So it turns out that when the aliens do eventually land on earth they’ll not be making a beeline for military installations or centres of scientific research and they won’t be seeking out hayseeds in remote parts of the USA. They’ll be heading for the metropolis, where their flying saucer just the size of a dinner plate will touch down on top of a skyscraper. The aliens will then immediately start looking for party animals for whom opioids and stimulants are a major part of daily life. Not so much a case of take me to your leader as take me to your dealer. Bum tish.
Liquid Sky was released in 1982 and it really, really looks like it. Set in the angular but crepuscular New York club scene it has a nervy post-punk 1980s rawness (see also Basket Case from the same year), a 1970s disco-y vibe and a 1960s Warholiness to it that marks it out as proper indie product.
It was made by a quartet of USSR ex-pats, Slava Tsukerman and his wife/co-writer/producer Nina V Kerova, cinematographer Yuri Neyman and camera operator Oleg Chichilnitsky, who bring the outsider perspective to the story co-written with star Anne Carlisle, about aliens who feast on endorphic rushes.
Carlisle takes two roles, as the world-weary scenester Margaret whose bisexuality allows her to work her way through whoever is available on any given night and whose drug habit makes her doubly attractive to the aliens who have just touched down on top of her building. She’s also Jimmy, a male “face” on the scene who fancies himself more than he fancies anyone else and behaves, as most people in this movie do, in that deadpan drop-dead way perfected by Andy Warhol.
What little plot there is concerns Margaret hooking up with people and then the aliens sucking the life force out of them at the moment of sexual rapture. Margaret’s dirty secret, and the reason why she doesn’t die when all her sexual partners do, is one that’s very much of its time but I won’t spoil it (even though it’s tragic).
It’s got a “quick and dirty” ethos, an Expressionism meets Hedonism vibe, a lurid, vividly lit look, a touch of Metropolis 1930s style influencing the sort of clothes that Margaret and her gang like to wear (David Bowie is referenced at one point, the Bowie of the Thin White Duke era, most likely).
It’s easy not to like the people involved. Margaret, Jimmy, Margaret’s drug-dealer and performance-artist girlfriend Adrian (Paula E Sheppard) most obviously. But in a building over the way there’s a shred of what passes for normality in the shape of Johann (Otto von Wernherr), a German scientist convinced that aliens have landed, and Sylvia (Susan Doukas), the local resident who’s keen on seeing more of Johann than his telescope. A kind of horny comedy of sexual missed opportunities plays out here on the dry side of the street while over in Margaret’s world it’s all going on and coming off.
Are we meant to like these people though? Tsukerman and co seem as much to be critiquing the counterculture as supporting it. Most everyone in this movie is a poseur, a waster or a sponger, parasites almost all. And the camera of Yuri Neyman – up in people’s unflatteringly lit faces – seems to agree.
It’s fascinating and depressing at the same time, with a jerky synth soundtrack that never quite invites the viewer to relax and slip the shoes off. It didn’t cost much but made a stack of money. By some estimates it was the most successful indie movie of 1982 (I’m assuming these figures are US only). For that reason, if no other, it deserves to be seen, as a reflection of a reflection of what young groovers at the time were really like. Unlikeable.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023