Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens
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
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,
For a time, Shirley has followers – the
members of the teen gang with which she knocks around (this is the 1950s, after
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
After the aliens leave earth, seeing
nothing but the prospect of repeated failure in their attempts to communicate
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
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)