Saturday, October 29, 2011

#119: Communion (Philippe Mora, 1989)

I'm a skeptic, but I'm also open to the possibility I could be wrong and this world could be much stranger than we know. I even had my own bizarre encounter with something I can't entirely explain when I was a senior in high school. I wasn't anally probed or abducted by small gray men or the skinny ones with the oval heads and the large eyes or anything like that. I didn't see any beings, and I didn't have any weird stuff done to me. I did see something, though, that I can't quite find a place for in the world of hard facts. I was driving down the highway at night on a Friday in my parents' brown station wagon, which my friends and I dubbed the "Meat Wagon of Doom." I was a few months away from graduating high school, and I was feeling isolated, alone, and melancholy. I grew up in a rural small town in western Nebraska, and I didn't fit in at all. I was feeling that sting of isolation after a particularly alienating week, so I decided a long drive by myself was the perfect complement to my dark mood. I started driving south of town with no particular destination in mind. I planned on driving for ten or fifteen miles, then turning around and heading back to town. When I got about seven miles out of town, a large, strange aircraft flew over my car and hovered there for a few minutes. I remember thinking it was an airplane, but when I looked up at it, I noticed it was much closer to my car than an airplane should or would have been. Its shape resembled a smaller version of the ship from Close Encounters and it was covered in lights, some of which pointed down at me. I remember feeling thoroughly creeped out. I kept driving and the ship eventually moved upwards and out of sight. I turned the car around and drove back home.

What happened? I still don't know, but most of me believes it was a military aircraft. Several closely guarded military institutions exist in the countryside near my hometown, thanks to its low population. Some of our nuclear weapons are housed there, and it's probably a great place to test experimental aircraft. I don't think I was buzzed by an alien ship, but a tiny part of me would like to believe I was. The weird thing about this encounter was how quickly I forgot all about it. A week later, and I was once again preoccupied with teen angst. I didn't remember my mothership sighting until the end of my college years, five years later. Why did I forget about it so suddenly and for so long? That's the part that creeps me out the most. What if I imagined the whole thing? Memory is unreliable, deceptive, and strange.

Philippe Mora's 1989 alien abduction movie, Communion, covers this uneasy feeling well. Is this really happening? If it is real, why is it happening? Based on Whitley Strieber's 1987 nonfiction ("nonfiction"?) account of his own encounters with beings from somewhere else, Communion features a great, gonzo Christopher Walken performance, some wonderfully creepy scenes, some hilariously ridiculous scenes, a frighteningly accurate portrayal of depression, and dancing aliens. Strieber's screenplay for the film admirably refuses to answer questions, presenting the possibilities that the "visitors" are aliens from another planet, beings from another dimension, religious visions, or psychotic hallucinations. My own skepticism puts me in the last camp. I think Strieber believes these beings visited him, but I don't believe these beings exist.

Whitley Strieber was a horror novelist whose first two novels were made into the films Wolfen and The Hunger. In the late 1980s, he announced that he'd been visited by possibly alien beings beginning in 1985, and he documented this supposedly true experience in 1987's bestselling Communion. He's since followed up with several sequels. In my opinion, his credibility has been damaged by his affiliation with Art Bell and penchant for believing in bizarre conspiracy theories about sudden climate change and some hokum about "the Master of the Key," information he claims to have gleaned from a mysterious elderly man who visited his hotel room one evening. (The disaster blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow was based on one of his novels.)
I read Communion when I was in fifth grade, but I remember very little about it except that I expected much more terrifying descriptions of alien probing and experimenting than I received. The book was a bit dull for a 10-year-old who wanted action and thrills. Director Philippe Mora (The Beast Within, Howling II, Howling III, Mad Dog Morgan) and star Christopher Walken fortunately provide the action and thrills I wanted when I was a child.

The movie breaks down into roughly six sections, each with its own tone and feel. It begins with Walken delivering one of his hilarious, offbeat, amped-up-to-10 performances. Walken, like Nicolas Cage, is one of those rare actors who is at his best when he chews the scenery. The beginning scenes establish a warm, comedic rapport between Strieber (Walken), his wife Anne (Lindsay Crouse, David Mamet's ex-wife), and his son Andrew (Joel Carlson) in their New York City apartment. Walken plays Strieber as an eccentric goofball, with the odd Walken pauses, outbursts, and dances. The second part takes place in the family's rural upstate cabin and is the most unsettling. It is here where the alien visitation begins, and Mora does a great job of creating a feeling of creeping dread and unease. Though the film was obviously made on a limited budget, Mora does great things with lighting and editing. These are scary scenes. We also get some anal probing and needles into the back of the head. The third part of the film concerns Strieber's difficulty understanding what's happening to him as he descends into depression and anger. This domestic drama portion of the film is also highly effective. As someone who's suffered from depression off and on for the past two years, I watched these scenes with both difficulty and admiration because they were so accurate. The fourth part of the film is less effective as Strieber seeks out psychiatric help, undergoes hypnosis, and takes part in a group therapy session with other people who have seen the beings. The film loses momentum here and drags a bit, seemingly unsure of which direction to take the material. The fifth part gets into hypnosis-inspired memories, hallucinations, dream sequences, and more interactions with the beings. Some of this stuff is laughably hilarious, but it's all super fun. Walken meets an androgynous magician version of himself, talks to the aliens, dances with them, gives them high-fives, parties with them while shirtless, and puts an alien face over his own face. I detect some strong Cronenberg and Lynch influences in these sections of the movie. The film ends with more diffuse, scattered scenes in which Walken and his wife theorize about why he is the recipient of this visitation. There is no real conclusion, but how could there be?

Communion is a strange film. Its melding of tones never quite coheres into anything solid, but that's precisely what the movie's about. Strieber doesn't know what is happening to him, why it's happening, or who these visitors are. Maybe he's nuts. Maybe he's a liar, perpetrating a hoax for the sake of book sales. Director Mora says he was approached by a man at a film festival who told him his movie was inaccurate. "How do you know?" Mora asked the man. "Because the aliens told me," the man replied. It's a weird world.

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