Margaret (Anne Carlisle) and Jimmy (also Anne Carlisle) are in-demand models and regulars on the Noo Yoik new romantic club scene, and gosh do they love themselves some heroin. Cold, ruthless Jimmy prowls around, getting money and drugs where he can and caring only for his own personal gratification. Margaret lives in the dingiest penthouse apartment in New York, which comes with a lovely view of the Empire State Building, Margaret’s abusive drug dealer/avant-garde musician/Beat poet girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and a UFO on the roof, about the size of a dozen crate of beer.
The inhabitant of the UFO is also quite into heroin – but the absolute best high, so far as the alien is concerned, is the endorphins produced by the human brain during orgasm. Margaret is cursed with a string of shitty hangers-on who don’t give two shits about consent, ranging from her hypocritical, disapproving college professor Owen (Bob Brady) who likes to cajole and emotionally manipulate her into sex to dudes who are happy to just drug and violently assault her for the shit of it. Whenever they orgasm in close enough proximity to the alien, it shoots a crystal into their brain to extract those sweet, juicy endorphins. (If you want to interpret this as an AIDS metaphor, you absolutely can – this came out in 1982, the year that AIDS officially picked up that name once the awful GRIDS acronym got retired.)
In an apartment across the street belonging to Sylvia (Susan Doukas), Jimmy’s mum, visiting UFO researcher Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) observes proceedings, having followed the UFO-heroin connection this far. With Margaret, who’s been pushed about and abused by far too many people in her life, suddenly given the power of life and death, what will she do with it, and what will she do once the enormity of what she’s done caught up with her?
Liquid Sky is two hours of absolutely off-the-hook wildness. It was directed by Slava Tsukerman, who learned his filmmaking craft in the Soviet Union before emigrating to Israel, spending a few years there, and then emigrated again to the United States in 1976. Emerging in 1986, Liquid Sky is a science fiction take on the New York post-punk and New Wave scene, filtered through Tsukerman’s perspective – distanced as he was from most of the subculture’s participant both by age and by cultural background.
The central pillar of the movie is Anne Carlisle, who gives not one but two standout performances as Margaret and Jimmy. To an extent the film seems to have been constructed as a vehicle for her, with the screenplay written by Tsukerman, Carlisle, and Tsukerman’s wife and co-producer Nina V. Kerova. Jimmy is cruel, self-centred, and absolutely full of shit; Margaret, on the other hand, sees through everybody’s shit and is quick to call them out on it, but is barely listened to.
The essential premise of the movie being what it is (woman gets raped a lot, rapists die by alien intervention, woman uses aliens to get revenge on those who have wronged her by banging them), it runs the risk of of turning into a sordid celebration of Margaret’s victimisation – particularly when there’s a long setpiece just over an hour in, during which a fashion shoot at Margaret’s apartment devolves into the assembled fashionistas forcing Jimmy and Margaret to bang each other, and then having Adrian rape Margaret for good measure. Carlisle’s dual role takes some of the edge off that, because it means she gets to play both victim and victimiser – sometimes literally simultaneously, as in the fashion shoot sequence. (Carlisle also gets the best lines of the movie as Margaret – “I kill with my cunt. Isn’t that fashionable? So, come on, who’s next?”)
The first thing that hits you about Liquid Sky isn’t Margaret or Jimmy, however – nor is it any of the various other characters at the centre or periphery of their lives that we get a good look at. No, it’s the deliberately hideous musical score. Despite being set in the New Wave scene, for the most part the soundtrack uses none of the iconic music of the era – nor does it even attempt to provide a knock-off approximation of it. Instead, Tsukerman knocked out a soundtrack which seems like it’s trying to approximate stately Baroque marches and waltzes using only the demo modes of the cheapest synthesisers Casio could provide.
It’s astonishingly abrasive, and I would be wholly unsurprised if many viewers turned Liquid Sky off within ten seconds of the sound cutting in because they just can’t put up with the soundtrack. If you persevere, though, you end up getting an ear for it, and the bizarre choice actually works for the effect wanted; by removing anything resembling the familiar music we’d expect these gorgeously made-up kids to be dancing to, Tsukerman distances us from it, which helps in the project of giving us an alien’s perspective on this weird Earth musical and fashion scene. (We only get conventional music kicking in once Margaret embraces her deadly gift – and then it’s not New Wave, it’s sleazy, thumping disco of the sort which would have greeted Tsukerman as he arrived in the US in 1976.)
If the soundtrack is weird and alienating, the visuals are absolutely fascinating, with Tsukerman and his cast and crew really going to town on the fashions and makeup depicted. Given that the movie is such an astonishing visual feast, it’s a huge shame that it hasn’t been available in a decent format for ages; for a long time the only way I could track it down was as a low-quality YouTube rip of a VHS copy which looked like it had been filmed through a thick layer of butter. Fortunately, Vinegar Syndrome has been decent enough to produce a fresh new Blu-Ray release, which means that it’s finally widely available with the picture quality it deserves. The subject matter is absolutely not for everyone, and the presentation will likely turn off a great many, but as with any true cult movie if it happens to be your jam, you’ll likely find it unforgettable.