Those who claim to have been abducted by alien beings often describe what can be called “high strangeness,” not just during the abduction but before it. High strangeness is what is sounds like, some very weird and trippy shit. It’s what we experience when we are dreaming—nothing makes sense and things just happen. If I remember correctly, Betty and Barney Hill (the first documented case of alien abduction) saw men wearing Nazi uniforms before they were taken aboard the spaceship. If abductions are real, they seem to be either simply very psychologically challenging, with the mind trying to grasp what’s going on, or they seem to put the abductee in some dreamlike state; perhaps they even connect them to the collective unconsciousness. There are theories that aliens aren’t even aliens; they are just how we, in the 20th and 21st century, experience beings that have been messing with us since the dawn of time. When studying folklore many moons ago, I wrote an assignment where I stated that the alien ‘legend’ was just the legends of the Hidden people (Huldufólk here in Iceland) in a shiny modern setting. It made sense.
The reason I begin this review on this disclaimer is simple: Communion is a high strangeness film. That can either make it the perfect movie about alien abduction or complete trash, depends on the viewer. I always think about the intent of the filmmaker, what he was trying to accomplish, and I am not sure if this was intentional or a by-product of bad filmmaking. I sometimes wonder how young filmmakers that get acclaimed actors in their films direct them. How do you direct Anthony Hopkins or Michael Caine or Maggie Smith? That might be answered in this film: You don’t.
Communion stars Christopher Walken as novelist Whitley Strieber. I love Christopher Walken, always have. I acknowledge that he has gone some Flanderization over the years, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t give it all when he shows up in front of the camera to work. You know that you are going to get a performance, he doesn’t phone it in. In 1989, Walken had won an Academy Award for Deer Hunter (1979), he had been a Bond villain in A View to a Kill (1985) and starred in the successful Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1984). He was known for his talent and his eccentric performances that could be gold with the right directors.
The film is directed by Philippe Mora. Mora hadn’t won any Oscars, but he had directed Howling II: … Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985), Howling III: The Marsupials (1987) and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)—a film where Alan Arkin plays a superhero and Christopher Lee sings (YouTube it). He made schlock. Weird schlock. I’ve read that it was his choice to not direct Walken. I don’t think he had a choice, but the end result is that Walken gone wild. Most of his scenes (and he is in almost every scene) are obviously, at least partly, improvised. All his little quirks are on full display all the time. He dances more here than in Hairspray (2007).
This might work if he had been in scenes with great improvisers. If Catherine O’Hara had played his wife this could have been something fantastic. Reality is that she wasn’t so most scenes play out like a bad high school production. When he is fighting with his wife, it’s like they aren’t even reading the same script. There is a disconnect between every performance. It isn’t his costar’s fault; he was obviously improvising both dialogue and every reaction—and his reactions aren’t really human reactions. The only scenes that work as one would expect from a feature film are the ones he shares with Frances Sternhagen, who plays the psychiatrist that hypnotizes him. Frances is a commanding figure and was an actress with experience. She disregards his antics and turns him straight.
Communion is based on the popular book by Whitley Strieber. In it, he describes his own experiences with alien abduction. I am not sure how successful he was in non-fiction before Communion, but, at least according to the podcast The Last Podcast on the Left, his endless encounters with the extra-terrestrials have ruined his life. It does ruin most people’s life. Nobody takes you seriously when you say you have been anally probed by a grey. People still come out with their experience. Are they all crazy? Victims of some government experiments? Or are aliens real? I don’t know, but I am fascinated by the idea; I even collect books about alien abductions, which aren’t easy to find here in Iceland. I’m what people refer to as a “90s kid,” so my pop culture was heavily saturated by The X-Files (1993). I had a love/hate relationship with aliens. I wanted to see them in TV and films but the greys, the ones with the huge black eyes, scared the shit out of me (and still do). I don’t know if Strieber is just crazy, but I know that when he saw how Walken was portraying him, he was worried that people might think he was.
The production itself adds on the high strangeness aspect. Mora is of the Australian school of filmmaking, and Aussie films from the 1970s and 80s have a weird vibe to them (not a bad thing), and Communion is no different with its extreme closeups. The aliens… well they are strange. There is a scene in the film that terrified me as a child. Walken is sitting in his bed, he knows someone is behind his door; he calls out for it. A grey peeks behind the door. It scared the living daylights out of me. Watching it now, not so much terrifying. The greys are pink, and they are ridiculously cheap looking. There are scenes where Walken dances with them, and its literally just plastic dolls with no joints. Don’t get me started with the troll aliens.
Communion isn’t a good by any known human standards, however, if we go with my high strangeness theory, that is, that the movie is intentionally weird to invoke the feelings of an abductee in the viewer, then it’s a smashing success. It’s like watching Tommy Wiseau directing himself in a movie about aliens, but in a different reality where Tommy is an Oscar winning actor. It’s weird.