It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Night Flight to suburban teenagers who grew up in the 1980s. From 1981 to 1988, this four-hour block of programming aired during the wee hours of Friday and Saturdays on the USA network, a provocative mixture of music videos, movies and other counterculture ephemera.
Night Flight screened the kinds of movies that were not played at my local theater in the suburbs: Smithereens, Ladies and Gentlemen… The Fabulous Stains, Fantastic Planet and Rock and Rule. In some instances, they only played clips of the movies; this is where the 1982 film Liquid Sky first entered my consciousness.
Liquid Sky, directed by Slava Tsukerman, stars Anne Carlisle as both a female character named Margaret and a male character named Jimmy. As a teenager who was thoroughly entranced by androgyny, I was transfixed by the film’s imagery. As a teenager who had no access to the kinds of video shops that might have Liquid Sky available for rent, I was also frustrated. It became one of those movies that I always wanted to see, but was never able to, growing larger and larger in stature in my mind until it became like the Holy Grail of cult movies.
After more than 30 years, however, I finally managed to get a copy of Liquid Sky. Would it live up to my teenage fantasies? Would it be everything I had built up in my mind, or would I just be disappointed?
Liquid Sky follows multiple storylines. One is about Margaret, a bisexual model, and her roommate/girlfriend Adrian, a drug dealer and aspiring performance artist. Then there’s Jimmy, a (presumably) gay junkie and model who is constantly trying to score drugs, asking his television producer mom, Sylvia, for money. There is also Paul, a writer whose heroin use is a source of irritation for his ostensibly square girlfriend, Katherine. Finally, there is Johann, a German scientist who has traveled to New York to study aliens and seeks help from the only person he knows there, drama professor Owen. All of these seemingly disparate narrative threads get tied together fairly early on in the film, thanks to precise editing and the constant drone of the film’s hypnotic score, one created on a Fairlight CMI synthesizer.
According to Johann’s theory, the aliens, who’ve come to earth to seek out the pleasure-producing properties of heroin (a.k.a., “liquid sky”), soon stumble across something even better: human orgasms. They are able to isolate the endorphins that are created during orgasm and extract them from human brains. Unfortunately, the humans die in the process. Johann has pinpointed the location of the alien craft; it’s the size of a dinner plate and it’s on the roof of the building where Margaret and Adrian occupy the penthouse apartment. Using a high-powered telescope, he spends most of the movie watching what takes place in Margaret’s apartment from Sylvia’s high-rise apartment across the street.
It might require some suspension of disbelief that all of these characters are connected, either through drugs or sex (or both), but it’s a witty commentary on the incestuousness of scenes, where everybody knows everybody else and you can’t seem to avoid the people that you don’t want to run into, even when you try.
Anne Carlisle, along with Tsukerman and the film’s producer Nina V. Kerova, co-wrote the script for Liquid Sky, so the positioning of Margaret and Jimmy as rivals provides a lot of self-deprecating humor. They’re both models and bicker about who is prettier. Jimmy is into heroin, while Margaret prefers cocaine. Carlisle, with the help of ingenious costuming and makeup, does a terrific job of conveying that Margaret and Jimmy are two distinctly different people, while their animus ensures that they rarely get close enough to destroy the illusion.
Carlisle inhabits Margaret with the kind of jaded cynicism one would expect from a movie about young, pretty people who spend most of their time doing drugs and hanging out in clubs in New York City in 1982. Yet, unlike movies like Smithereens, which foreground the gritty, hardscrabble lifestyles of the city’s post-punk denizens, Liquid Sky is vibrant, with the production design more resembling the atmosphere of London’s Blitz club than the filth of CBGB’s. Neon signs dominate Margaret and Adrian’s apartment, which is crammed full of flashy clothes and décor. The tiny aliens never fully emerge, but viewers see their point of view, which looks like brightly colored heat map photography.
Critics have proposed that Liquid Sky’s plot is a metaphor for the AIDS crisis in New York. This is a compelling theory; by the end of 1982, NYC saw 543 new AIDS cases and 276 deaths. Yet the focus of Liquid Sky is not on gay men. If anything, it feels like a queer-positive, feminist film. So much of the trajectory of Margaret’s story involves her attempts to assert her independence against those who see her as either a sexual curiosity or just a vessel in which to satisfy their own needs.
