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Film
by David J. Skal

Strange Invaders

"They're just girls," says Vic, a seemingly self-assured student at an all-boys school in Croydon, England, giving encouragement to Enn, a more introverted classmate, at a 1970s house party they have just crashed. "They don't come from another planet."

However, since this is a story by Neil Gaiman, it's completely possible the character may have spoken too hastily.

In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, the new film by John Cameron Mitchell inspired by Gaiman's 2006 short story of the same title, a trio of young Brits with punk pretensions wander into a party of extragalactic creatures they naively take for exotic foreign exchange students, possibly from California. Actually, they are ETs on a touristy reconnaissance mission, after which they will return to their faraway home where their cannibal parents will literally digest their experiences.

Mitchell was the deservedly praised director and star of the glam-rock cult favorite Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had the advantage of being adapted more or less intact from a successful, full-length stage musical. How to Talk, by contrast, is based on a fifteen-page story that raises many sly questions but only hints at answers, so it's not surprising that a feature film version is going to require more than a small amount of padding. Not all of it is bad. The best added element is Zan (Elle Fanning), an extraterrestrial who becomes romantically involved with Enn and begins singing with him.

Unfortunately, even collaborating with experienced screenwriter Philippa Goslett, Mitchell simply can't rise to Gaiman's imaginative level, and the padding is frequently arbitrary, and sometimes incoherent. In place of revealing details about the visitors' world and culture, we get fetishy rubber costumes reminiscent of an Ed Wood film, oddball choreography, and quite a few punk performances to expand the story to ninety minutes. Gaiman spends very little time—a few lines, really—delineating the punk milieu, but the requisite name dropping in the film is nonstop, almost encyclopedic.

The original story is a parable about teenage boys' misapprehension and inexperience vis-à-vis the opposite sex, given a metaphorical twist. In the story, Vic's off-page but apparently erotic interlude with the alien girl proves traumatic in ways he is barely able to articulate. "You know…I think there's a thing," he sobs. "When you've gone as far as you dare. And if you go any further you wouldn't be you anymore? You'd be the person who'd done that?"

Gaiman's dialogue shrewdly provides a number of levels and can be taken for anything from a disastrous and humiliating sexual encounter to something more ineffable and profound: the built-in limits to interaction and understanding that would accompany actual interaction (sexual or otherwise) with a truly alien being. The old sf saw "We are not alone" becomes a nervous "Hey, maybe we really are alone." Just trying to make contact might open an existential abyss. And that's pretty scary.

On the screen, nuance and profundity are tossed out and Vic's ordeal of passage is mostly reduced to his alarm at the prospect of anal alien penetration, a lazy conceit immediately bringing to mind the Whitley Strieber-inspired scene in John Sayles's Passion Fish, wherein an actress hilariously recounts her efforts at an audition to give variant line readings of "I didn't ask for the anal probe." At some point, the poking and prodding in How to Talk to Girls may well prompt the audience to say something similar.

For all its problems and misfires, the film is surprisingly easy to take, made palatable by an appealing cast and performances. As embodied by Alex Sharp (Enn), Abraham Lewis (Vic), and Ethan Lawrence (John, a third wheel absent in Gaiman), the male protagonists are never going to achieve the level of transgression to which they aspire. And therein is their charm. They want desperately to be edgy, but they're not really punks, but suburban punk fanboys unlikely to come within an intergalactic light year of, say, a heroin overdose. Alex Sharp and Elle Fanning exude a genuinely sweet chemistry as the literally star-crossed young lovers, and Nicole Kidman once more lends her big-star presence to a small indie film, a commendable act of noblesse oblige that must have helped immeasurably to secure financing. Kidman plays Queen Boadicea, den-mother-impresario to the Croydon punk underground, and she's fun to watch, even in an underwritten part.

Overall, How to Talk to Girls at Parties engages you in the relaxed manner of improvisational comedy, but the silliness frankly never rises much above an old Coneheads skit on Saturday Night Live. The film premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, but was stranded without distribution for a year before Lionsgate gave it the most perfunctory release possible. In Los Angeles, it occupied a single screen for a week before evaporating into the on-demand ether, where you can probably find it hiding for an indefinite run.

Moving on, I can't be the only cinephile/science fiction fan to have ever entertained a specific wish-fulfillment daydream: namely, that somehow it might be possible to travel back in time, my memory wiped clean, and view certain films famous for their extraordinary plot twists exactly the way they were experienced by their unsuspecting first audiences, like Psycho and The Crying Game. By the time I saw the Hitchcock classic, as a kid, everyone in the audience, including me, knew we had all come to see Janet Leigh take off her clothes and get stabbed in the shower. Many years later, I did have the chance to see The Crying Game on its opening day in New York, whereupon immediately put out the alarm to all my friends: don't read about it, or let anyone talk to you about it, just see this film as quickly as possible.

