The Last of the “Golden Age” of Midnight Cult Films:
Slava Tsukerman’s LIQUID SKY (1982)
by Nick Cato
At a time when cult film fans thought they had seen it all, along came this off-beat independent oddity that breathed some fresh air into the sci-fi realm (as well as the early 80s midnight movie market). As one film critic rightly observed, “Liquid Sky is a perversely beautiful sci-fi movie that came out of nowhere.”(1)
Russian director Slava Tsukerman sets this story around the underground, post-punk New York fashion scene. Along with Anne Carlisle (who stars in a dual role) and Nina V. Kerova, Tsukerman’s shared-screenplay deals with tiny aliens who land on the roof of Margaret, an up and coming fashion model. She shares the place with her drug-dealing boyfriend (cocaine is snorted frequently throughout the film, almost as an encouragement to audience members). After studying Margaret for a while, the aliens discover that a certain chemical they need to survive is produced within the brains of those Margaret sleeps with during orgasm. Men start to die between her legs, a crystal cylinder quickly seen sticking from their heads before they disappear for good. A German scientist who has been following these aliens manages to get an apartment directly across the street from Margaret, who along with her two strange room mates, discovers the secret to Margaret’s newfound “power.”
Instead of being freaked out, Margaret begins to embrace her new “gift,” leading to one of the films’ more memorable lines: “And they call me beautiful, and I kill with my cunt.” How’s that for blunt acceptance? The world is now all hers.
While LIQUID SKY’s simple (but interesting) premise works quite well and its obscure new wave fashions give it that “cult film” feel, it’s the soundtrack that gives the film its true identity. One of the earliest sequences takes place at a SoHo nightclub. A zoom-out of a kabuki-looking mask turns out to be the backdrop for a small stage where Adrian (played by Paula E. Sheppard) performs a song titled “Me and My Rhythm Box,” a piece that still sounds ahead of its time. She stands alone, singing with a Synclavier Sampling Keyboard(2) as an audience watches, some looking bored, others looking stoned, but all at full attention. If you’ve ever seen the Prince film PURPLE RAIN, you might agree the opening scene of the band performing “Let’s Get Crazy” seems to be “borrowed” from this. Either way, this sequence sets the tone for LIQUID SKY, even before we learn about Margaret or the aliens or the drugs, and gives a cold, empty, futuristic feel reminiscent of ERASERHEAD and BLADE RUNNER.
Like all genuine cult films, LIQUID SKY relies more on imagination than special effects. The aliens are never seen (and it’s hinted that they might not have a physical form), although we see brief glimpses of their dinner-plate-sized ship atop Margaret’s roof. The attitudes of the characters are as cold and distant as the soundtrack, always making the viewer feel like they’re visiting a part of New York City that only few have seen or dare to visit.
Not enough good things can be said about the dual-lead role played by Anne Carlisle, who stars as Margaret as well as a male model drug addict named Jimmy (in one unforgettable sequence, Margaret gives cocaine-fueled oral sex to Jimmy as their friends cheer her on). Carlisle put 110% into this film, and even turned her screenplay into a fantastic novelization (published by Dolphin/Doubleday Books in 1987). Carlisle had the look to play these androgynous characters, and at times her fashions and make-up brings Bowie’s classic Ziggy Stardust character to mind.
21 years before McCauley Culkin’s image-changing role in PARTY MONSTER gave people an inside look at “club kids,” LIQUID SKY did something similar, albeit on a much stranger level. Here, among the underground fashion world, were hopeless, drug addicted club kids, many who dressed too fancy and alternatively to be considered squatters or homeless, yet we get the feeling few—if any—of them held jobs. These were rich, spoiled partiers who spent their parent’s money on drugs, alcohol, over-priced clothing and New York City night life. To see a sci-fi story among this scene gives LIQUID SKY its unique feel: when Margaret discovers the alien intrusion into her personal life, she seems to act like she’d been waiting for this type of thing to give her routine (although party-rich) life the different direction she’d been looking for: the trippy (and beautifully-filmed) conclusion of Margaret watching the alien craft ascend to the heavens as the sky frantically races confirms this.
Released at a time when VCR’s were just becoming a household item, LIQUID SKY was one of those rare independent films to gain most of its popularity through word of mouth and a few good reviews. Roger Ebert gave it a positive one on his “Sneak Previews” TV program, and despite only screening at one or two theaters around the United States in a few cities, fans demanded more and some theaters answered. The Waverly Twin (now the IFC Center) in Manhattan hosted midnight screenings for over a year, every weekend. Midnight shows were also well attended in Boston and Washington, D.C. Like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, ERASERHEAD, EL TOPO, and PINK FLAMINGOS before it, LIQUID SKY was a film that just “happened.” No one sold it as a “cult” or a “midnight” movie. It was released with little to no advertising and was made on a shoe-string budget. Yet it delivered (and continues to deliver) a story, a scene, and (especially) a world that film lovers had never seen before.
Director Slava Tsukerman not only wrote and directed, but also helped create the soundtrack, which as mentioned earlier, was produced using one of the first digital sampler synthesizers. Varese Sarabande Records released the soundtrack on Vinyl and cassette in 1983, and today used copies (of both formats) have been seen offered for as much as $120.00. LIQUID SKY was released on VHS from Media Home Video in 1983, and a DVD was finally released in 1999 from a company called WinterTainment that quickly sold out (many reviews claim this DVD featured a sloppy transfer of the film). Bootlegs are widely available on the Internet (even on amazon.com) as fans await a proper DVD treatment.
The film played midnights Friday and Saturday for 3 glorious years in NYC at the Waverly Twin, the longest any film had been featured there in that slot.
Despite the recent barrage of midnight film screenings in New York and Los Angeles, LIQUID SKY has yet to make its long awaited return, that mainly the fault of the director who has been holding out for a lucrative DVD offer (and at this point it doesn’t seem likely to happen). I was fortunate enough to attend a rare 35mm screening in October of 2011 at NYC’s ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES, and although it unreeled at a “normal” hour, the film has lost none of its dazzling, mind-bending goodness.
With themes that include self-love, self-loathing, addiction, peer pressure, and delusional lifestyles, LIQUID SKY is a science fiction film like no other that will stay in your mind (for good or bad) for life.
(Ad from THE VILLAGE VOICE, 1983)
1: Levy, Emanuel (1999). Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (New York and London: New York University Press). ISBN 0814751237
2: The Synclavier Sampling Keyboard was a rare and expensive instrument at the time LIQUID SKY was filmed.