post there really. Is there anything more to say?! Well, actually there is, because the summary neglects to mention that instead of finding heroin, the aliens find an even greater high to extract from Earth – they absorb people’s souls right at the point of sexual orgasm! Liquid Sky is a truly unique film. And perhaps not in a good way. But not in a bad way either. It is so trashy, so cheap-looking and so badly acted, that it is impossible not to look away in a debilitating cringe at times, but I think mostly it can be admired (not unlike John Waters earlier ‘bad taste’ films). It is a surreal, visual and aural feast. And this is thanks to the economical but quirky effects employed by Director of Photography, Yuri Neyman, and the primitive synthesized soundscape orchestrated by Tsukerman himself. The film also inadvertently deals with many broad and challenging social themes – sexuality, gender roles, misogyny, drugs, commodification of humans etc, etc. Tsukerman does not shy away from a challenge in his conceptual narrative, which is often raw and lacking any tact. But his main focus with Liquid Sky appears to be on a specialty visual experience, and he succeeds in a way that no one else appears to have done in the history of independent cinema. The film is massively weird and unexpected, but it is also endlessly intriguing and kind of hilarious.
The aliens for example are not little green men with oval-shaped heads and big black eyes nor are they monstrous creatures with two sets of mouths. They are not three-dimensional. They do, however, ascend from the skies in your standard-issue ‘flying saucer’-style craft, but, and I guess this was an internal gag, the craft is the size of an actual saucer and the prop used appears to literally be a saucer. There is no specific physical indication of how the aliens move or conduct their business. We are prompted to understand their processes through cut scenes of highly colorised exposures contracting and expanding across the screen. This happens whenever two people are having sex in the apartment where the saucer is parked above. It’s all terribly odd and bizarre, but after a while it all starts to make sense. It does…really!
For a bit more context, the lead protagonist is the afore-described ‘androgynous, bisexual nymphomaniac’ model called Margaret. Her ambition is to make it in the fashion world in New York City even though it is extremely brutal and abusive to her. She numbs some of her pain and torment with cocaine and casual sex, and when she discovers that her exploitative and sexually aggressive partners are dying at the moment of orgasm, she empowers it for her own revenge. It is only later she discovers that her own life is being spared by the aliens because she herself is not experiencing orgasm (which is just a genius subversion of sexual politics). And her discovery is aided, quite randomly, by a German scientist (looking and speaking like a less buff version of Arnie), who seems to all of a sudden become interested and obsessed with the aliens’ purpose – he creepily uses telescopes and binoculars to watch all of this unfold at Margaret’s apartment.
There are many distasteful moments in the film. But there are also many interesting and challenging scenarios presented – for example, Anne Carlisle, who is quite fantastic in the lead role as Margaret, also plays Jimmy, Margaret’s fashion rival who is equally drug-addled and troubled. It was quite the revelation for this viewer to find that they are the same actor. Each role is inhabited very differently and there are many cross-over scenes between them, the most famous being when they are forced to have sex with each other in front of a cruel, and shameless mob. The scene is well-managed by Tsukerman, but rates very high on the what-the-fuck-o-meter.
I once seen the film described as ‘a Duran Duran music video on acid’, and I think that is quite apt. The make-up, hair-styling and costume design is something quite memorable, and along with the music and the mind-fuck elements of the storyline, this has certainly prompted its endurance on the cult scene. And apparently, the costumes were all improvised on set – all of the clothes worn by Margaret, Jimmy and their horrible contemporaries were bought in Manhattan thrift stores. Indeed, this is the quintessential ingredient of 80s fashion: improvisation and wild colour combinations. The enduring image of Margaret with white hair lifted above her ahead and her face painted is something to behold in independent cinema. The film as a whole really embodies the essence of punk subculture, or more specifically the alt-punk scene of the early 80s. It melds so many styles together and it gives you a sense of being ‘in its own time’ as well as being straight ‘out of time’. Liquid Sky is literally not afraid to show its stripes. The independent element to its construction, and the fact that a Russian team was behind making this, even though it was filmed and released in the US during the Cold War, is also symbolic of its underground notions. Not a film to watch on a Saturday afternoon with the family, but definitely a midnight special.