Blu Reviewed – Liquid Sky: The Special Edition 4K Remaster

A special edition blu-ray of Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle's indie cult classic Liquid Sky had been rumored on and off for pretty much as long as the format has exited. As far back as 2007, when I worked at an indie video store where the old DVD and VHS of Liquid Sky were frequently-rented customer favorites (with a cash deposit or valid credit card required to rent, since it was already out of print and outlandishly rare), the film was strongly rumored for an upcoming Criterion Collection release, which was thought to be just around the corner for several years. Whether these were just baseless rumors or whether Criterion had trouble securing the rights or the film elements I have no idea, but after a decade it was clear that it wasn't happening, and I was starting to doubt whether this film would ever get a blu-ray release at all, or if rights issues or other complications meant that the old 4x3 tape-sourced DVD was all we would ever get. Now Vinegar Syndrome has most unexpectedly come to the rescue, with a truly spectacular special edition blu-ray. When I say “unexpectedly,” I do not mean that as any kind of insult to the company: they consistently put out excellent releases and restorations, and have long been pulling ahead as one of the more impressive niche labels out there. But historically they focus on much more off-the-beaten-path cult fare which they often rescue from pretty deep obscurity, and are consequently one of the most niche labels of them all, so to see them release a legitimately iconic classic of indie cinema which we expected from a company like Criterion or Arrow instead represents a large stepping-up of their game. This is the sort of release that announces “Criterion – we are coming for you,” and to see VinSyn make such a bold move is very exciting. The only question is, was this small boutique label able to give Liquid Sky the top-notch special edition treatment that it deserves? Let's take an in-depth look at the disc to find out.

The Film:

Liquid Sky is many things, and almost none of them are what most viewers would expect. A dark, gritty, outlandishly entertaining slice of life from the early-1980s New York City punk/new-wave club scene and its drug culture. A philosophical musing on the fluid nature of gender and sexuality, and the artificiality of gender performance (and, for that matter, the performance of identity in general). A sometimes-painful look at the feminist struggle for empowered and self-actualized female sexuality in a world pervaded by patriarchal sexual violence and double-standards. A high-concept sci-fi film which views all of the above elements through the lens of alien invaders. It's a highly unusual cocktail, rich with ideas and audacious in the uniqueness of its style. Its aesthetic and its slice-of-life observation of characters are an obvious influence on Party Monster, while its sci-fi narrative of sexuality was borrowed for a first-season episode of Torchwood; a combination very telling of the film's eclectic nature. Its creators represent an equally eclectic combination of minds: co-writer/director Slava Tsukerman and co-writer/producer Nina V. Kerova are Russian documentarians who emigrated across the iron curtain with visions of Andy Warhol in their minds to become art-house filmmakers in New York, while co-writer/star Anne Carlisle was a punk model turned acting and film student, who wanted to make a cathartic and personal film project into which she could pour her soul. With these different yet highly compatible sets of influences and goals they collaborated to make a genuinely unique work of cinema, and it is no surprise that Liquid Sky made such a splash in the indie film community when it was released in 1982, or that it has been a beloved cult classic ever since.

In slice-of-life fashion the film follows a loose crowd of models, musicians, drug dealers, and addicts in New York's new wave night club scene. At the center of this crowd is Margaret (Carlisle): an androgynous, pansexual model trying to build her career while navigating a toxic relationship with her abusive heroin-dealer girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and struggling to hold power and control over her sexuality in world full of abusive and predatory men who want to take that power from her. Into this world floats a UFO containing formless aliens who kill people during orgasm and feed on the endorphins in their brains, and suddenly Margaret's existential crisis of sexuality becomes a lot more complicated – and dangerous. But the aliens aren't really there to turn this into a true sci-fi movie, so much as they are there to exacerbate the human dramas and tensions already at work in this alternately beautiful and cruel cultural landscape, and to turn Margaret and Adrian's rooftop loft into a microcosm of the film's themes. These themes are obviously very personal to Carlisle, who wrote much of the character-related material (while Tsukerman wrote the script's sci-fi side), and who brought much from her own life into the script. Many of the film's most striking moments involve her character waxing philosophical about gender fluidity, queer identity, the artificiality of public personas, and the power dynamics of sexuality, with the tension between feminism and patriarchal norms of power therein. Often times the line begins to blur between the scripted character of Margaret, and the real Anne Carlisle delivering personal monologues, and this actor/character gray area is where the script is most potent. Compounding the themes of the fluidity of gender and the artificiality of its performance is the fact that Carlisle also plays a second role, in extremely convincing drag, as a male model who is an antagonist to Margaret.

