Review of Communion

by BeyondCommunion.Com

Christopher Walken in Communion

In Communion, Christopher Walken played author Whitley Strieber, whose autobiographical story about his apparent contact with non-human beings at a cabin in the New York countryside became a New York Times bestseller. The book is perhaps the best known narrative of possible alien contact in the western world. The film in contrast was not well received by the public, and was widely panned by critics (with the notable exception of the LA Times). Janet Maslin of the New York Times commented, “It is to be hoped that if the visitors Communion envisions ever do arrive, they will make it their business to get hold of a movie camera and tell this story right.”
     Walken is depended upon to carry the story, portraying a man who, despite some hints that something happened at his cabin, understandably feels that he may be having a psychotic break. Lindsay Crouse, a fine actress, plays Whitley’s wife, who must deal with the possibility that her husband has passed over the line that divides creativity from madness. But her character is unforgivably underdeveloped (try to figure out what she does for a living), and her dedication to Whitley is never explained, a glaring oversight in a film about a family’s disintegration. Young Joel Carlson is believable as their son. Other supporting characters are even more two-dimensional.
     Whitley Strieber has expressed disappointment in the way the film turned out. His opinion may have softened over the years. He recently commented diplomatically that “the family scenes, the way our family life unfolded at that time is very accurate, the way Anne and I interacted together and the tensions in the family, and the way our son reacted to it and all, that is right on the money….The alien stuff, you need to read the book to get what happened to me as best I was able to describe it. It's basically a sort of a riff on it by the director, it is not in my script, what he put in about the aliens and the sort of magical scenes at the end, but it is a fascinating take on it, it's not bad, I am not unhappy with it at all.” (March 19, 2000 comment on Dreamland)

The Conception of 'Communion': What Went Wrong?

The conception of the film seemed blessed. Whitley Strieber wrote the screenplay for Communion himself, loosely based on his book. The screenplay was adapted by the director Philippe Mora, who was an old school friend of Strieber's.
     But Mora chose to depart from Strieber's screenplay, replacing the fear that was predominant in Strieber's screenplay with a more playful kind of amusement at the outrageousness of the situations. Without access to the original screenplay it is difficult to tell how far afield Mora went, but some reviewers put the blame for the film squarely on his shoulders. “…the director doesn't seem to have heard of indirection, understatement, insinuation. The material is shrewdly placed in Strieber's screenplay, but pummeled clumsily in the director's execution,” wrote Jay Carr of the Boston Globe.
     Mora's technique is evidently to litter the set with suggestive artwork – paintings, masks, statues – and then park the camera firmly on a tripod. Some of Walken and Crouse's scenes utilize improvisational acting, with awkward results. Jay Carr from the Boston Globe: “[Walken] crashes through scenes in semi-improvisatory style with excessive attention to props. At times, it's his hats, not the aliens, who seem bent on world domination.”
     The San Diego Union-Tribune agreed, “Director Philippe Mora added further annoying elements, such as setting much of the action against paintings and sculpture. They are meant as visual echoes of the scenes, but more often simply distract from them.”

Beyond Mora's directorial talent (or lack thereof), what went wrong?

The film suffers from a fundamental misreading of the source material.
     Communion, the autobiographical book, left the question as to what had happened an open question. It seemed to be about a man besieged by alien contact, but it may not have been that.
     The film takes a different approach. Mora uses every scene as an opportunity to suggest that the experiences were imaginary. Mora fills the sets with masks and statues to imply that the visitors are carved out of Whitley's mind just as the masks and statues were carved out of wood. In the finale of the film this is asserted definitively as Whitley regains his balance by declaring to the visitors “I am the dreamer, you are the dream.”
     Mora appreciates that “whether it is a physical or a psychological reality, it's just amazing that it happens on this scale. It's almost like a religious experience for atheists,” but in his film he does not explore what a religious experience for an atheist means. Whereas Strieber’s worldview was broken open by his experiences, allowing him to develop deeply questioning and insightful ideas about the visitors, the limits of the director’s worldview are reached too quickly, leaving the viewer with only a simple story about a husband and wife having some kind of mid-life crisis, the importance of which seems to be nil.
     The damage that Mora did to the Communion needs to be emphasized, in my opinion, because the damage was not obvious. By pretending to be neutral, while really delivering the message that the visitors were imaginal, not to mention inconsequential, Mora's film stalls the pursuit of questions that Communion began.
     In April 1999, the Sci-Fi channel announced in Variety that they would produce a made for television sequel to Communion. Whitley Strieber wrote a screenplay for them, but there was no movement on the project. Had they moved forward with the production, which was to have been called Beyond Communion, this would have been another opportunity to envision some of the events of Communion, and it would have been interesting to see how another director, with another vision (and likely more style than Mora), would have portrayed these events. Perhaps someday we will get that chance.

