Liquid Sky is a genuinely striking film. Originally released in 1982, it became a cult sensation, running in New York theaters for years. Now, it’s been restored and reissued on Blu-Ray and DVD, allowing its astonishing visuals to be fully appreciated in the home video environment for the first time. (Get it from Amazon.)
The plot is pretty bare-bones. Very small aliens land their spaceship, which looks like an Art Deco lamp, on a lower Manhattan rooftop; any time Margaret, a model played by Anne Carlisle, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has sex with someone, they vanish at the moment of orgasm because—initially without her knowledge—the aliens (which look like an eyeball with psychedelic oil patterns being projected on it) are consuming them. She’s not reaching orgasm in any of these encounters, even when she’s not being raped, so she’s always left behind. There’s more to it than that; other characters are trying to observe and/or capture the aliens, and Margaret has a particularly antagonistic relationship with Johnny, her on-again/off-again boyfriend, also played by Carlisle. But neither the story nor the acting are what makes Liquid Sky worth watching.
The movie was directed by Slava Tsukerman with cinematography by Yuri Neyman, (read an interview with them and costume/set designer Marina Levikova here) and the score—by Tsukerman, Clive Smith, and Brenda I. Hutchinson—is stark, shrill, and discordant, mostly made up of electronic music reminiscent of early work by the Residents circa Commercial Album or the Mole Trilogy. Early on, Paula E. Sheppard performs a song called “Me and My Rhythm Box” that’s half Siouxsie and the Banshees, half Suicide. Carlisle’s dual work as Margaret and Johnny is interesting, but Sheppard’s feral performance as Adrian, Margaret’s roommate, occasional lover, and drug dealer is the best thing in the movie. Foul-mouthed and wild-eyed, with an unpredictable and threatening energy, she injects a note of impending violence into every scene she’s in.
The movie’s low budget and technical demands force Tsukerman and Neyman to make some extreme shooting decisions that give Liquid Sky its unmistakable and unique look. The scenes set in the nightclub where the main characters hang out, and those set in Margaret and Adrian’s apartment, are shot from off-kilter angles, under highly stylized lighting, and mostly in close-up, to camouflage the smallness of the sets. It works. The camera rarely moves during these scenes, especially when split screen or double exposure effects are employed to depict conversations between Margaret and Johnny. These scenes, as well as a fashion show held in the nightclub, are so stark they could almost be from the 1930s.
The characters’ fashions are as eye-catching as the way they’re filmed. Margaret and her fellow clubgoers dress in bright swatches of fabric, all jagged angles, with makeup that’s like New Romantic kabuki, all courtesy of set and costume designer Marina Levikova. They dance in herky-jerky unison, like extras from a Devo video. Johnny, meanwhile, wears vintage-ish suits, and slicks his hair back, with a permanent sneer on his face like he smells something bad. Adrian wears dark, baggy clothes that hide her body, like she’s trying to disappear into the shadows. When these people emerge into daylight, the camera moves around them more, and the softer light and almost-naturalism makes them seem even more bizarre than when they’re filmed indoors, in the diorama-like sets. They don’t belong in the daytime world.
Liquid Sky is not a great movie. The dialogue is stilted, and the acting (Sheppard aside) is clearly the work of people who spent all their energy on memorizing the words and forgot to inject them with any kind of recognizable human emotion. But as a visual experience, it has a potency few movies of its era can match, and this new Blu-Ray edition gives it the respect it deserves.