Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens

(Jim Sharman, Australia, 1972)


The fantastique genre, in all its forms – fantasy, horror, fairy tale – often hinges on a question of hesitation, as literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov described it: is the explanation of strange events to be rational or supernatural?


A different but related sort of psychological and interpretive hesitation is employed in Jim Sharman’s Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens. Here it is a question of madness: is the story of Shirley (Jane Harders), told in flashback to two psychiatrists in the
mental institution where she is being kept, the outpourings of a hallucinating mind? Or was she given a mission by aliens who
were stationed within Luna Park??

The film deliberately takes a ludicrous situation, never far from total self-parody, in order to turn the fantasy genre into an elegant game. (Intriguingly, co-writer and prominent theatre director Helmut Bakaitis went on to appear, three decades later,
as the malign Architect in the second and third Matrix films.) Structurally, however, it is still a conventional fantastic tale, because it puts the filmgoer in the position of having to decide between these two explanations.

For a time, Shirley has followers – the members of the teen gang with which she knocks around (this is the 1950s, after all) –
but there are no witnesses to her contact with the aliens. Consequently, no one can verify that what she describes actually happened. Similarly, the aliens speak through Prince Philip (!) at a sporting event to warn earthlings of the danger of total annihilation if they pursue the path of war – but who listens to official speeches? Likewise, the aliens’ radio broadcasts are thought by everybody to be another Orson Welles War of the Worlds-type joke.

The psychiatrists rationally describe Shirley’s condition in terms of “trauma leading to schizophrenia” (in anticipation of many horror movies to come!); and her family life, repre­sented in the form of the most grotesque caricatures (a forecast of much Australian cinema in the ‘80s and ‘90s), is enough to make us accept that diagnosis. In Shirley’s words, suburbia has sent her
“up shit creek”.

After the aliens leave earth, seeing nothing but the prospect of repeated failure in their attempts to communicate with the
world, Shirley falls back into the cycle of a dull marriage to the nice boy her mother has picked for her. It is not a great
distance from there into madness – a flight from an intolerable reality. Here we see the creative possibility of fantasy cinema
to move between the levels of strict plot (hesitations included) and larger metaphor: aliens or alienation, take your pick.

The final scene condenses the film’s treatment of its fantastique themes and ideas. Strapped to a bed and treated with injections, Shirley imagines herself spinning in a delirious ecstasy; this is echoed by Jeannie Lewis’ memorable song, “Fly Like a Bird”, on the soundtrack. Shirley is again experiencing a glimpse of the “power of pure thought” that the aliens have promised.


But the same image then changes its tone, and is re-signified as tension, entrapment, futility. The music builds to a screaming effect, as the camera watches Shirley spinning from above. Perhaps she is just mad, after all; or the uncomprehending world that refuses to see the truth of her story has finally succeeded in destroying her. This ambiguity and the response it elicits – again straddling the divide between the fiction and its metaphor – mark the extraordinary, expressive power of the scene.


Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens is a fascinating glimpse into the early, formative period of the remarkable career in theatre
and film of Jim Sharman (born 1945) – 8 years after his first stage productions, and just before the Rocky Horror Show bandwagon (on stage and screen) took him to a whole other, international level of cult fame-by-association. In the ‘70s period containing Shirley Thompson, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the little-seen Summer of Secrets (1976) and The Night, the Prowler (1978), Sharman appeared to be among the most significant directors in Australian cinema – bringing along with him a talented entourage of friends including actors (Kate Fitzpatrick, Nell Campbell), writers (Patrick White, Stephen Sewell) and other bright creatives.


However, the curious Rocky Horror spin-off, Shock Treatment (1981) – which caught the attention and critical imagination of Raymond Durgnat – was to be Sharman’s last incursion into feature film production. Sadly, synoptic accounts of Australian film history, written decades later, have tended to somewhat overlook his immense contribution and significance. Insight into Sharman’s life and artistic trajectory can, however, be found in his candid 2008 autobiography, Blood and Tinsel (Melbourne University Press).

© Adrian Martin December 1979 (+ 2020 update)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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