It's Not Horror
I used to be terrified of Greys when I was kid. Anything even remotely resembling a stereotypical alien would leave me in shambles for weeks. I can only imagine the reaction I would've had if I stumbled across this film. The 80s just seemed to have had a knack for making bizarre movies.
"Walken is, well, Walken- the best character actor one can have if the character is meant to be Christopher Walken." hahaha this is so true!
But this whole article is fantastic; great analysis of a severely underrated film. Rewatching some of Communion gave me the heebie-jeebies again too!
if you like scary stuff, check out a novel I wrote last year... about a demon who floats on the foul stench of the Staten Island dump and takes posession of the weak willed
Warning: lengthy and some would say pretentious. Once more unto the breach!
I like the theme of monster-horror movies for the exact reason you say makes them less scary: the monster is bound by some kind of measurable and understandable parameters, be they supernatural ones or not.
That makes the meta-story one parallell the development of mankind: from frightened of what we do not understand to mastering it by knowledge, will and toil. Consider 'Predator'; as the story progress, they come to understand at least a basic set of principles under which the Predator (voluntarily, obviously) operates.
Contrast this with 'Alien' and 'Aliens' (and ignore the rest of the movie-franchise, though the Black Horse-comics were quite good, if uneven); the monster's parameters are never voluntary, it displays no intellect or sapience. It is an automaton - no more thinking than a robot. This makes it easy prey once the initial horror has been conquered, if the humans do what humans do best - create and use tools, and bury their egos and any social structure not based in demonstraed ability; witness how Gorman automatically defers to Ripley from her rescue of the marines, despite being formally in charge along with Burke (one of film history's best villains in my opinion).
Now, put the above next to 'Videodrome', 'Hellraiser' and 'Hardware'. (Or Cronenberg's "Apocalypse trilogy.)
In the first one, we witness... what? Perception becoming actual reality? Perception creating reality in a feedbackloop? We don't know, we aren't told (something modern day film-makers should take note of: don't explain to the audience, what the characters doesn't know or cannot figure out!) and our only source is as unreliable as you can be. To me, 'Videodrome' represents very much the death of the mind, making physical death a mercy to be hoped for (the phrase "Death is not the end. Long live the new flesh!" only underscores the terror, that your mind will live on as a perception-reception loop in a virtual eternity of chaotic torment).
'Hellraiser', apart from the gore, has a lot of themes that aren't focused upon for a variety of reasons, from time-constraints to being beside the point of the story: "careful what you wish for, you might get it". It is very much Promethean in that regard - Frank gets what he bargained for and discovers he doesn't like it. That is echoed in Julia and her coldness to her husband, stepdaughter and pretty much everything around her. The only times we see her happy, exited or aroused is when she is with Frank or kills for Frank. And she too discovers that getting what she wanted- being penetrated by Frank - wasn't what she hoped for, as said penetration is done with his knife, after which he devours her.
And the box returns to where we started, the story we saw now part of it. A closed system without escape, fitting given what we learn of Frank from Larry and Julia when they arrive at their house.
'Hardware' is not only a simple "Frankenstein's monster as a robot-story"; the background events tells the real story. Earth is ravaged by wars and disasters. Daily rad-count is part of the weather-forecast. There are abandoned zones, deserts, full of equally abandoned machinery and technology, which can be scavenged and sold - all of it not only implying but showing that civilisation has fallen, that it is post-apocalypse. Yet, there is embers of it remaining. Spaceflight is apparently common for those with the means. There is still art and entertainment and some order and structure, for those with the power to take it.
Most horrifying is however, that M.A.R.K. 13 is combat robot prototype, capable of self-repair. That in itself is scary enough, but in the background we get snippets of information about that what remains of govrnement (US or NWO or UN we don't know) is announcing that a newer model will be put into service, the agenda being total depopulation outside safe zones, beginning with Africa. Mankind destroying itself, and holding the capability to do so up to itself as an ideal and a virtue, and a utopian hope of a new better future. I find 'Hardware' a much scarier movie today as an "adult+" than I did when it came out, given how much of what is shown is becoming real.
