Monday, December 18, 2017

Liquid Sky

(R, Cinevista, 112 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: April 15, 1983)

It's a rare but welcome surprise when a cult film manages to trip you up. Midnight movie masses tend to flock towards the most inept, most earnestly dreadful movies ever brought to fruition, so the discovery of one which actually is novel and assured rather than derivative and amateurish is something I celebrate. James Nguyen is a hero to the Rifftrax audience, and Tommy Wiseau has his own Ed Wood treatment thanks to James Franco. But I was burnt out with both Birdemic and The Room instantly because they don't reward ritualistic viewing thanks to being both hopelessly shoddy and thematically sloppy. They exist purely for ironic pleasure, and this is one of the biggest turn-offs I have developed in response to a world of online criticism where arch glad-handing has allowed mediocrity to thrive in the places where genuinely great films deserve to occupy.

Liquid Sky is a deathlessly kinky anomaly in a cult movie pantheon that often requires neon signs advertising a film's ineptitude to get recognized. It's safe to say Liquid Sky has osmosed itself into fringe appreciation, especially when you ponder the inspiration for such musical provocateurs as Peaches and Lady Gaga. But I have the hardest time trying to explain Liquid Sky categorically. Is it a new wave Ms. 45 via Paul Morrissey and David Cronenberg? What do I make of a glamorous lead actress who plays a supporting role in male drag? Are the performance art take-offs embellished satire or another stretch at anthropological authenticity? How do I deal with the micro-plots involving a deadbeat junkie husband and a Jewish TV producer seducing a German astrophysicist? Are the heat vision visual effects transcendent of their shoestring appearance?

When a movie raises that many questions, my instinct is to watch it over and over looking for my own answers. And Liquid Sky hit me with that laser beam, in 1980s parlance, relaxing me with its deadpan charms enough to let the film's casual cruelty and "fashionable" desperation swirl around in my mind instead of slapping me upside the head. Conceived by Russian émigrés in tandem with an American performance artist, Liquid Sky is at once inside and outside the nihilistic DayGlo pageantry of the post-punk club scene. There is heroin, rape, catfighting, necrophilia, and enough free-floating hostility to make George Carlin seem like a pussycat. It's also visually and aurally sumptuous.

Liquid Sky takes place in the span of one day, and Slava Tsukerman labors to preserve a more unique portrait of New York than usual when compared to its seedier contemporaries. The Empire State Building is viewed as a shrine in the glow of golden hour cinematography. Not content with mere aerial shots, Tsukerman manages fresh footage of an airplane landing and makes the most of the window and rooftop motifs. The city streets are reassuringly heavy with traffic during lunchtime, and there is a dazzling make-up session conducted under black light that epitomizes the richness of the primary colors. There is also a nightclub sequence near the end which is rendered more extraterrestrial than the requisite UFO, which is no larger than a dinner plate and inconspicuously settles atop an apartment building cluttered with empty bottles and crates.

The alien craft is drawn to the penthouse suite occupied by model Margaret (Anne Carlisle: Desperately Seeking Susan, Crocodile Dundee) and dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard: Alice, Sweet Alice) on the promise of heroin, which upon injection stimulates a chemical reaction in the brain which the aliens harvest for sustenance. Or at least so until now, as West Berlin scientist Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) has gone from noticing the bizarre pattern of deaths in drug-abusing punk circles to finding a connection involving sexual intercourse, particularly the rush of endorphins at the orgasm stage. The defiantly androgynous Margaret proves useful in the alien's mission as she is exploited by predatory soap stars, professors and failed artists, all of whom wind up with glass arrows lodged in their heads and/or vanish completely post-coitus.

Margaret was once of "Mayflower stock" before moving from Connecticut to Manhattan to pursue indoctrinated ideals of fortune, going from the notion of marrying a lawyer ("And on the weekends, we'd barbecue...") to waiting tables and wishing upon an acting agent instead. These modes of subservience and blind luck are shattered completely by the realization of her newfound power of sexual agency, which isn't limited to men. With her already outré face paint and hairdos, Margaret reaches the depths of her alienation even before she is emboldened to snatch a naive mate off the Danceteria floor ("Be nice to your audience") and send him off to a euphoric oblivion.

Her roommate Adrian is made of harder stuff, "concrete mazes, stone and glass." Confrontational and vulgar, this child of a hospitalized mother who once baptized a fancy restaurant with her urine is more of an outspoken nihilist than Margaret, who still retains tokens of gentle femininity (even when she turns primal, she's essentially Fay Wray as King Kong). Though she talks about relocating to Berlin, the European hub of glam culture and creative freedom, nothing becomes Adrian so much as her decadent New York environment. Whether reciting a ferocious poem devoted to her rhythm box ("It is preprogrammed/So what?/Who of your friends is not?") or writhing sensually atop the corpse of Margaret's acting teacher Owen (casting director Bob Brady), Adrian takes to being one of the damned with sardonic, sickening relish.

Trafficking in smack, Adrian's most pathetic client is Margaret's boyish opposite number, Jimmy. He latches onto Margaret at the start just so he can raid her apartment looking for the fix he can't afford, and proceeds to act even nastier to her as they share photo shoots. Anne Carlisle gender bends in the grand tradition of David Bowie by playing both these rival models, with trick photography and seamless doubles allowing them to be within striking distance of each other. As Jimmy, Carlisle flashes a 1000 watt sneer and takes cues from the Bowie/Ferry image of the debutante, slicked blonde hair and dapper tuxedo. The heated confrontation near the end between Margaret and Jimmy, where she is goaded into performing oral sex on the spiteful Jimmy, has to be seen to be believed.

The interactions between Margaret, Jimmy, Adrian, and the overbearing types courting them (from cocaine-huffing designers and their catty underlings to snooty reporters) are highly vitriolic comedy. Jimmy mocks Margaret by referring to her as an "ugly chicken" and steps on her toes, and her sadomasochistic response is to flatter his enabled ego as "the most beautiful boy in the world." Margaret is constantly defensive of her colorful style, as when Owen chastises her for looking like a hooker despite his history of wearing blue jeans as his own form of theatrical rebellion ("You thought your jeans stood for love, freedom and sexual equality while we at least know we're in costume"). Adrian's eulogy for the horny professor is delightfully profane and bitter ("You dropped dead fucking! It suits you well..."). And when Margaret is assaulted for the first time by soap opera hunk Vincent (Jack Adalist), who forces Quaaludes down her throat to render her docile, she resists with dry gusto. Incidentally, I didn't realize until a second viewing that Vincent would return later in the movie when Margaret accepts that there is one more score to settle.

Luckily, not all the humor is that black. Otto von Wernherr is endearingly straight as Dr. Hoffman, who asks his colleague Owen "How can I study the behavior of this creature if it's on private property?" His failed attempt to warn the defensive Adrian of the alien invasion is misinterpreted as a narco threat. And when he finds suitable space to conduct his studies, it's with Jimmy's mother Sylvia (Susan Doukas), the aforementioned Semite who works in television and throws herself at the duty-minded Donald Sutherland analog with an arsenal of playful bon mots ("You have protection from aliens? You have a laser gun in your pants?"). These lighter touches are effective counterpoints to the vagina dentata exhortations of Margaret, whose sci-fi venereal disease may arouse connotations with the then-nameless AIDS epidemic which was claiming hundreds of lives as early as 1982.

Credit joint screenwriters Slava Tsukerman, Nina Kerova (Tsukerman's longstanding wife) and Ms. Carlisle herself that Liquid Sky, while unavoidably rough due to a filming budget of less than $500,000, is never stilted or cloddish. Even as Tsukerman and DP Yuri Neyman seek to dazzle you with their ace location photography and vivid lighting, the characters in Liquid Sky possess inner lives and aggressive personalities. Margaret, jaded as she is, is played by Anne Carlisle with a voice as enthralling as her appearance. Paula E. Sheppard finds the sexiness in Adrian's hippie-gone-hostile patois. And the snide monotone Carlisle adopts for Jimmy is its own comic reward: when Sylvia tries to offer him a ride uptown, he matter-of-factly states "No, I'm going down."