The advance buzz for Hereditary, the exquisitely crafted first feature from writer/director Ari Aster, threw off a glow like the lava flow from Kilauea, so I high-tailed it to the cineplex for the opening day, morning screening without reading any advance stories or reviews. And now, since I want you to continue reading this column, I will be very careful about what I reveal and conceal.

First, the title Hereditary is a problematic red herring, setting up the expectation of a rationalized payoff (malevolent bioengineering, perhaps?) that never arrives. The revelation, when it comes, is indeed generational—it's not a spoiler to confirm that something very dark is indeed handed down from mother to child to grandchildren—but it doesn't literally involve genes, but rather a multiplicity of metaphors. It's a shame the title Drag Me to Hell was already taken, because it would have worked perfectly for Hereditary, and neatly describe how all the characters treat each other, and what they expect from each other.

Hell is introduced in small, but ever-increasing doses. The story opens with Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist ambivalently processing the death of her mother, who was, we quickly surmise from the stingy handful of facts we are given, a domineering, manipulative monster whose departure was more of a relief than a loss. Annie's husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and son Peter (Alex Wolff) all cope as best they can with her guilty mood swings over what she fears is insufficient grief. But don't worry: there's plenty of time for Annie to catch up with grief—and every other gut-wrenching emotion imaginable.

Annie's art consists of diorama-like doll houses, meticulously detailed and peopled with realistic figurines of the inhabitants, which, because her art is autobiographical, includes herself, her husband, her children, and her dead mother. Voodoo dolls, anyone? Aster knows what he's doing, slyly shepherding us right up to the edge of Freud's uncanny abyss of effigies, dolls, and doppelgängers, and letting us hang there, worrying about what each new development might mean or portend. Demonic possession? A ghostly invasion? Or is this all psychological, a shared family delusion feeding greedily upon itself? And is it really a good idea to pull out a Ouija board any time during this story?

Aster gave himself the luxury—and risk—of shooting a wildly overlong first cut exploring the family dynamics in depth, but clocking in at more than three hours. With luck, the Blu-ray deleted scenes extra will be something to look forward to. But I'm especially curious to know more about Gabriel Byrne's character, which seems strangely underdeveloped in the version released theatrically. For instance, what does he do for a living? In some reports on the picture, he is described as a psychologist, and it would have been interesting indeed to watch him wrestle with his family's demons as a mental health professional. But in the end he is more or less relegated to the role of a familiar figure in spooky stories: the sane, skeptical onlooker who believes, against mounting evidence, that there is a rational explanation for everything.

The film is a rare combination of great ensemble acting and standout individual performances, led by Colette's ferocious grip on her character. Interesting enough, her last genre appearance was in The Sixth Sense, another film it was best not to read about before viewing. She garnered an Oscar nomination for that role and will almost certainly meet the benchmark again.

Horror, like the whodunit, is a category driven relentlessly by death, but where the close exploration of mortality-related emotions like grief and guilt is, paradoxically, almost taboo. Hereditary achieves a walloping success by plowing through genre limitations and taking its major cues from the great canon of lacerating family dramas ranging from Greek tragedy to Ibsen to O'Neill. If Hereditary aspires to be the Long Day's Journey into Night of horror films, it may not quite score the perfect bullseye, but it does come satisfyingly close.

 

Publisher's Note

 

There was a stretch in 1987 or thereabouts when the giants of science fiction fell like wheat before death's scythe. Tiptree, Bester, Simak, Heinlein…it seemed as though every issue of Locus magazine brought news of the passing of a legend.

This past year has been just as bad. We here at F&SF have lost many of our dearest friends and contributors, including Kit Reed, Harvey Jacobs, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, and Gardner Dozois. All of them left behind great works, and all of them are greatly missed around here.

As our last issue was going to press, we got word that Harlan Ellison died. In the last few weeks, I've read scads of memorials (Harlan, who was as particular about language as he was about almost everything else in this world, would probably rebuke me for using the word "scads" and suggest half a dozen better nouns, but I'm going to stick with scads) and they've all been true to his memory, but none have really encompassed him. He was vast: vast like Whitman, vaster than empires and faster, too. It will take volumes to do justice to his memory.

For our part, it must be noted that in addition to the many works of fiction he contributed to our pages, he also wrote a few book reviews and more significantly, he was also our film reviewer from 1984 to 1995. By my lights, few have ever written about science fiction film with as much insight and chutzpah as Harlan did. When he stepped down, he remained our film editor. A decade later, after we sparred lightly about one of Lucius Shepard's film columns, he respectfully asked to be removed from the position. I declined to do so, telling him that as long as there was a chance he might be inspired again to write a film column for us, I'd leave him on the masthead.

Sadly, he never did send us another one of his treatises on screen sf, but we do have those memorable pieces in our back pages as forty-nine more ways to remember that tremendous, irascible, brilliant, intense, logophilic, and cinephilic friend of ours, and I hope readers will be inspired to look up some of those essays by way of honoring his memory.

—Gordon Van Gelder

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