Meanwhile, the film's visual style is every bit as fascinating as its substance, as Carlisle's magnetic performance and drawn-from-life writing is matched every step of the way by Tsukerman's aesthetic audacity. Particularly given that this was a micro-budget indie, Liquid Sky's visuals are as beautiful as they are ambitious. Tsukerman's kinetic camerawork, which clearly draws from his documentary background, captures both the feverish pace and the neon decadence of its night club world. The interiors are shot in low-light environments largely illuminated by the stylized color of neon signs; the exteriors are almost exclusively set at the Magic Hours of sunrise or sunset, giving New York City a dreamlike glow. That the view from Margaret's loft captures the Empire State Building off of one edge and the World Trade Center off of the other also provides a beautiful and haunting juxtaposition between the mainstream New York of tourists and businesspeople and the electronics-and-narcotics netherworld in which our characters reside. The film also boasts some extremely impressive production design: the art and curtains in Margaret's apartment change color to match the time of day and the mood of each scene, the characters' wild makeup and costumes amplify the already eye-grabbing new wave fashions to a larger-than-life degree, and the film features a sequence lit entirely by black light that is absolutely stunning. Rounding out the film's excellent style is its extremely memorable soundtrack of minimalist, slightly atonal synthesizer compositions. The music is very strange and eccentric, but in a way which perfectly fits the otherworldly visuals that Tsukerman has created.

Of course, it isn't a perfect film. Some of its juxtaposed plot threads work significantly better than others, and some of the character relationships don't really lead anywhere. In particular, parts of its subplot about a German scientist investigating the aliens fall a bit flat, and the subplot in general provides little purpose outside of exposition. Also, the film does stumble a bit in the last act, as it seems not entirely sure how to resolve its ambitious cocktail of themes and ideas. But it is nonetheless a very good film, and its combination of compelling themes and top-notch style ultimately makes up for its weaker aspects. And honestly, being a bit rough around the edges in places is rather keeping with the film's punk aesthetic and DIY roots.

Between Slava Tsukerman's excellent sense of visuals and uniquely eccentric storytelling sensibilities, and Anne Carlisle's insightful, semi-autobiographical writing and otherworldly charisma, these two seemingly very different artists were a perfect match to create a film as one-of-a-kind as this one. Liquid Sky has long been in a very peculiar situation as a cult film: the way that it immediately resonated with adventurous indie audiences, and its life throughout the 1980s and 90s as a cult staple on video, has made it well entrenched in a certain (admittedly off-the-beaten-path) vein of our pop-cultural consciousness as an iconic classic of its time. But since it spent most of the last decade and a half out of print and extremely rare, it's the sort of film which a lot of people have heard of, but have never actually been able to see, or else have only seen in passed-down, several-generations-from-original bootlegs. Its reputation has certainly preceded it, but this is the first time that people have been able to actually access non-bootleg copies of Liquid Sky without paying a fortune in many years. I hadn't seen the film since high school, so seeing it again on this blu-ray was like seeing it for the first time. I am happy to report that its cult reputation has not been overinflated: this movie is just as good (or at least, very nearly so) as its reputation suggests. It is equal parts brilliant style and though-provoking substance, with themes that resonate today just as much as they did back then. Indeed, the themes about the non-fixed nature of gender and sexuality, and the questions raised about rape culture and patriarchal power dynamics are extremely relevant today. Now that this film has been resurrected in HD for a new generation of fans to check out and appreciate, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is an odd film, to be sure, and it definitely won't be for everyone, but if you're on Tsukerman and Carlisle's unique wavelength, you simply must check it out.


The Picture:

As described in the review above, Liquid Sky is an extremely visual film, with an attention to detail which is impressive for any movie, let alone a DIY indie of this kind. So what a shame it was that, prior to this disc, it never got any sort of visually high-quality release. Its circa-2000 special edition DVD, though it had a decent amount of special features for that early in the medium, was literally just a direct transfer of the film's 1983 Media Home Entertainment VHS master. That tape master was already on the murky and too-dark side, and the DVD looked arguably even worse because it added some noticeable digital artifacting on top of that. Once that DVD went out of print, years of bootlegs just made the film look worse and worse. Vinegar Syndrome's new 4K restoration is a much-needed upgrade which marks the first time that Liquid Sky has ever been available in a 35mm-sourced digital presentation, and the first time that the film has ever been released in its intended aspect ratio outside of theaters.

Seeing it this way is a revelation: the movie looks like it never has before, and the restoration is spectacular. The colors are beautifully vivid, and while black levels are strong, the details in the film's darkness are very clear – which is extremely important, given that the film was shot very low-light. Details are visible in this restoration which were obscured by the muddy darkness of the old Media tape master, and the juxtaposition of black and bright neon which forms the backbone of the film's aesthetic really pops. Despite how low-light the film was shot, the picture is not excessively grainy; indeed, this transfer makes it abundantly clear how well-shot the movie was. But there is a healthy level of film grain present in the picture, and there are no signs that any DNR was used - though I wouldn't expect any DNR from a group of dedicated cinephiles like the folks at Vinegar Syndrome. There are occasional blips of subtle damage to the negative, and a couple sequences with some noticeable vertical shuddering in the picture, but these are likely just intrinsic to the negative, and are certainly nothing serious. Aside from those small flaws, this is one beautiful restoration.