Tsukerman also helped out on the film's eccentric score, composed on a Fairlight CMI handily available for public access at a library. This pricey synthesizer, which was big among experimental musicians for its ability to program natural sounds as musical notes (think Peter Gabriel's fourth album and Kate Bush on The Dreaming), allowed for variations on new and existing melodies, sometimes coming across as harsh (in that traditionally fast, processed "new wave" style) and other times gentle (bell-like and carnivalesque at a stately pace). He even feeds spoken dialogue into the keyboard for added disorientation, particularly the point where Margaret is taunted by all sides, especially from Jimmy, at her last modeling gig.

Liquid Sky has been a hard movie to come by, but Vinegar Syndrome offered a limited edition BD/DVD combo package (3000 units total) which sold out fast over the 2017 Black Friday shopping weekend. Restored from 35mm elements and remastered in 4k resolution, Liquid Sky is a revelation even if you only check out some of the screen caps posted at the AV Club. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle discuss the film in brand new interviews as well as an Alamo Drafthouse Q&A session (co-composer Clive Smith is also in attendance), although their commentary track is disappointing; recorded in what appears to be another apartment room, there are stretches of awkward silence which last for minutes where it would've been better to revert back to the soundtrack proper. The best option of all these bonuses is the 50-minute Liquid Sky Revisited, which boasts a wider array of participants (Kerova, Neyman, Doukas, and many more) as well as the chance to see Carlisle revisit shooting locations. The nightclub no longer stands, but I smiled knowing that a Petco has taken its place.

Liquid Sky has fast become one of my favorite movies of the 1980s. Here's hoping this alien artifact touches down again in a reissue format.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Crush + The Hand


(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 89 mins., theatrical release date: April 2, 1993)

There's an old maxim about horror movies and thrillers where one's enjoyment is directly proportional to the grandiosity of the villain. How many of the most beloved hair-raisers can you recall which were as good as their principal antagonist? Die Hard remains a towering inferno of a popcorn pic largely because of Alan Rickman's deceitfully debonair Hans Gruber, whose propensity to praise designer suits in one moment and then blow someone's brains out the next brought out the fiery urgency in the equally interesting hero, John McClane. In the Line of Fire worked a similar magic between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich (Cyrus the Virus, anyone?), and who can forget Hannibal Lecter even after all those inferior spin-offs? There's even poker-faced appreciation of such slasher behemoths as Freddy, Jason and Leatherface, mythical characters who were never meant to be relatable to in the first place. The Crush wants to be on that plain so badly, you can hear writer/director Alan Shapiro's back snap like chilled celery at his self-elevation. 
His anti-heroine is certainly a familiar type even by the lax standards of 1993, where Drew Barrymore graduated to femme fatale (cf: Poison Ivy) and Amy Fisher was a gossip rag fixture. But what really got me interested in revisiting The Crush reaches past an entire decade prior to Shapiro's film (and the year before my birth date), way back when a TV movie called Summer Girl premiered on CBS. That Diane Franklin vehicle casts a large shadow over every and all subsequent film I will ever see involving a teenage girl whose sexuality is so sociopathic, it threatens to expose the adult victims as even more childish than their adolescent tormentor.

And thanks to Shapiro, I've never felt more confident about such a generalization in my entire life, because The Crush is just that shallow.

This has nothing to do with nostalgia in regards to Alicia Silverstone, who rode MTV's gravy train to It Girl super-stature on the back of this film. Surely, I can remember seeing Aerosmith's string of Get a Grip video singles ("Cryin‘" and "Crazy" and "Amazing") knowing full well that the blonde starlet anchoring them was the joint winner of the network's trophies Best Breakthrough Performance and Best Villain for her portrayal of  "Adrian" Forrester. And I grew up watching Silverstone's career reach the heights of Clueless and plumb the depths of Batman & Robin. And once Blast from the Past with Brendan Fraser came and went, so did Ms. Silverstone, making way for Reese Witherspoon and fading into the ether of '90s kid memories just like Diane Franklin at the end of the '80s.