Communion: Special Collector's Edition DVD (released in June 2000)

While the film itself may be seen as a failure, the Special Collector's Edition DVD of Communion (released June 2000) is the best presentation of this film that has ever been available on video. For the DVD, director Philippe Mora searched through hours of outtakes, deleted scenes, on-set interviews and more. The DVD features a new transfer of the film, and the 2 channel stereo soundtrack has been remixed into 5.1 surround.
     One controversial aspect of the DVD is that the film is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio widescreen (more than twice as wide as it is high). This seems to be a bit of revisionist history on the part of the director in order to give the film a more pronounced cinematic feeling; the theatrical release was in 1.85:1 (a less severe form of widescreen, not quite twice as wide as it is high). This revision was first attempted on the 1996 special edition laserdisc, and was a failure; the laserdisc had the unfortunate habit of cutting people's heads off. To solve this problem, the DVD transfer has been slightly reframed, but it still seems to be an awkward fit. If you want to see what you are missing, earlier vhs releases and television broadcasts (and the UK version of the DVD) present the film in its raw, unmatted state.

2.35:1 DVD on left, 2.35:1 laserdisc in middle, 4:3 vhs on right

Whitley dances with the blue boys in this still from the DVD's supplementary features. This dance scene is not present in the film itself on the DVD, because the DVD presents the theatrical version of the film. (To see the dance scene, you'll need to watch the 108 minute version of the film elsewhere).

    Surprisingly, the DVD is not the extended 108 minute version of the film, but rather is the original 101 minute United States theatrical version. Aside from this one disappointment, there is much to recommend about this DVD.
     The extras on the DVD are extensive: The selection of bonus materials include an audio commentary, outtakes, behind-the-scenes/promotional footage, two trailers, an excerpt from a documentary about "alien implants," and a gallery of stills (see samples above right and below left) and storyboard sketches.
     For the new commentary track, in an unusual twist director Mora is joined by the publisher of UFO Magazine, William Birnes (Christopher Walken was not available, and Whitley Strieber was, perhaps tellingly, not asked to participate). The DVD commentary is better than the solo commentary on the laserdisc by Mora, in which he droned on for ninety minutes about why he did not believe his friend's experiences could have been true. What struck me about that commentary, besides Mora's view, was how uncritical he was of his filmmaking. Even on good films, directors often say quite humbly “oh, this shot we never could get quite right,” and the like. No such humility from Mora. He even defended the plastic aliens, saying they were meant to look fake. It would have been nice for Mora to share a trace of humility by discussing even a single problem with the film. The new DVD commentary is a friendly debate between Birnes and Mora about whether aliens exist or not. They do not discuss the making of the film much.
     When they try to reference the book, Birnes makes a major flub, claiming (erroneously) that Communion was released to bookstores as fiction so Strieber would not have to worry about public reaction! In fact it’s place in history is largely due to it having been famously released as non-fiction, which put Strieber in the hot seat for the rest of his writing career. Aside from this flub, and the steady mispronounciation of Strieber's name, the commentary is fairly entertaining for a single listen.
     In the initial ten minutes of the commentary William Birnes tells Mora how good the film is, and how much of an impact the film had on our culture. I think we know the impact the film of Communion had on our culture – no one went to see the film, and it dropped out of theatres, and later turned up on video. The bus stop posters that appeared in some locales – in Australia that a bus shelter poster campaign was used to promote the film – with alien faces and various tag lines that included “We Are Here” and “We Are Coming” probably did more to shake up the culture than the film itself. There are many experiencers whose stories begin with the line, “I was in a bookstore and I saw this face on the cover of Communion that really unnerved me…” When something turns up unexpectedly, then it has an impact. The film does nothing unexpected.
     I do want to mention that another really nice touch on what is essentially a perfect presentation of the theatrical version of Communion on this DVD, is that the packaging preserves the original movie poster artwork. The level of love that was put into this product is evident in every detail.

