Screenplay: Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby (with Michael Armstrong & Olaf Pooley)
Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May, Aubrey Morris
Length: 116 mins
Synopsis: A US-UK co-mission into space to investigate the passing Hailey's Comet, on the space shuttle Churchill, encounters an alien spaceship, bringing back on board three humanoids housed in crystal cases. They turn out to be space vampires, the beautiful female of the three (Mathilda May) awaking and escaping from a British space facility. It is up to Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) and the only surviving member of the Churchill Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), the later connected psychically to the female vampire, to prevent them at least decimating London.
I'm a Tobe Hooper fan. This means not only liking The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Poltergeist (1982) and Salem's Lot (1979), but willing to put up defences to other films or even admitting to liking them. The common conception is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre happened and after that everything went downhill, which is what a Hooper fan like myself will strongly disagree with. For starters, not only was there a film before as his debut Eggshells (1969), but there are a strong number of films, already mentioned, that stand out in his career. I won't disagree with the fact that, honestly, he suffered over the decades but I will defend a film like Spontaneous Combustion (1990), and even a film as bad as Crocodile (2000) is strangely watchable and certainly couldn't dismiss the quality of an older work like Eaten Alive (1977).
The three film deal with Cannon Films should've be the best moment in Tobe Hooper's career, when Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus gave him carte blanche for three movies, but I feel it's the moment where his career would be drastically affected from then on. Unfortunately while an exceptional sequel that gets better the more I watch it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) didn't do well because people were excepting the same as the first film and its graphic gore would've severely limited its potential audience. I've yet to see Invaders From Mars (1986) and the original fifties film, but Hooper's remake didn't succeed either. Finally there's Lifeforce, the most expensive Cannon Films production and not a box office success either. It was a film with a hellish production history including going over budget and having a shorter US theatrical cut said to be incomprehensible. Viewing this film for the first time, in its longer International cut, it had been built up with a reputation good and bad of a bizarre folly.
The result is a b-movie sci-fi flick, literally a sexed up Quatermass, set in contemporary Britain including very notorious amounts of nudity from Mathilda May and gore. The b-movie is capable of rich material, but the stereotype is that of a movie which is lean in the content around the plot, minimal in anything barring the essentials like thrills, and hopefully has charm, charisma and maybe excellent technical virtues. Lifeforce is definitely one of those sort of films, not a philosophical work though analogies can be suggested. "Pulp" is apt, and as well as updating films like The Day That Stood Still (1951) into a lurid interpretation, it also possesses undeniably opulent production design and special effects. If there's a potential issue with this film's story, it's not the danger of incomprehensibility but when it confuses its sense of scale. A large middle portion of its length is the hunt for the female vampire but, to limit the spoilers immensely, this becomes a red herring and, rather than an Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), it becomes an elaborate disaster film in the ending.
If Lifeforce shows off anything, its pride as a British film viewer at the work of countless special effect and production designers, though when you have people who worked on the likes of James Bond films to Star Wars, that's not a surprise. Adding to this is optical effects from the best of the USA, hired during the protracted production shoot, adding a further and peculiar air to Lifeforce. A great deal of why Lifeforce is able to work is because of this production design, filling out and adding character to the story. When the astronauts of space shuttle Churchill enter the alien spaceship, its actors are in accurate spacesuits floating on wires, travelling through a complex full scale set with bat humanoid husks dangling in mid-air in an environment designed by someone with a fixation on anatomy diagrams. When the vampires take action, sucking the literal life-force rather than blood physical substances, you get into a zombie subplot where animatronic dread husks that still look great today try to suck the life-force from a bystander in a vicious continuous cycle like a chain letter.
When the film becomes more of an end of the world scenario, it becomes more of a standard zombie breakout with a lot more exploding double decker buses. But there is still a consistency in production even if the film has skipped through various forms of sci-fi. The biggest advantage to this, not just the incredible craft and hard work, is that they add further personality rather than merely completing scenes left. In this case the spectacle not only stands out whether one feels Lifeforce has any worth or not, but despite the confusion it does keep a consistent tone for the film. It's a very physical narrative. Alongside a lot of nudity and explicit sexuality, there's also a level of the corporal and kink that you don't see a lot in other science fiction the production emphasises. It's apt the alien spaceship looks like a H.R. Gigar designed dildo with an umbrella at the end. The crystal cases the space vampires sleep in are as sleek and alluring as the figures sleeping in them. The optical for the sucked out life-force adds a great deal of colour and the ethereal to the content, and even something as gruesome as a vampire reforming from a victim's blood has a sensuality and a surrealness not just from the actress involving in the scene.
The cast adds gravitas that also helps immensely. While Steve Railsback is good for a shell shocked lead, and Mathilda May shows bravery in willing to walk around sets completely naked, the real weight, not just a bias of mine for fellow countrymen, is from the British character actors. The decision to set the film in Britain stands out, a different tone in the British stiff upper lip and quirks adding to the content, Hooper's desire to make a "70mm Hammer" movie paying off. I admit to being very cold many times to my country's genre output but I could never dismiss the quality of the acting. Aubrey Morris as Sir Percy Heseltine who tags along being unnerved by what he witnesses. Frank Finlay as the main scientist trying to find a preventative cause against the vampires. Patrick Stewart in a memorable role in one of the oddest scenes which included his first onscreen kiss, the least expected you could have in cinema. While Steve Railsback has a significant role as a person haunted in his dreams by an alluring female vampire, its Peter Firth whose the lead, the tough no-nonsense SAS officer who yet, because of the actor, does show moments of horror and disbelief even if he gets the job done. As much as one would wish for the alternative version of this film with Klaus Kinski in Frank Finlay's role, credibility to the film is mostly from the cast, able to make the more absurd plot narration and dialogue have tangibility to it.
Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic; Pulp
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
One of the best aspects of Tobe Hooper's films is their delirious tones. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is as much iconic from its soundtrack and pace as well as for Leatherface, while the sequel's change to comedy managed to amplify the content further. Films that would've been muted in tone depending on who directed them have a manic tone that is his trademark. The Funhouse (1981) ramping up its tone by its end, Eaten Alive with sets and bold coloured lighting Hooper was forced with when on-location shooting was impossible, even a film like The Mangler (1995) with its expressionist tone and Robert Englund's maniacal performance. This is why I've never believed in the theory Steven Spielberg directed Poltergeist, because while moments do show the fact he helped in the production, the intensity of certain scenes is far from Spielberg even at his most ghoulish. Lifeforce in hindsight to this should be as heightened in tone, especially with its reputation and what the narrative is about.
It's disappointing to say, for its virtues, Lifeforce is one of the least delirious films in his CV despite its reputation. It's likely the US cut cemented that reputation, the film very much a straightforward sci-fi narrative. Hooper usually has a heightened, exaggerated tone to his work that's not present here. The Quatermass reference is apt because, while the plot ideas are elaborate and the ending is fitting a Cannon Films production, the film is methodically paced and avoids very off-kilter ideas. Moments undoubtedly show Hooper's trademark, such as the exorcism of Patrick Stewart, but for most of the film's length it's pulp updated for a more mature audience.
But that doesn't stop me from enjoying the film. It's a romp that, despite its production history and tonal shifts, never deteriorates in structure. Any sense of real disappointment is more in my preference in lesser known films like The Funhouse. The strength of the production, one of the few times where I see it as a huge virtue, unlike where even an Indiana Jones film can leave me cold, really helped protect Lifeforce from the problems that were taking place in plotting. And I can't help, relishing flag waving for once, but feel pride that this was definitely a British production as well as an American one.