Remembered as a briefly hot quasi- avant-garde title, then a cult item, Slava Tsukerman’s brightly colored movie is said to capture a New York fashion ‘n’ drugs scene that could be called Neon Punk. It certainly extended model Anne Carlisle’s fifteen minutes of fame. Oh . . . technically it’s also a Science Fiction movie.
Blu-ray + DVD
1982 / Color / 1:85 / 112 min. / Street Date April 24, 2018 / 32.98
Starring: Anne Carlisle, Paula E. Sheppard, Susan Doukas, Otto von Wernherr, Bob Brady, Elaine C. Grove, Stanley Knap, Jack Adalist, Lloyd Ziff, Harry Lum, Roy MacArthur, Sara Carlisle, Nina V. Kerova.
Cinematography: Yuri Neyman
Film Editors: Sharyn Leslie Ross, Slava Tsukerman
Production Design: Marina Levikova-Neyman
Original Music: Brenda I. Hutchinson, Clive Smith, Slava Tsukerman
Written by Slava Tsukerman, Anne Carlisle, Nina V. Kerova
Produced and Directed by Slava Tsukerman
Liquid Sky is said to have been a major independent success in 1983. What is it? The closest I can pin it down, is as an artsy, somewhat transgressive Sci-fi / punk / neon glitz / fashion / drugs / soft-core avant-garde epic from the grungy end of Manhattan. It has an undeniable reputation; I’ve been after it for quite a while because of its Science Fiction connection. Daily Variety greeted Sky with enthusiasm when it showed at Montreal in August of 1982, in a cut six minutes longer than the final version. The reviewer liked the film’s visuals and attitude, and noted that actress of Anne Carlisle received a rave response from the audience, who didn’t catch on to the trick casting gag until the end credits.
Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was even more impressed, calling the film ‘awesomely perverse’ in its exploration of ‘the outer limits of New York’s New Wave never-never land.’ That reflects well on director Slava Tsukerman and his key filmmaking colleagues, Russian éemigrés, possibly by way of Israel.
Vinegar Syndrome’s aggressive special edition gives us a hefty stack of extra interviews and featurettes, that get us partway to understanding what the sometimes charming, frequently off-putting ‘scene’ captured in the film. Is it in any way authentic? What we see seems far too insubstantial and self consciously nihilistic.
As a science fiction picture, Liquid Sky could reasonably be pigeonholed as the Heroin Overdose Prequel to the lightweight Spielberg production Batteries Not Included. A personable German scientist named Johann (Otto von Wernherr) tracks a miniature flying saucer to Manhattan. Johann theorizes that its invisible inhabitants are looking for heavy heroin users, and are themselves addicts. From the Empire State Building, he sees the saucer alight on the rooftop above the penthouse crash pad of the baby-faced lesbian drug pusher Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard, the former child star of Alice, Sweet Alice). Adrian’s roommate and sometime sex partner is Margaret (Anne Carlisle), a bisexual model heavily established as a mini-celebrity in a drug-soaked fashion scene. Her androgynous glamour is challenged only by a male androgyne model, Jimmy (also Carlisle). Although Margaret doesn’t use drugs, many in the scene dos. The atmosphere at home, at the fashion shoots and in the club is one of hostility. Adrian performs angry poetry, and the perpetually sneering Jimmy accompanies Margreat home just to score some of Adrian’s drugs. One of Adrian’s customers is a failed writer, who torments his wife with his lies and abuse. The entire fashion crowd, designers and photographers included, are mean-spirited as well; the foundation of the whole ‘scene’ seems to be negative energy.
The sex is just as hostile. Margaret relies only on verbal abuse to defend herself from admirers that demand sex. Just the same, she becomes a rape victim and passively allows others to have sex with her, including her acting professor (played by Carlisle’s actual acting teacher) and the failed writer. Meanwhile, scientist Johann has talked his way into the apartment of a woman who has a direct view of Adrian and Margaret’s window. The woman wants to seduce Johann, which leads to some amusing character interaction.
The invisible aliens have turned their attention away from drugs, to sex. As Johann theorizes, they’re now fixated on a molecule even more potent than heroin, that is created during the human orgasm. One by one, Margaret’s sex partners are vaporized as the aliens consume them during climax to consume the molecule. We see this in solarized, video-assisted ‘alien-vision’: Margaret suddenly finds herself alone on the bed. Believing that her lethal power comes from an ‘Indian in the sky,’ she begins to use it as a murder weapon.
