AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 116 mins/101 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The crew of the space shuttle Churchill find a 150-mile-long spaceship hidden in the coma of Halley’s Comet, and inside it hundreds of dead, shrivelled bat-like creatures and three naked humanoid bodies [two male and one female] in suspended animation which they begin to take to Earth. However, mission control loses contact with Churchill and a rescue mission is launched to investigate which finds that Churchill crashed and was severely damaged by fire, yet the three containers bearing the aliens remain intact. At the European Space Research Centre in London, the female alien awakens and escapes the facility and proceeds to drain various other humans of their life force….
Just after this movie came out, writer Colin Wilson was told by that John Fowles that he regarded the film adaptation of his novel The Magus as the worst film adaptation of a novel ever. Wilson replied to Fowles there was now a worse one, the film adaptation of his own Space Vampires, retitled Lifeforce. I can’t say that I’ve read Space Vampires, though I probably ought to. I really really like Lifeforce, you see, it’s almost the definition of a guilty pleasure to me. In some ways it can be considered to be a bad movie – for a start its quite incoherent in places – but it’s full of imagination, originality and fun and puts a really unusual spin on the whole idea of vampires. It might be pretty bonkers, yet also works as a kind of 1980’s version of a Quatermass movie [in fact Quatermass And The Pit was an obvious inspiration]. Of course seeing it as a teenager meant that it was the fact that a certain Mathilda May spent the entire film naked as she went around sucking the life out of hapless men which made the greatest impression on me. Even to these older eyes now, she really is a thing of beauty, yet in actual fact she’s only in the film for about 15 minutes. While I used to watch Lifeforce quite often, it had actually been about ten years since I’d seen it prior to buying it on Blu-ray [yes, I also own it on DVD but this is Lifeforce we’re talking about so I had to get it on Blu-ray if I was going to review it] and viewing it again, and I had the feeling that watching it with more critical eyes would cause the film to not hold up very well – but after a while I realised that this wasn’t going to be the case.
Lifeforce was the first film in Hooper’s three picture deal with Cannon that also included The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Two and the remake of Invaders From Mars. Although Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby are credited with the screenplay, it has been alleged that their script was ditched before production, and that the filmed script was written by Olaf Pooley and Michael Armstrong. Hooper came up with the idea of using Halley’s Comet in the screenplay, rather than the asteroid belt, as originally used in the novel, as the comet was going to pass by Earth one year following the film’s release. Cannon tried to get Anthony Hopkins and then Terence Stamp to play Col. Colin Caine, but to no avail. Olivia Hussey left the film because she mistakenly thought that she was playing the role of the Space Girl – which required too much nudity. She was then replaced by Nancy Paul. Production went over schedule and over budget and was almost shut down, while some scenes were never even filmed. Hooper himself has been reported to be high on cocaine by some during the shoot. The original cut ran 128 mins, but much of the Churchill section was cut or moved to later in the film. The US version was further shortened from 116 mins to 101 mins, removing much dialogue but also cutting down many ‘love’ scenes with the female vampire, and also replacing parts of the original score by Henry Mancini with music by Michael Kamen. All this effort to try to create a more commerical product was to no avail – Lifeforce was a huge flop and some say signalled the beginning of the end of Cannon’s fortunes.
The first thing that impressed me was the special effects by John Dykstra as the Churchill, shaped like an antichoke, heads through space towards Halley’s Comet. They easily bear comparison with the better regarded films of the era that depict similar scenes, though I don’t know why the comet seems to be green. Perhaps it’s green because of the other spaceship, though a line or two explaining this might have been beneficial. Then again this is Lifeforce. We get some hugely impressive set design as the astronauts, led by Col. Tom Carlsen, enter a coffin-shaped door and float through what one of their number described as a giant artery into the main part of the spaceship which looks rather H. R. Giger-ish without actually copying him. There are haunting shots of dead bat-like creatures everywhere and a room containing hundreds of containers. The astronauts decide to move three particular containers containing two men and one woman to Earth, but now we cut to the ship which has been sent to find them and bring them back. Back on Earth, one man makes the mistake of entering the chamber containing the woman and she awakes to drain his life force out and escape to find more willing male victims. It’s worth saying right here that this film seems to take the idea of the male fear of female sexuality to extremes, but it’s so over the top that it’s hard to take this seriously. And it’s nice that this vampire doesn’t drain blood for a change.