More important is that The Crush occupies that nutty boom in Hollywood post-Fatal Attraction involving that most programmable of stock villains, the Deranged Interloper. I saw it in Pacific Heights, The Good Son and a dozen other movies involving crazed lovers, roomies, policemen, and nannies. There was hardly anything subversive about them except for their vocation, concocting cheap paranoia among the upwardly-mobile who had every reason to believe their temp secretary or their fruit-of-the-loom progeny were out to get them. The Crush is the jailbait-next-door equivalent of those films, and as good a reason as the death of the music video to feel upset stomach at the rise of MTV as pop culture gatekeeper.

Alicia Silverstone's first-time luck is certainly more fascinating than anything in The Crush, including the central character. While MTV and Fangoria latched onto her star, nobody in 1993 was singing the praises of Cary Elwes, not even with the forthcoming release of Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a deliberate echo of the goofy charm Elwes demonstrated in The Princess Bride. The Londoner was instead saddled with one of the weakest lead roles in cinematic history, his "hero-victim" Nick Eliot being the epitome of complicit dullardry. A bespectacled milquetoast and journalistic writer of the teensiest skill evident, Nick nevertheless cruises out to Seattle once hired for Pique magazine, a coastal tabloid whose managing editor (Matthew Walker) thinks his investigative talents are esteemed enough to land an interview with a notorious embezzler. He finds suitable living and working residence in the guest house of Cliff and Liv Forrester (Kurtwood Smith, Gwynyth Walsh), but nearly mows down their 14-year-old daughter Adrian before setting one foot on their property.

Nick's apparent detriments of intuition and acclimation come into greater focus once Adrian starts making her play on the dopey if handsome writer. No review would be complete without mentioning that Silverstone's character was named Darian when the movie initially circulated, based on a genuine underage suitor Alan Shapiro had the misfortune of attracting. The real life Darian's parents threatened to sue James G. Robinson, thus the name was changed to protect the guilty for subsequent television and home video releases, including its BD debut from Shout! Factory. Soundalike actors dubbed all instances of the name "Darian" and an obvious insert appears at one point, although those who still have eagle eyes at the end will notice one slip. And the theatrical trailer has yet to be tampered with, either on disc or YouTube.

Anyway, "Adrian" (quotes will be dropped as long as you know who I'm actually referring to) is half of Nick's 28 years and the Valley Girl as bookish overachiever, with advanced knowledge of entomology, equestrianism and classical piano performance. It's hard to watch The Crush in any format and not see Cher Horowitz shoehorned into the role of a lonely, disturbed prodigal child, albeit one with a truly Californian hardbody Shapiro ogles in scantily-clad close-ups to the tune of Auto & Cherokee's "Taste," which was previously heard in the end credits of Stay Tuned minus the female moans. This happens after she has stolen a kiss and sucked Nick's fingers whilst assuring him "Don't be afraid of me." She even calls him up to taunt him with the phrase "I got my period," getting a rise out of Nick despite no actual puppy sex going on.

Teasing is the nature of Adrian's game, as when Nick sneaks into her bedroom looking for a missing photograph and hides in her closet while she disrobes for a bath. He bumbles further, she turns around and flashes him full frontal with a grin. Making a break for the front door, Nick is greeted by Cliff Forrester, who takes him up to the attic where his failed childhood present, a restored carousel, sits in neglect while he does the usual possessive daddy shtick with a pair of pliers. Forget about the name change: this doting fruitcake of a father alone seems more like a lynchpin for legal matters. No wonder Kurtwood Smith's insult of choice on That '70s Show was "dumbass."

When voyeurism fails to sway him, Adrian gets really steamed and scratches an obscene word onto Nick's snazzy car. Having screwed herself out of any future acts of endearment, she erases the floppy disk containing his deadline interview with the reclusive embezzler after having successfully rewritten his previous article. In the single most ludicrous moment of this consistently overheated film, Nick realizes Adrian's sabotage during a staff meeting, drives all the way back to his house, calls out for Adrian, wanders into the girl's candlelit shrine to him in the basement, gets duly creeped out, seals up the basement with hammer and nails, rewrites the entire article from memory whilst ignoring Adrian's desperate phone calls, drives all the way back to the office, and arrives with his salvaged article well before sundown. We see that Nick had asked his photographer girlfriend Amy Maddk (Jennifer Rubin: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Screamers) to stall for him, and I can only assume that she performed the same trick Winona Ryder used to wow the troops in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

Nick sleeps with Amy, who is then attacked in her bolted-up darkroom by a hive of wily bees...erm, wasps (?) fed through her air duct in a plastic bag but reappears at the end looking just as Karen Duffy-ish as ever, if not more so. Adrian also promptly arranges the horseback "accident" of her best friend Cheyenne (Amber Benson) when she sees her attempting to warn Nick somewhere more private. Only after Nick is evicted, fired and arrested on a sexual assault charge does Cheyenne, who was clearly out of the hospital before his disgraces (and why didn't he visit her there?), does she confess to Adrian's murderous past in time for her to be tied to Mr. Forrester's prized merry-go-round for a predictably vicious, slow motion-enhanced climax. You see what I mean about the previous paragraph highlighting the film's piece de ridicule?

There will be those in the bottom-feeding world of online critics who will tell you The Crush succeeds on some dubious camp level. Don't bother. Not only does Alan Shapiro, who previously toiled in Disney's made-for-TV wing, fail to measure up to the entertainingly lurid gaslighting and dementia found in Summer Girl let alone the rabbit-stewing tension of Fatal Attraction, but The Crush is far less provocative and sexier than David Fincher's music video for Billy Idol's 1990 hit "Cradle of Love." For all her deliberate Lolita poses, Adrian emerges as another somnambulant psychotic akin to Macaulay Culkin from The Good Son. And the exceedingly passive and bland Nick is a torpid substitute for Humbert. Romanticism is evoked through another literary staple, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, both physically (a poster for the 1939 William Wyler movie adaptation) and verbally, but the contributions of first-rate cinematographer Bruce Surtees and veteran suspense composer Graeme Revell are staggeringly unambitious, tailored as they are to Shapiro's prevalent crassness.

If his autobiographical elements are to be believed, The Crush is at once embarrassing and reprehensible. Nick is a hack writer whose work is improved by the proofreading of a 14-year-old girl and who, for all his supposed snooping credentials, can't even creep inside her house without acting the fool. He seems completely devoid of moral confidence let alone common sense (these have to be voiced by Jennifer Rubin, who makes the best of her ancillary love interest role), cloddish qualities unbecoming of a mature professional and which hinder any genuine sympathy for his mounting plight. Cary Elwes' faltering American accent attests to the lack of real sophistication in Shapiro's handling of this mild-mannered victim. 

Adrian functions in a psychological vacuum just as well, nothing more or less than a vindictive brat whose fanatical devotion to Nick is, as is often the case with these movies, skin deep. Proffered as sumptuous virgin flesh ("You can taste it if you want"), Shapiro fails to establish Adrian as a social misfit from an wealthy if unhappy family and instead ratchets up the pout-lipped pathology to numbing indifference. She's a prurient sop to male vanity who makes a handy punching bag knowing you're too stupid to match wits with her. And because Elwes and Kurtwood Smith are that dense, it's naturally appalling to see Adrian taking a hit which sends her literally flying across the room.

But don't worry about a thing. Adrian gets such great psychiatric care, they don't even straitjacket her so as to prevent her from writing letters to the man whose life she tried to ruin. And there's a friendly staffer who keeps the cycle intact for the open ending. At which point, I mourned tearfully not for the direct-to-video which never was, but for the Channel Awesome episode that remains to be seen.


(R, Orion Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures, 104 mins., theatrical release date: April 24, 1981)

Oliver Stone's The Hand comes with an equally auteur-minded reputation for having aired some deep psychological sludge from the toxic waste barrel of the mind. To be fair, Stone (already having won an Oscar for his script for Midnight Express) is working from a Marc Brandel novel, The Lizard's Tail, whose bitter aftertaste was too strong not to fester into the movie adaptation. And given the choice between The Hand and The Crush, I'll take Oliver Stone over Alan Shapiro in a millisecond. He directs Michael Caine to an edgy, volatile extreme that is more grounded yet cheerfully over-the-top than Alicia Silverstone was allowed. Tinges of honest humor shake up the nastiness, especially when Caine's Jon Lansdale, a displaced comic strip creator, pounces on a lucrative teaching engagement only to wind up in California's closest equivalent to Hicksville, with its redneck bar, doltish students and woodsy cabin home raring to fall down around his ears.