Tsukerman’s movie is memorable enough for a New York ‘DuArt Lab special’ — it’s more professional than the Warhol anti-classics Heat and Trash, yet only occasionally scores as a satire. A lot of the acting on view is abysmal. Paula Sheppard’s performance is sufficiently twisted — her Adrian is a nasty piece of work — but her poetry readings just don’t convince. I’m not qualified to judge the accuracy of the fashion costuming and makeup, which seems derivative of what David Bowie had been doing for years in his stage shows. The entire Sci-fi plot gimmick plays fairly well against the weird lifestyle, however. Obliteration through sex fits in perfectly with a dead-end existence based on rejecting any and all social values.
Anne Carlisle’s fundamental attraction carries most of the show; her character feels like the real deal. Margaret and Jimmy are well differentiated, and the split-frames that allow them to share the screen fully support the illusion. Played for casual shock, the private and public sex acts portrayed are plenty unpleasant. The group of punk fashionistas on view are sufficiently repugnant to make us wish that the aliens would wipe them all out.
Several characters are afforded speechmaking opportunities to express their nihilistic negativity, with Adrian making a particularly nasty impact. But the movie comes to unexpected life in the last act when Margaret reflects on her state of being. Already having ‘sexed’ two or three people to death, she applies phosphorescent paint to her face while sitting in front of a mirror. Personified as a rant of self-loathing, she begins with a statement about her roots in Connecticut, before explaining what happened to her on the way to becoming an independent woman in New York. Who’s next? she asks, in her new role as a lethal lover.
Margaret’s speech is not bad. It almost puts her on a par with morbid Manhattan ‘adventuresses’ from earlier generations — the musical ‘Broadway Baby’ with the pet kitten in Gold Diggers of 1935, and the suicidal socialite Jacqueline Gibson in the unforgettable The Seventh Victim.
As a storyteller Tsukerman really uses few cinematic embellishments and no particular editing style. Although Carlisle and Sheppard work up an unpleasant rapport — Adrian is forever promising to take Margaret to Berlin — we feel more at home with the easy-going Johann and his impromptu date for the night. They’re a good, amusing match. She produces UFO videos and he just wants to watch a UFO from her window.
The effects in Liquid Sky are minimal-adequate, with the ‘alien vision’ scenes coming off the best. Although they’re just rough-edged ‘solarized’ video, probably filmed off a color TV monitor, they communicate well the formation of the addictive ‘orgasm molecule.’ The human disintegrations are handled as they might be in an underground movie by Mike Kuchar: the victims disappear through pixillation-animation of tinfoil!
One disappointing angle is the music score. It’s all synthesized, with the club music not much different or louder than what we hear elsewhere. The deal-breaker is that there is little or no percussion in the tracks, as in, no drum machine. It all seems far too thin and generic.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray + DVD of Liquid Sky is a dutiful, quality rendering of this oddball show that Variety praised as “full of ideas and innovation.” Taken from original elements, the transfer is quite good, showing off the consistent cinematography and special effects of Yuri Neyman. Like I say, the music track feels light, but it’s recorded clearly. The disc gives it an isolated track.
Filmmaker Slava Tsukerman’s thick accent which makes his feature commentary and video input tough going at times. A nearly hourlong making-of video docu tells the whole tale, parts of which are heard from the differing viewpoints of other interviewees. The best of these is a separate video visit with Anne Carlisle, who smiles as she recounts her story of 1980s fame and notoriety — she’s aged extremely well and her bright attitude is a million degrees removed from the spirit of Liquid Sky. Ms. Carlisle moved on from ‘the scene’ fairly soon, went back to school and became a psychologist specializing in art therapy.
The director, star and composer sit for a Q&A at a 2017 re-premiere. A reel of deleted scenes is present, along with a slightly longer opening that seems to have seen use in some trailer cuts. We’re offered several trailers and a stills gallery.
I’m blissfully uninformed about the film’s supposed time and place. I also do not remember if I read the term ‘Neon Punk’ somewhere or made it up while reading descriptions of the film elsewhere. The show does use a lot of neon for set decoration. Contemporary reviewers most frequently fell back on the term ‘New Wave’ in their descriptions. It is fairly common knowledge that “Liquid Sky” is a term for heroin.
In her interview Anne Carlisle makes a short reference to the AIDS plague that was just then making itself known in New York. She knew of people dying but the problem hadn’t yet been given a name. One scene in Sky shows an addict borrowing Adrian’s heroin works so he can shoot up right in her apartment, a presumed ‘shared needle’ situation that now has doom written all over it. I suppose someone could make a case for Liquid Sky as an unconscious AIDS allegory?
Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Movie: Good ?
Supplements: Commentary track and interview with director Slava Tsukerman; interview with Anne Carlisle; Liquid Sky Revisited – 50 minute making-of documentary; Q&A from a 2017 Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers screening with: Slava Tsukerman, Anne Carlisle and Clive Smith (co-composer); Isolated soundtrack, Outtakes, Alternate opening sequence, rehearsal footage, trailers, still gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD in keep case
Reviewed: March 13, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson