Thursday, November 17, 2011

Communion (1989)

Two years ago, Paranormal Activity was released to theaters. It proved to be the scariest film I had seen in my adult life, largely because it tapped into a fear that is very personal to me - poltergeist-style hauntings - and because that fear was depicted, via the found footage conceit, in a very plausible rather than sensational manner. A month later saw the release of The Fourth Kind, a film that taps into another of my deep personal fears - the alien abduction phenomenon. It was very frightening - though not on the level of Paranormal Activity, and was ultimately not entirely satisfying.

My favorite alien abduction movie remains the unrivaled Fire In The Sky, which I saw in theaters as a child, and which I have suspicions may be the cause of my deep-seated fear of alien abductions. I can't have been more than ten at the time, and that was several years before I began to watch (and subsequently become a huge fan of) The X-Files on television. My latest viewing of Fire In The Sky (a few years ago now, borrowed from the "evidence room" during an overnight stay at the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada, just over the mountains from the purported location of Area 51) confirmed once again my impression of the movie. But seeing The Fourth Kind renewed my appetite, and I wanted to know if there were any other good alien abduction movies out there that I had not yet seen.

That's how I came upon Taken, a television miniseries presented by Steven Spielberg, which proved to be entertaining, if not altogether terrifying. This is not too surprising, though, considering Spielberg's treatment of aliens in both E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - there the balance is undoubtedly tipped in favor of science-fiction, if not completely devoid of the horror elements I am more fond of. But I also found a movie called Communion, which is based on a book that describes the allegedly autobiographical accounts of a writer named Whitley Strieber, who claims to have been repeatedly abducted by aliens. Dramatization aside, this would seem to be, as they say, a story of alien abduction straight from the horse's mouth. And it's just about as crazy as you could imagine.

The movie opens on a rather ominous scene - an aerial view of the twin towers (which takes on new significance in the 21st century) backed with an eerie instrumental that has a haunting guitar lead that caught my attention even before the name "Eric Clapton" flashed up on the screen during the opening credits. Christopher Walken plays Whitley Strieber, and he imbues the role with a certain quirkiness that either drives or perfectly complements (depending on the source material) the bizarreness of the alien encounters. But before getting that far, the encounters start out rather frightening, and when Whitley freaks out upon seeing a children's Halloween mask (because it reminds him of something else he's seen), you know that something truly disturbing is going on.

It's amazing to me how subjective people's fears can be. Just the sight of a spider can send one person's skin crawling, whereas another might look at it with mild disinterest (and some, even admiration). Communion manages to get my skin crawling with something as simple as transitioning from a cheerful party scene to a little boy entering his shadowy bedroom, with a clear look on his face that something isn't right. In any other movie - a slasher, for example, where I might be expecting a serial killer or an undead monster to be hiding in the closet - I wouldn't be scared on as visceral a level (if at all) as I am when I'm expecting to be confronted at any moment by the iconic type of alien that likes to abduct helpless people from their beds to conduct sadistic medical experiments on them.

Said alien doesn't even have to be present in any real physical sense to be threatening - an indication of its almost supernatural powers (comparisons to poltergeist activity would not be inappropriate here), thanks to their super-advanced technology, and the largely psychological nature of the abduction experience (if there is one thing you can't protect yourself from, it is the mutiny of your own mind). However, the almond-eyed grey is one of the few images that is so terrifying to me that looking at it is scarier than imagining it hiding in the shadows. This is an exception to the general rule that the more you see a creature in a horror movie, the less scary it gets - which, however, this film is not immune to, as the creature effects are rather basic, almost to the point of being humorous when you finally get a good hard look at them. Yet, one thing this movie has the ability to do, is to make even the silly scary just out of sheer illogic. Many of the dreamlike contact experiences are not simply frightening, but also surreal and disconcerting, sometimes in a wacky sort of way that is reminiscent of something you might see in a music video.

And that exemplifies the position that this film strives toward. It goes beyond the horror of the abduction experience, and tries to find some kind of [intuitive, not logical] meaning behind it. Strieber is reluctant to admit that anything is happening at first, but over time it becomes impossible to ignore. He quite naturally worries that he might be losing his mind, a possibility that the doctors seem to rule out, but I don't. But when his therapist turns out to be something of a new age spiritualist, enthusiastic practitioner of hypnotherapy, and host of a peer support group for abductees, he begins to wonder if resisting the aliens is futile, and that maybe by accepting their interference in his life, he may be able to gain some creative benefit (he is a writer, remember) from the experience. And so it goes, and it seems that the aliens become considerably less menacing after he welcomes them into his life.

But as imaginatively inspiring as the alien presence is, I have to admit that it doesn't make any logical sense. Yes, of course, you could argue that alien logic - not unlike God's - is incomprehensible to man, but I feel that's rather more of a cop-out. And so I cling firmly to my belief that this is a psychological phenomenon (while not undermining its creative benefits, even were it proven to be the symptom of some kind of disorder) - also suspicious is the fact that the aliens often come for their previous abductees' children, which could suggest that the condition has a genetic origin. I wonder, now that alien abduction has passed largely out of the pop culture mindset, whether these repeated abductees are still enduring their experiences, and what the latest scientific discoveries may have to say about it.

Communion is really a rather unique alien abduction story, more well-rounded than say Fire In The Sky, which focuses on the horror of a single abduction - though I still prefer the latter approach. It is unfortunately a bit dated due not just to the nature of the theme, but that it is steeped in the culture of the late eighties during which it takes place (amazing that fashion was that bad only just over two decades ago). The acting at times feels a little choppy, and the stress between Whitley and his wife, while a significant source of drama for the story, is a bit strained - especially when their conflict is due to a simple lack of communication. I know it's hard to make sense of being abducted by aliens. Dealing with it means coming to terms with the fact that you're either going insane, or there are inhuman beings taking you from your bed at night to perform experiments on you so terrifying your mind is trying really hard not to remember them. And if the latter, everyone else is going to think you're insane, anyway. But it's something you have to figure out together, with your significant other and/or loved ones - not something you should try to hide and ignore, pretending like nothing is happening.

In the end, there are relatively few stories about the alien abduction experience, and while most of them claim to be based on true stories (not unlike the majority of exorcism movies), precious few are as close to the source material as Communion presumably is. So though it's a bit of a head-scratcher at times, it is however also genuinely frightening at others, and while it doesn't provide any of the answers you weren't expecting to get anyway (because nobody really has them), it does try to contextualize the abduction phenomenon in a way that attempts to make it significant, rather than merely curious and scary. It may not actually make a whole lot of sense, but it ends up feeling meaningful. Even if you still wouldn't want it happening to you in a million years.

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