It's October 1985 and New York novelist Whitley Strieber (Christopher Walken) is having trouble with his word processor. Later that day, his friends come over to pick up Whitley, his wife Anne (Lindsay Crouse) and their young son before they travel to Strieber's house in the country, but the smoke alarm goes off as Whitley tries to cook them dinner. Thinking little of this, the group reach the cabin by evening and settle in for the night. However, they are all disturbed in their sleep by a bright light outside, which for some reason they ignore. The next morning, Whitley's friends want to go home, because something wrong is happening, which Whitley is only waking up to...
Ah, remember Communion? With the space alien's head on the cover? It was an eighties bestseller, a purportedly true story of ordinary Americans having their lives interrupted by otherworldly beings, and this film, also written by Strieber, was a considerably less successful adaptation of the book. When the Striebers go back to the cabin for Christmas, what occurred in October happens again, and the paranoid Whitley nearly blows his wife's head off with a shotgun while chasing phantoms around the place. Anne therefore decides he should visit a psychiatrist, Janet Duffy (Frances Sternhagen).
The film is at pains to show that the Striebers are deliriously happy in each other's company, with an extremely eccentric performance by Walken portraying Whitley as almost pathologically cheerful. Coming from an already spooky actor like Walken, seeing him spooked himself is a strange experience, and he acts more like an extraterrestrial than the awkward puppets and little people in suits that show up in his hallucinations.
But are they hallucinations? That's what the film endeavours to answer, setting the narrative up as a detective story, with an "I'm just as sceptical as you are!" main character. It's true that many people have had dreamlike waking experiences at night, whether it be sleep paralysis or the "Night Hag" vision, where an apparition such as an old woman or a cowled monk will appear to terrorise a frozen-to-the-bed victim. And it's also true that a variation on this is the alien-like creatures, usually spindly, large headed folk who turn up uninvited in your bedroom. But Communion wants us to believe there is an intelligence behind these hallucinations.
Not only that, but these aliens carry out experiments on their victims such as - brace yourselves - the rectal probe that Whitley endures here ("I'll kill you!"). It's not much of a Christmas present, is it? If I was Whitley I'd have left that bit out of the book, but here it adds to the straight-faced ridiculousness of the story, which has him have a kind of revelation about existence and the shifting reality he now lives in. This point of view is assisted by Janet's hypnosis sessions and group therapy, which doesn't really do much to help, as far as I could see.
In the end, the film can't make up its mind between the psychological explanation or the quasi-mystical one, despite the thin surface of reality becoming fragile when Whitley sees a teddy bear with huge eyes or Janet's collection of tribal artworks. Pretentious, weird and oddly hypnotic in its deliberately paced way, Communion has its share of striking scenes (the little robot man who flies across the bedroom in a Deep Red style, for example), but it offers no reasons why we should take it any more seriously than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Music by Allan Zavod, with a mournful theme by Eric Clapton.