Does the old LaserDisc feature anything the DVD does not?

Can We Talk About This?

One should not throw away their old laserdisc just yet: The outtakes and bloopers on the DVD are narrated by Mora, and unlike the 1996 laserdisc, there is no way to shut off Mora's voice and listen to the natural sound. Unfortunately, this means that an amusing exchange between Christopher Walken and an actor playing a blue alien in the moments before Walken receives his anal probe can be seen but not heard! The DVD omits the sound and thus removes the humor. Another outtake exclusive to the laserdisc is another on-ship sequence in which the director reads random lines to Walken in an effort to get impromptu responses. Mora's gravelly, Australian voice asserting “We have a right to do this” is sorely missed on the DVD. However, if you do not know what you are missing, you may enjoy seeing, if not properly hearing, these outtakes.

GENRE Interview:
Vini Bancalari Of Elite Entertainment
An Interview with the Producer of the 2000 Special Collectors Edition DVD
by Mark A. Rivera of

Elite Entertainment is one of the premier distributors of Horror, Science Fiction, and Cult films on DVD today. Soon one of the most frightening feature films detailing the alleged alien or extraterrestrial abduction of writer Whitley Strieber based on his best selling book, Communion will be released on DVD as an anamorphic special edition. Genre is happy to host this first online interview with Vini Bancalari to discuss this highly anticipated special edition DVD release that also happens to be the first Elite Title to be released that is 16-by-9 enhanced for widescreen televisions.

Genre: Elite has published more horror pictures on DVD than science fiction. How did Elite Acquire the DVD Rights for Communion?

Vini Bancalari: Actually, this is a very interesting story. About a year ago, the film's director, Philippe Mora was mixing audio for an upcoming feature film. While sitting behind the mixing board with his audio engineer, they got to talking about horror films. Well, it turns out that the gentleman who was mixing was an Elite fan and started to tell Mr. Mora about our various "Special Edition" laserdiscs and DVDs. He suggested to Mr. Mora that he contact me so that we can talk about several of his films finding a home on DVD. Several days later I received an e-mail, which lead to a phone call, which led to a licensing deal and a friendship. Philippe is a great guy and it's been a pleasure working with him.

Genre: This is the first 16-by-9 DVD From Elite. Why did it take so long?

Bancalari: Well, I'm afraid there is no real reason. I guess I just wanted to be sure that it was the way to go. And after purchasing a 16X9 television, I was sure. The difference in quality is amazing. It's definitely the best way to view a picture. From now on all Elite DVDs will be enhanced for 16X9 (including Jack The Ripper, Mutant and House On Sorority Row). All I can say in ...sorry it took so long.

Genre: Can you tell me what your company's philosophy is about the DVD format and to genre films in general?

Bancalari: Well, Elite was originally born into the world of laserdiscs. Remember those? Seems like it's been ages since we were releasing LDs. Our philosophy was clear from day one: To give horror/sci-fi & cult films the treatment they rightfully deserved. No more dark muddy transfers. No more inaudible sound quality. These films are just as important as the big “studio” pictures, and we just thought it was time someone took a chance and paid some attention to these pictures. That philosophy hasn't really changed. Regarding DVDs, well this is by far the finest quality format ever introduced. I'm sure it's going to be here for a while, and hopefully we will too.

Genre: I found Communion frightening because of the famous scene where Whitley (Walken) sees the alien peeking at him from behind the door. Do you consider Communion to be more horror than science fiction even though Strieber claims the account is true?