Sadly, The Hand has a ridiculous plotline of its own and even shakier execution that draws more from classic creature features than contemporary baby boomer thrillers. A dispute between Lansdale and his unfulfilled wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) over her relocation to New York is settled prematurely by the accidental severing of Lansdale's right hand. The appendage is lost in the nearby grass field, and Lansdale finds his career takes a similar nosedive given he's no longer able to draw anymore. His burbling resentments are reciprocated by the missing hand, which goes about killing those who have angered him. These murders proceed even after Lansdale relocates to his professor gig, and come Christmastime with his family (also including Mara Hobel from Mommie Dearest as the Lansdales' daughter), he's dreading Anne's killing at either his loose hand or its mechanical replacement.

David Cronenberg made his name on a similar demonstration of biological revenge with The Brood, but Stone gets it started only to shut it down with attack sequences worthy of Ed Wood and a mean streak at the expense of fleshing out a juicy pulp premise. It's not required that a film about a repressed man's seething anger over his dippy wife's yoga fetish and his comic strip's unauthorized overhaul try to be tactful, since it does achieve a slow-burning cauldron of rage deserving of spillage. When Annie McEnroe (Beetlejuice, Howling II) as lustful local girl Stella Roche, a checkout clerk who plays teacher's pet in a fit of boredom, gets strangled by Thing for her carnal indiscretions, it's like...sheesh, the slasher movie lives. 

The sentient hand restrains itself by not wrapping its rotting fingers around the neck of Charles Fleischer as the opportunistic "collaborator," David Maddow, who essentially overthrows Lansdale with the blessing of his agent, Karen Wagner (Rosemary Murphy). This makes Stella's demise seem all the more queasy and sexist, especially given Lansdale's grudge against Anne's self-help guru, a stereotypically fruity sensitive man. Caine's egomaniacal loner operates on a level of mental darkness that doesn't mesh with the B-movie revelation that he may himself be the real killer, an expository dump which falls upon the lovely Viveca Lindfors, guest appearing as a psychiatrist and who is as welcome here as in Creepshow and The Sure Thing.

Oliver Stone sacrifices himself by playing a drunken vagrant whose laughably convulsive death scene is made worse by the lack of a zipper on the front of his hobo pants. Needless to say, this doesn't mitigate the bilious disappointment of the ensuing movie, which doesn't earn all of its male pattern paranoia. Michael Caine, for what it's worth, remains a class actor who brings measured intensity to his character and who isn't as shouty as The Hand's reputation suggests. He did more braying in the opening scenes of Deathtrap, a better film but also a more deliberately stagy one. My own memory of The Hand is inexorably tied to viewing it Joe Bob Briggs' late night cable show MonsterVision, where the drive-in critic was caught off guard by faulty censorship during Caine's most vulgar dispute between him and Andrea Marcovicci (The Stuff, Jack the Bear). What better endorsement can you give Caine's work other than the fact that the folks at TNT were so invested in Lansdale's meltdown that they let a couple of four-letter words slide? Top that, Vincent Canby!

Stone bettered himself easily once he finally got to direct Platoon (again for Orion Pictures) and Born on the Fourth of July, projects which needed an intriguing failure like The Hand and a couple of sideline gigs for Milius and De Palma to attain some gravity as well as the all-important greenlight. The Hand tries for atmosphere even during its requisite POV shots and it all leads to nothing. At least here, as opposed to The Crush, tech levels appear to have more finesse. Can you imagine an effects team including Carlo Rambaldi, Stan Winston and Tom Burman giving it the college try? James Horner on the soundtrack, Richard Marks' editing prowess and J. Michael Riva doing the production design? Bruce McGill and Tracey Walter in supporting roles? That's my idea of Hollywood catnip if there I ever imagined such a brand.