Margaret tries to score coke from a guy named Vincent, who force feeds her Quaaludes and then rapes her on the stairwell of the apartment building. When Paul comes to the apartment to buy heroin from Adrian, he hits on Margaret, who makes no attempt to hide her disgust. Owen, who was Margaret’s professor and lover in her university days, stops by and pressures Margaret into sex. Later, Paul returns and rapes her (after badgering her for sex).
These scenes are tough to watch, but Margaret’s dialogue is brilliant throughout. “You just want to get laid; you’ll say anything to get laid. You’re just like everyone else from California. What do you have, a cock for a brain?” she sneers at Vincent, who tries to get into her pants with promises of screen tests with his TV producer father. When Paul is inordinately curious about whether Margaret likes girls as well as boys, she glares at him: “Whether or not I like someone doesn’t depend on what kind of genitals they have.” She dismisses Owen’s characterization of her as looking like a hooker: “A hooker is at least independent. I’m nobody’s victim. It’s only fair that I warn them this pussy has teeth.”
It’s an ironic statement. Owen is the first to die in the film while he’s having sex with Margaret, the victim of a long, crystal spike through the back of the head. The same thing happens when Paul rapes her. Then Margaret wonders aloud if there is some kind of “Indian” in the Empire State Building that she can see from her window and complains that she can’t deal with any more dead bodies. Just like that, Paul’s body disappears.
Margaret realizes she can use this strange new “skill” to her advantage that night during a fashion shoot with Jimmy. In a cleverly filmed and skillfully edited scene, Margaret performs fellatio on Jimmy while the photographer and his entourage watch in rapturous delight, the photographer even holding up a mirror so that Jimmy can see his own reflection. It’s a marvelous piece of metacriticism about sex, self-absorption and the casting of one remarkably androgynous actress as both male and female characters. It’s further underscored by the constant, voyeuristic presence of Johann, who seems more interested in observing what’s happening than trying to stop it, although he tries to warn both Adrian and Margaret that they are in danger.
Adrian is the next to die, when she insists that what happened to Jimmy won’t happen to her. Directing members of the entourage to hold Margaret down, Adrian rapes her, only to die and promptly vanish like the others. Baffled and disturbed, the entourage makes a quick exit, while Margaret rushes to a club downtown to find Vincent, who she brings back to her apartment and seduces. He too, is killed and vanishes.
Confused and alone, Margaret dons an elaborate wedding dress and climbs onto the roof. Johann, sensing that she is in great danger, runs across the street to help her. He explains that the alien wants her endorphins, but instead of letting him save her, she stabs him, and injects heroin into her arm in an attempt to get the alien to reveal itself to her. In the film’s final scene, Margaret writhes in ecstasy while the alien absorbs her into its craft and fades away into the night.
Has Margaret finally found happiness or at least some sort of peace? In a sharply pointed monologue during the photo shoot, she offers to give lessons on “how to get into show business.”
“… be nice to your professor. Be nice to your agent. Be nice to your audience, be nice. How to be a woman: want them when I want you. How to be free and equal: fuck women instead of men, and you’ll discover a whole kingdom of freedom. Men won’t step on you anymore, women will. So come on, who’s next? Who wants to teach me? Come on, teach me. Are you afraid? You’re right, because they’re all dead. All my teachers.”
Liquid Sky isn’t a horror film, but it can be argued that Margaret is a kind of Final Girl, saved from death because she never has orgasms during various sexual encounters that she clearly isn’t interested in.
Was I disappointed in Liquid Sky? Not even remotely. It’s funny, weird, erotic, politically charged and incredibly inspiring. In a way, I’m glad it took me decades to see it. Despite my fascination with it back then, I was far too sheltered and naïve to understand its philosophical underpinnings and wry commentary on pretentiousness and vanity, feminism and gender fluidity. Now, Liquid Sky seems more relevant than ever.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.