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Communion (1989)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

COMMUNION (1989)

Starring: Christopher Walken, Lindsay Crouse, Frances Sternhagen, Andreas Katsulas, Terri Hanauer

Written By: Whitley Strieber Directed By: Philippe Mora

The Short Version

A horror writer gets abducted by aliens.  Really, he says.

Based on a true story, they say.

Whether you believe or not, this is a very unfocused movie.

Except, of course, for Christopher Walken.  He rocks, as always.

The truth may be out there, but it’s not here.  Communion is for Walken fans only.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AMERICAN.

It claims to be real cheese, even though many connoisseurs vehemently deny this and instead refer to the stuff as “wax.”  It really doesn’t hold up well on its own; that’s for certain.


Pairs Well With...

O'DOUL'S.

If you think it’s real beer, you’ve been had.

“You think I don't know what you do?  If it's not the Crystal in the Sky, you're flying around the room!  Little people, and some of them are blue.  This is such bad material it's magazine writing!”


In February of 1987, horror novelist Whitley Strieber – whose works included books that had been adapted into the movies Wolfen and The Hunger – published a book called “Communion.”  It was about a writer who went to a vacation home in the woods with his family in 1985 and ended up getting abducted by aliens.  At first glance, it sounds like a topical piece of popular fiction for the day, since that’s about when the Roswell thing was gaining new traction and the whole UFO conspiracy topic was getting back into vogue.  The thing is, though, that the book was about a writer named Whitley Strieber, and it was published as nonfiction.  “Communion” was Whitley Strieber’s declaration to the world that he believed he really had been abducted by aliens.  At least that’s what he said and continues to say.

The book was an instant bestseller, and stayed that way for a good long while.  The book’s cover portrait of a black-eyed alien quickly became one of the most recognized pieces of cover art in history.  Strieber’s story was the centerpiece of a massive resurgence of the alien abduction debate, and for a while, he was considered one of the most credible figures on the subject.

Then, as Strieber continued to experience new alien encounters, extraterrestrial revelations, and recollections of suppressed memories (from what turned out to be a lifetime of being abducted by these same aliens) on a schedule that was very convenient for the continued release of more bestselling books (and their accompanying advances and royalties), his credibility started to take some major hits outside of the fringe, even for many people who are enthusiastic about the subject of alien contact.  (Some editions of his “nonfiction” titles are even curiously classed as “fiction.”)

But, at the height of Strieber’s popularity – and that of the book that started it all – it seemed pretty much a foregone conclusion that someone would make a movie out of it.  And so, in 1989, the year that also marked the first time that most of the general public started to hear the words “Area 51,” the world got to see Communion, the movie.  The adaptation was written by Whitley Strieber himself, but as a drama, and not as a documentary.   What’s more, the adaptation proved to be wildly different from the book in many areas, inserting new scenes and fundamentally changing some parts of the story (though some of the additions dovetailed nicely with some material from his follow-up book that was on store shelves at the time of the film’s release).

These changes can be looked upon as the first of many mistakes.

I’ll admit it: I’ve read “Communion.”  Whether you believe what Strieber claims or not, looking at things strictly from a dramatic standpoint, the tale set forth in “Communion,” the book, has major potential to be a creepy, compelling movie.  It is, as these things go, a very good and well-told story, and makes for an unnerving read.  Meanwhile, the screen adaptation is a wildly unfocused mess that manages to both take itself too seriously and play too slapstick all at once, and which screams with the collective voice of a thousand magic-act aliens to please, please, please find Strieber an editor before it’s too late.

Yes, I did say magic-act aliens.

This leads to the second problem, which comes in the form of handing the directorial reins over to Philippe Mora.  If Strieber’s adapted screenplay is unfocused, what Mora does with it as a filmmaker is even more so.  Sometimes, he treats the material with extreme gravity, taking it at face value and giving the same weight to it as one might to a story of someone going through the process of being diagnosed with cancer.  At other times, he treats it as a surrealistic, almost Cirque du Soleil type production, complete with alien abduction scenes partially staged as magic acts.  Indeed, almost any time that aliens show up for more than two or three seconds, Communion takes on what can only be called an extremely tongue-in-cheek quality that does not jive at all with the more serious moments of family drama and bits of psychotherapy.  The fact that the aliens are very obviously fake puppets (they’re practically marionettes) and latex suits doesn’t help much, either.  And pacing?  What’s that?

What’s perhaps scariest of all is that it seems obvious that Mora believes he is treating this story – which he lobbied Strieber to let him become involved with – with respect, when in fact, he’s helping to destroy it.  But then again, he’s only filming what Strieber himself wrote into the screenplay, isn’t he?

Interestingly enough, one item that Strieber did object to about Communion also happens to be the one element that saves it for audiences outside of the alien conspiracy fringe (and I say “fringe” because even that group’s mainstream has drifted): the casting of Christopher Walken (Suicide Kings) as Whitley Strieber.  Objectively looking at the film character as he appears on a page, Whitley Strieber is a dull mannequin with dialogue but no real clear cut personality.  With no objections coming from the director, this gives Walken the freedom to play the part his way, and he goes for the patented off the wall wackiness that his fans have come to love and expect, complete with signature dance routine.  The real Strieber apparently didn’t appreciate this, and he suggested to Walken that his portrayal was “too crazy,” to which Walken is supposed to have given the brilliant reply of “If the shoe fits…”  While he was slightly more respectful when making press tours later, Walken’s opinion of the veracity of the part he was playing seems relatively clear, and that is that it is just that: a fictional part, and nothing more.

It’s an interesting Catch-22.  On the one hand, Walken is tap dancing all over this role in a way that does nothing at all to suggest “based on a true story,” effectively serving as the final nail in the movie’s coffin.  Credibility would have probably been better served by casting a more malleable and less well-known actor as Strieber, allowing the audience to be less diverted from the film’s message than it is by the charismatic Walken, and allowing the executive producer (Strieber) to exert more pressure to have his own part played his way.  On the other hand, the unfocused screenplay and the Cirque du Soleil direction have already shot the film’s credibility to hell and back anyway, so at that point, at least Walken keeps things sort of watchable and at least somewhat entertaining.

He’s not the only person involved who’s better than the material, either.  The supporting cast includes several outstanding performers, including Lindsay Crouse (The Arrival), Frances Sternhagen (Outland), and Andreas Katsulas (Road House), all of whom do a great job with what they’re given.  And that amazingly smooth guitar you hear in the background that serves as the backbone to the film’s score?  You might have heard of the guy playing it.  His name’s Eric Clapton.  I can only hope that all of them got paid well for their services.

Though it was released at the height of Whitley Strieber’s star, Communion wasn’t a very well-received film, and really, it’s not hard to see why.  Whether you choose to approach the film as a simple science fiction flick or as a piece of dramatized nonfiction, it’s still an unfocused mess.  Anything you see certainly isn’t going to convince you to change your mind about whether or not you believe in aliens; that’s for sure.  Maybe with a different director and a screenplay that actually stuck to the creep factor that made the book so compelling in the first place, Communion could have worked, but as it stands… no.

Bottom line, whether you believe Whitley Strieber’s story about being abducted by aliens or whether you think that he crossed the credibility line and stepped into “L. Ron” territory, the fact is that the Communion film adaptation is just not a good movie.  Those genuinely curious about the subject are better off finding some books written by other people or at the very least some actual documentary material, and people looking for some alien contact sci fi are better off picking up something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Hangar 18.  Save for any Christopher Walken fans that are determined to see everything that the man has starred in, I really can’t recommend Communion to anyone at all.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, May, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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