There are some films which are so messy, so chaotic, confused and deranged that is it just impossible to dislike them. It may be the ‘so bad it’s good’ factor or it may be that there is something in it, a touch of genius, a spark of creativity that is evident yet too illusive to put your finger on. It may also be because you know the creative team behind the film have masses of talent and you know they’ve seen something in the film that was worth making so your trust in them overrides any confusion you have whilst watching the movie. Whatever it is, one brilliant example of this is Tobe Hooper’s 1985 film Lifeforce.
I admit that the only reason I considered watching this is because of Hooper who, with Salem’s Lot, directed one of my favourite horror films from my childhood. This is the man who ripped expectations apart with the low budget 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the bigger budget 1982 film Poltergeist. When he died on August 26th 2017, the outpouring of love from the cinephile community was considerable and genuine. Like Wes Craven, Hooper was known as a kind hearted, likable man who scared us on the screen and shared our passion for cinema and life off screen.
Lifeforce was the first film to be made under a three picture deal Hooper had signed with Cannon Films and originally had Michael Winner attached to direct. He was given a budget of $25 million and full creative control by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two cousins whose low budget and fast management ethos had, by the mid-eighties, turned Cannon into the biggest independent film company in the world. For the director this was an opportunity he couldn’t miss out on and he set out to make a big budget Hammer style film.
Lifeforce starts with Colonel Tom Carlsen leading an expedition on the space shuttle Churchill as he and his crew approach Halley’s Comet. Hidden in the comet’s coma they discover what looks like an alien spaceship. They decide to search the mysterious ship and in it they find the remains of giant bat-like creatures and what appears to be three humans – one woman and two men. The humans are being kept inside what look like glass cases and they are transported back to the shuttle.
And then all contact with the Churchill is lost and a rescue mission is sent to intercept them. On board they find the crew are dead and a fire has destroyed any proof of what happened and why. The only things to have survived are the three alien/humans which are brought back to earth where the female wakes and is soon using her allure (and nakedness) to seduce men into dropping their guard, passionately kissing them and with each kiss she drains their energy – their lifeforce – before moving on to the next. The woman and her two companions are space vampires!
Based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, Lifeforce was written for the screen by Dan O’Bannon (of Alien fame) and Don Jacoby and it’s easy to wonder exactly what was going through their minds when they wrote it. It’s as if the writers (I have not read the book so I don’t know if it was the author or the screenwriters) had ideas for four or five different films and instead of writing four or five different screenplays, they decided it would be best to throw everything into this one story. We have space, vampires, giant bats, zombie-like creatures, panic on the streets of London, St Paul’s Cathedral being blown to smithereens and Patrick Stewart.
It’s completely understandable how many people would not take to it. It was an expensive movie costing approximately $25million but only grossed around $11 million at the box office and has been largely forgotten by the general public and media of today.
It’s fair to say that Lifeforce is a mess. It is a kaleidoscope of ideas and images, a very ‘80s-esque, overblown sci-fi actioner wrapped up as a very British horror story. But what Lifeforce also is is pure, unadulterated fun. From the first moments in space to the over the top ending I was hooked yet continually aware of the outrageousness of the film yet that did not matter. Lifeforce is a great ride.
The performances are very earnest and everyone is taking the whole thing very seriously, especially Steve Railsback as Col. Tom Carlsen, the only survivor of the Churchill who seems to have developed a psychic link with the vampire, and Peter Firth as Col. Colin Caine who is in charge of the operation to track down the naked threat.
The vampire herself is played by Mathilda May although her role seems to be confined to walking the streets of London and the countryside of England, breasts poised and with a slow controlled gait of someone who obviously isn’t human.
So, is Lifeforce really ‘so-bad-it’s-good’? No, this isn’t really the case. This is certainly not a film like Plan 9 From Outer Space, a film so inept that it’s entertaining. It was made by very talented people, not just the director and writer but the whole production crew. The music was composed by the great Henry Mancini with Michael Kamen adding some cues at the last minute for the US release and the special effects were supervised by John Dykstra who does a wonderful job in the pre-CGI era. The entertainment does not come from laughing at the film but going along with it for the ride. Yes, it’s chaotic and more than a little crazy but that’s all part of the fun of Lifeforce. Don’t go in expecting a deep meditation on life and death, go in expecting a thrilling ride through the craziest apocalypse you’re ever likely to see. Do that and you won’t be disappointed!
Film ‘89 Verdict – 7/10