1980s New York City was a radically different place than it is today: teeming with bohemians and artists trying to bridge the transitional period between Punk and New Wave, it hosted a percolating scene of artists living on the fringes far from the uptown high art and midtown commercial markets that many of which these practitioners strove to find success in. It was where musicians, artists, and hustling workers could live since it was at least moderately affordable to live in some parts of Manhattan back then.
Nowadays, no part of Manhattan–or really any of the city’s five boroughs–have affordable living spaces, least of all for the undiscovered talent that once inhabited the island. In the early 80s, NYC was a rough-and-tumble metropolis that was viewed with disdain and mistrust by America, and only those who could thrive and had the drive could inhabit this gritty urban setting. It is this rapidly decaying locale that the cult film Liquid Sky inhabits: a film populated by young artists and models trying to make the scene and garner attention while they also heavily indulge in drugs and general debauchery.
It’s also a sci-fi film, albeit an elliptical one: an alien lands its saucer on the top of a walk-up in Manhattan seeking nourishment from this areas’ heroin-using populace. Unbeknownst to our protagonist Margaret–a model who uses dope and tries to break into the high-end fashion world–the alien has zeroed in on her apartment, in which a number of characters flit in and out of looking for sex, drugs, or both. Initially feeding off users as their dopamine levels skyrocket after injecting heroin (which it can read via infrared vision), the alien soon finds that feeding from a person experiencing an orgasm is better and begins to consume people during that moment instead.
Model and protagonist Margaret–who lives in the apartment directly beneath where the alien has landed–unwittingly becomes its accomplice, wherein men that achieve orgasm with her suddenly disappear. Meanwhile, a foreigner observes the alien’s behavior from a nearby apartment. Margaret eventually becomes wise to the connection between orgasms and the disappearances she seems to cause and starts using her abilities to destroy people who had previously abused her. Once she realizes the aliens are leaving, she injects heroin to stimulate an orgasm inside of her and is taken by the aliens.
Liquid Sky is a strange film that approaches its weirdo subjects in media res, observing the weird post-punk scene they inhabit as models and performance artists. It’s as much a document on a brief moment in time in NYC and has since become an iconic cult film to a certain audience that read a pro-feminist message in it and enjoy its aesthetics, historical and geographical period, and the styles depicted in the film.
What makes this film an enduring cult classic? For starters, it was actually a pretty big hit the year it came out, becoming the highest grossing independent film of 1983. After its initial successful theatrical run, however, the film fell into obscurity, with a limited VHS release that rocketed the value of original copies. After this, Liquid Sky became a “holy grail” sort of film for cultists who, pre-internet, could only rely on a dubbed VHS copy of the film; back in the physical media world, items like this would gain reputations that would only grow with time, especially since there were no digital files that could easily be downloaded. Back in video store times, the “cult” shelf was picked over constantly by movie obsessives, so much so that I remember when a local video rental shop shut down in my town, I got there as fast as I could to buy as much of the cult section as possible.
Even in the 21st century, copies remained difficult to come across: my own DVD came from working at a large media retailer at the time that would allow me to monitor when films came back into print: the copy I have was an official limited release of which I ordered three copies into the store I managed; within three months, the edition was already sold out and the film fell quickly back out of print. Copies of this edition currently run for $30 on Amazon.
So what is it that makes this film so captivating to cult film fans? Its strange plot, explicit visuals and subject matter, and sheer oddness of the film, for starters; that it was detailing a fringe art group in NYC whose own placement in history is highly niche (in a case of history influencing history, this film about the art world became highly influential to artists over the years, even inspiring a music genre that emerged in the early 2000s known as electroclash); its overt feminist and gender politics content, to the point where Anne Carlisle plays both Margaret (a bisexual) and her male nemesis Jimmy; and its drug-centered plot (liquid sky was a street name for heroin in NYC at the time) make the film purposely anti-mainstream, almost defaulting to “cult” as its primary genre.
It’s a movie that pulls you in because of its defiant tone: starting with a far-out fashion show, Jimmy and Margaret foraging for drugs, and a memorable spoken word performance (“Me and My Rhythm Box” is a standout moment in the film) that gives way to a jarringly realistic rape scene that shatters the icy tone the film established up to that point, Liquid Sky sets its own standards, which is to defy convention.
Then there’s Margaret–our protagonist that’s repeatedly abused by nearly everyone she comes into contact with. Her cruel, heroin-dealing girlfriend Adrian openly mocks and torments her; her doppelganger male rival Jimmy denigrates her constantly, calling her “chicken lady”; her creepy older acting professor lazily seduces her; and she’s sexually assaulted several times throughout the film. Halfway through the movie, Margaret begins to realize that orgasms people achieve with her lead to their death and disappearance and she purposely weaponizes her sex against all of the characters that wronged her throughout the film. The feminist overtones to this aren’t difficult to read, but then again this obvious metaphor for female empowerment through sex is appropriately explicit in a plenty explicit film.
By the time Margaret fully “transforms” into her new self, her own end isn’t read as tragic but empowering; having vanquished the individuals in her life that have objectified, used, and degraded her, when she’s finally taken by the aliens–whom she’s come to see as saviors–the audience doesn’t see it as her death but her liberation.
Liquid Sky is not for everyone, but then again that’s precisely why it’s so impactful when the viewer it is meant for–which is to say, people who can read and identify with the film and its themes–finds it. One reason it’s become so influential is because it speaks to the artistically inclined: musicians that sit alone in their room with a 4-track and keyboards making weirdo music nobody will ever hear; photographers and painters who grind away at their craft, all too aware how indifferent much of the world is to their work; wannabe writers and directors that see this film and how left-field and bizarre it is, how unique its vision is and how its own creator (Slava Tsukerman, who unfortunately hasn’t done much since) persisted to bring this film into existence.
If you haven’t seen this film and any of what you’ve just read sounds appealing–or at least interesting–then I urge you to watch this movie. You’ve never seen a film like this before, and films like this don’t exist if not for the sheer force of will and a unique vision of a determined director–which is to say films like this often don’t exist at all. Outrageous, radical, and something completely different, Liquid Sky is the indie feminist sci-fi art film you never knew you needed to see. Fortunately, the internet has banished physical media and its tyranny of inaccessibility, and a copy of the film now lives on YouTube for those who are curious as to why this film’s been talked-about and recommended for cult film fans for the past 35 years.