There’s a fair bit of exposition in this film as our good guys try to work out what’s going on, and it’s possible that the shorter US version flows better though I’ve never seen it, but I love watching actors of the calibre of Peter Firth, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart in films like this, especially when they’re required to deliver silly line after silly line but do so without any hint of condescension to the material. It soon becomes apparent that Earth is being threatened by none other than alien vampires from space who inspired the vampires of legend. There’s a bit of confusion in places. A good example of this is that we seem to be told that the vampires have no real form and create their human form from the minds of victims [the female vampire becoming the feminine ideal that existed in the thoughts of Carlsen, which is a very nice idea]. This explains why the female vampire hops about from person to person, yet we saw all those dead bats at the beginning and at the end one of the male vampires dies but not before showing his true from as a [very impressive looking] giant vampiric monster. It becomes absurdly convenient that Carlsen has a psychic link to the girl who is “the most overwhelmingly feminine presence” as it becomes of great help. There’s also some material which just seems random, like when a woman posessed by the vampire is masochistic [really bizarre moment, this], or when Stewart’s Dr. Armstrong emits loads of blood from his head and it forms an image of the girl. But by this time I would think that most new viewers are settled into the world of Lifeforce and would treat such an event as almost normal. They may not even be bothered by at least one major incident taking place off screen – Finley’s Dr. Frank Fallada killing a male vampire, probably because it was one of the scenes they never got around to shooting. Eventually the whole of London is beset with zombie-like vampires [the girl vampire eventually realises that it’s better if she only sucks some of the life force out of people because then her victims aren’t so weak and hideous], buildings catching fire, and the souls of victims being carried up into space!
The bodies with all the life drained out of them look suitably horrid and the scene where one of them comes back to life creates a real jolt as well as some pity for the victim who is still some kind of person [he even seems to cry] and just wants to live. Of course you can tell that it’s a mechanical effect, but us oldies think that much of the CGI you get in modern films is just as or more obvious. There are a few too many shots of unconvincing whispery stuff streaming around, but in general this is a pretty good showcase for special effects circa 1985. And also, if you think about it, there’s a rather unusual, somewhat existential and strangely beautiful love story at its core, with the two lead characters obviously going to be reborn again and together. And, while the general approach is serious, the whole thing also seems to have a slight slyness about it. It knows it’s ridiculous, and sometimes can’t risk producing lines like “Colonel, take it from the beginning. Assume we know nothing… which is understating the matter”, but bravely refuses to turn it into a spoof.
Hooper gives us some interesting directorial flourishes in this movie, though we can probably credit cinematographer Alan Hume more for things like the several usage of Dutch angles and the love scene shot through what looks like a fish-eye lens and its striking red lighting. Steve Railsback is his familiar self: entertaining to watch, but a little unhinged. Firth is nicely calm while the usually dignified Stewart is given the oppurtunity to really go for broke in his small part which contains some of the movie’s nuttier scenes. And May, despite apparently nearly freezing to death, finds just the right tone to play the vampire. You almost feel sorry for her and she moves with almost balletic grace. Compare her, for example, to the decidedly weaker Natasha Henstridge in the first two Species films. A fine, complex score by Henry Mancini, proving, as he every now and again did, that there was a different side to his musical personality then just the writer of lovely pop tunes, is another impressive addition and it adds a hell of a lot of gravitas. A great deal of effort was obviously put into many aspects of the movie. Yes, I still found bits of it rather nonsensical and I would say that it would have benefitted from being longer to explore and clarify certain things. But I still enjoyed Lifeforce as much as I first did – it’s eccentric, inventive and an absolute hoot. I guess some may consider my star rating to be too high – but if I was to score the film on sheer entertainment value and nothing else then I’d rate it even higher.