And that last line is the gnarly root of true horror; when the events on the silver screen echoes and mimics reality, not after the fact but as prophecy becoming real. 'Videodrome' and social media. 'Hellraiser' and the pursuit of experience at all costs. 'Hardware' and the belief in a heavy metal-messiah.
Thank you for doing a most difficult job of sharing an ineffable experience.
Great article! Communion's book cover and movie were truly terrifying to me as a child. The stories contained in Budd Hopkins' book and subsequent movie: "Intruders" do eclipse Communion as the most terrifying from my childhood. Intruders: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJ9Wqw6mCJ0 Enjoy!
So guess I'm watching Communion tonight then!
Growing up, I literally have all the same reference points you mentioned, and yet I've managed to miss this film.
I remember listening to Streiber on Coast to Coast with Art Bell. Then, for a while, he had his own web show, "Dreamland."
Yes, he turned the Grey into the standard Alien, but before him, they were always described as Reptilian, Nordic, and Wearers of Black, and the descriptions were truly frightening to someone listening in on AM radio, complete with the atmospheric dropouts, the side band hisses, the squeals, and fade-outs.
I read communion, and it was an okay read. Streiber still had a lot of work to do. I always found Close Encounters to be more nightmare-inducing. Aliens that nobody understands, taking people throughout history for who knows what and only returning them in exchange for more human Guinea pigs to experiment on.
Never saw this. Gonna check it out. Not sure it will have as much of an effect as it would for a kid but I'm still excited.
Inchoate evil is always the scariest. I recall Lynch didn't want to make the evil in the Twin Peaks series concrete, or even explain it at all (at least as early as he did) but the friggin' network forced it on him. Producers screw up more films than anyone realizes.
Another doozy was Gangs of New York where they foisted Cameron Diaz on Scorsese. Completely wrecked the film since her character was supposed to be integral to the story but she couldn't pull it off and that's why there's a hole in the middle of that film.
Had to add, THIS is my version of that Communion scene for Librarian. I saw this as a kid and I never got over it. N E V E R. I was terrified to open blinds on my bedroom window, or really anywhere, because of this scene. All time great!
Communion is one of those things that I always seem to forget about, I suspect because it has always unsettled and disturbed me as much as it seems it has you. I remember going to the bookstore and seeing it in the new age/paranormal section and seeing it for the first time, and being filled with the same sense of wrongness about the cover for the same reasons you articulated. I wanted to turn the book around so I wouldn't have to see it, but I didn't even want to touch it. I also have to question the judgement of the employee who saw fit to have that cover, out of all the books they could have chosen, facing outward on display; was it a cruel joke? Or were they just not thinking? Regardless, the artwork is haunting in a way very little, if anything, I've encountered before or sense. Almost nauseating. That alone almost convinces me that there is some sort of inexplicable quality to it, like, it's so perfectly calculated to be upsetting that is really is some kind of representation of something very real and, I suspect, not exactly benevolent. I can remember trying to sleep and having it continually just appear in my mind's eye - and this was only several years ago once I tried to read the thing, after years of avoiding it. I never finished it, either. I have listened to a lot of podcasts that dissect Streiber's accounts detail by detail, and listened to several interviews with him, and there's a quality to him and his story - especially the post-Communion claims - that seem a little too fantastical, or they make just a little too much sense and contradict just how alien the original circumstances or events were. But, unlike other similar accounts of abduction that start off credible and then start veering into territory where the author finds out they have, like, alien-hybrid children, or something, or that they've been chosen as some sort of emissary to preach some sort of intergalactic gospel (two accounts that come to mind are Terry Lovelace and Truman Betherum, if you've ever heard of them), there's some quality to Streiber that I just can't pin-point that leaves me feeling that there's at least a grain of truth to his account.
I watched the scene. Very creepy! And for a ten year old!!!! I get the nightmares.