Lindsay Crouse as Anne Strieber

Bancalari: Communion definitely has a touch of “horror” to it. How could it not? If you were in Whitley's shoes wouldn't you agree? I've always thought that the line between sci-fi and horror was very thin.

Genre: How were the supplements put together and are there any special surprises for fans to look forward to?

Bancalari: We're still in the process of finding more and more material. There's some great stuff! Hours and hours of outtakes, deleted scenes, on-set interviews and more. Philippe kept all of this material (thank God). At this time we are still screening this material and making our selections.

Christopher Walken as Whitley Strieber

Genre: Did you meet Mr. Walken or Mr. Strieber during the DVD production and did any of them express an emotion that would lead you to feel that Strieber himself definitely believes in what he has written?

Bancalari: No, unfortunately I haven't had the pleasure of meeting either gentlemen. However, we're waiting for Mr. Walken's answer about joining Philippe on the commentary track. Keep your fingers crossed. That would be a “killer” track. Don't you think?

Genre: Have you ever watched any Ufology shows like Sightings or Encounters and have you ever read Jaques Vallee or John Mack?

Bancalari: No, I haven't read any works from those authors but I have always been fascinated by “alien encounter” stories and films.

Genre: Do you believe there are extraterrestrial out there, somewhere?

Bancalari: Well, I would like to believe that. I guess it would be pretty smug of us to think that in the entire universe, we were the only intelligent life form. It's a pretty big place out there. What are the chances that were are the only beings that exist?

Genre: Do you find that Communion has an amazing spiritual subtext to it?

Bancalari: Personally, no I don't. But I am aware that there are a lot of people out there who do. It's an interesting concept.

Genre: Will Elite continue to add more sci-fi titles to their lineup in addition to horror?

Bancalari: Yes, we will. Look for many classic B&W sci-fi flicks later this year.

Genre: Are Elite and Anchor Bay related in any way?

Bancalari: No. Elite and Anchor Bay are simply two companies who have co-licensed some product for LD/DVD/VHS release.

Genre: How did you first start with Elite Entertainment with the Night Of The Living Dead Laserdisc and aside from the LD special edition of A Nightmare On Elm Street and the LD and DVD of Night of the Living Dead, why is there no THX certification on more Elite titles?

Bancalari: Well, I pretty much covered the first part of your question in my response to question number three. It was really to fill a void. Regarding THX certification, there really is no special reason why we haven't done more with them. It just hasn't come up. Also whatever friends we had there at THX aren't there anymore. Since they left, no one has ever thought to contact us to ask us the very same question you have.

Genre: Will Elite ever go into theatrical distribution or production of original films from Elite Entertainment?

Bancalari: It's always been part of our dream. We've come close a few times and we'll probably come even closer. Personally, I feel that it will happen someday. Over the years we've developed close relationships with many filmmakers. In fact, Frank LaLoggia, the writer/producer/director of Lady in White had asked me last year to join his board of advisors of his new company Bella Casa Productions. He's planning three big feature films over the coming years. I guess that technically means that we're in the production business now, in a way.

Genre: Does the company headquarters, away from LA, effect the acquisition and production of Elite DVD titles?

Bancalari: No, not in the least. We love it here in Maine. And for a company like Elite, can you thing of a better home than New England? If you have any doubt, just watch our DVD of Horror Hotel.

Genre: Is there anything you can say to the readers that I might have not asked that you would like to leave them with as a closing

Bancalari: A closing thought? Hmmmm. Well, I guess thanks would be in order. I'd like to thank all of the people who have taken a chance and purchased an Elite disc (LD or DVD). In a business made up of mega-corporations, it's very easy for the small guy to get stepped on and squashed. We've been very fortunate to have developed a huge following very quickly. In fact, over the years we've received many letters and e-mail from people telling us that even though they never heard of a particular film, because it was an Elite title they bought it and were very happy with the purchase. So I guess my closing thought would be simply, thank you. ~

The GENRE Interview: Vini Bancalari Of Elite Entertainment
© 2000 Mark A. Rivera
Reprinted by kind permission of GENRE