One interesting thing that this remaster reveals is that the old 4x3 Media master was in fact open-matte, and not pan-and-scan, so there will certainly be times when those who know the film well from previous releases will find the framing tighter on this disc. However, the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of this remaster is the film's theatrical ratio as intended by Slava Tsukerman and cinematographer Yuri Neyman, so while I certainly noticed some set-design details that were hidden by the widescreen masking (especially in the opening sequence consisting of dolly shots across Margaret and Adrian's apartment), the film appears better-shot in general, with the shot compositions looking much more deliberate and effective.

VinSyn did a spectacular job with this remaster: the film looks absolutely beautiful, and more well-shot and stylish than ever. Tsukerman introduces the film on the disc, and speaks about how he has always lamented the poor quality of past releases, and is thrilled that the film can finally be seen the way it was meant to be for the first time since theaters. I wholeheartedly agree, and I'm sure that anyone who watches this disc as an established fan of the film will too: this truly is Liquid Sky as you've never seen it before.


The Audio:

While the remaster may present Liquid Sky as we've never seen it before, the audio does not feature nearly as dramatic a change – though that doesn't reflect at all poorly on VinSyn's excellent restoration. They simply run up against the limitations of the source elements: the film was mixed and released in mono, and in mono it stays. They restored the audio track perfectly, as far as I can tell: it sounds totally free of any flaws, the dialogue is extremely clear, and the memorable synthesizer score sounds great. It definitely is a noticeable step up above the previous Media master. I can't imagine the film sounding any better, and since it was mixed for mono I am perfectly OK with them not attempting anything like a fake surround track; it sounds like it is supposed to sound, in the best quality possible, but the intrinsic nature of that is never going to give your stereo too much of a workout.


The Extras:

Besides the gorgeous 4K remaster, this is where Vinegar Syndrome really shows what they're capable of in a special edition package, and announces that they were indeed able to match whatever Criterion could have done, had they gotten the rights to release this film as was once rumored. The disc is stacked with original bonus content, beginning with the introduction to the restoration by Slava Tsukerman that I already mentioned above. Next up is a brand-new hour-long documentary about the making of the film, which was made by Tsukerman himself. I think this may be a first: a making-of doc directed by the actual filmmaker whose film it is about. It is clear that the doc was a micro-budget passion project (I believe Tsukerman was already in production on it when VinSyn acquired the rights to the film itself), so it ironically doesn't have the level of production value that it might have had the studio paid for it, but while it may be technically rough around the edges, it makes up for that with its depth of information. Tsukerman brings back every living member of the principle cast and crew who he was able to locate, and they all give very revealing interviews about the process of making the film, and what a personal and meaningful experience it was for all of them. While it clearly wasn't always an easy film to make, you genuinely get the impression that they all poured their souls into it, and even after 35 years it remains a crucial part of their creative lives.

In addition to this doc, Vinegar Syndrome produced new interviews with Tsukerman and Carlisle, in which the two go very in-depth about their creative processes on the film, and how they both came to the project. Both interviews are fascinating; Carlisle's because it becomes very clear how much of Margaret was really her, and how soul-baring and cathartic a project it was, and Tsukerman's because he couldn't be more different from the characters in the film, and the journey which brought him to this seemingly-unlikely project is really interesting. Carlisle and Tsukerman are also present on a new audio commentary, which likewise contains some very in-depth stories about the film's production. At its best it is extremely interesting and enlightening, but I must say that it is a bit of an uneven track, as there are long stretches of silence when the two either get caught up watching the film or can't think of what to say. Also, while Tsukerman is more talkative, Carlisle is extremely quiet on the track, and on a couple occasions goes almost ten minutes without saying anything much. The disc also features a 2017 Q&A with the filmmaker and actor duo from a screening of the film, which is again very interesting, although by this point some of the information overlaps significantly with the interviews, commentary, and documentary. Between these various new extras, though, the behind-the-scenes story of the film is extremely well-documented, and fans will love all the insights available. Rounding out the extras are an isolated music track, which is definitely a welcome thing given how cool and unique the film's score is, and the small handful of previous extras from the 2000 special edition DVD, which have all been ported over. These consist of a ten-minute alternate opening sequence for the film (which is cool to see, but I think he made the right choice in changing the opening structure for the final cut), and some vintage behind-the-scenes footage of the film's rehearsal process, presented from Tsukerman's personal betamax tapes. Overall, I can't imagine what else Vinegar Syndrome could have possibly included. This is one spectacularly stacked special edition.


While it has been a very difficult film to see for a very long time, revisiting Liquid Sky for this new blu-ray reveals that it genuinely deserves its iconic cult reputation. While its decidedly odd sensibilities won't be for everyone, it is a very good film, driven by equal parts eye-grabbing style and high-concept substance, both sides of which have held up beautifully. Now that Vinegar Syndrome has rescued it from the netherworld of the out of print, and from decades of poor-quality releases, those with an interest in indie and cult cinema should definitely check this out. VinSyn's release just debuted as a Black Friday-exclusive limited edition of 3,000, which promptly sold out before that holiday shopping weekend was through, but fear not: only that particular packaging variant was limited, and the same blu-ray in standard packaging will be getting a non-limited wide release at the beginning of 2018. If you missed out on the limited edition, be sure to check it out then.

Overall Score:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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