Lifeforce is one of the most notorious films of the 1980s – a huge budget spectacle that was critically derided and has since become something of a byword for the excesses of Cannon Films, director Tobe Hooper and possibly the whole decade.
Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel Space Vampires was a curious mix of Lovecraftian horror and metaphysical science fiction literature, the somewhat trashy title perhaps a knowing nod towards the pulp horror of the era. Wilson had written the book in response to a challenge from August Derleth to write a Lovecraftian novel after Wilson had criticised H.P. Lovecraft, and it was perhaps ironic that it became a bigger seller than most of the prolific Wilson’s work.
It was quickly opted by Cannon Films for filming and went through several years of pre-productions, at once time being slated for a 1980 release to be directed, with a $10 million budget, by special-effects expert Zoran Perisic, who was then fresh from Superman – The Movie, and keen to get into directing. The project would stumble on, never quite off the production slate but also never really getting anywhere for the next couple of years – at one point, Dino De Laurentiis and Michael Winner tried unsuccessfully to buy the rights from Cannon. Eventually, in 1984, a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby – then fresh from Dead and Buried, while O’Bannon was still hot from Alien – and was greenlit, and the project was handed to Tobe Hooper, the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Hooper’s career was, in theory at least, very much on the up at the time. He was fresh from directing Poltergeist, which had been a huge box office hit. But even before it was released, stories were flying around suggesting that Hooper had rather less to do with that film than producer Steven Spielberg, and the finished movie – very much in the Spielberg style and showing precious little of Hooper’s touches – did little to dispel the rumours, and in the years since, it has become painfully apparent that Hooper was, at best, a technical director while Spielberg was in charge of the creative vision. Any benefit that he might have had from being involved in such a major success was invariably tainted by the stories that little of the film’s impact was down to him.
And Hooper had already begun to get a reputation for being a touch unreliable – he had left the film Venom in 1980 under mysterious circumstances and in 1984, he also left Return of the Living Dead, a project he was scheduled to shoot in 3D (which Lifeforce writer O’Bannon then took over – all very incestuous!). Still, he was a big enough name for Cannon to sign him to a three picture deal that at one time would have seen him making a Spider-man movie, but eventually included a Chainsaw sequel, a remake of Invaders from Mars and this movie, which had evolved into a $25 million spectacular, retitled in an attempt to make it seem a bit classier than a film called Space Vampires might be seen as being (there had also been a wonderfully trashy 1980 episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century called Space Vampires, which the producers may or may not have been aware of).
The Cannon films would be the final hurrah for Hooper’s career as a major director – the failure of all three at the box office and with critics would ensure that his future work was increasingly low-budget and forgettable. And the scurrilous rumours that have long floated around about Lifeforce‘s production – that Hooper was too coked out and paranoid to even make it to set on several days (officially, his ‘excitable’ state has been blamed on “too much caffeine”, which is an interesting euphemism), that the film was shot piecemeal by whichever of his movie director friends were around for the day – probably didn’t help his situation. While those involved in the production have been reasonably discrete about what really happened – at least on the record – stories of Hooper’s excessive cocaine use and the effect it had on his work (Poltergeist star Zelda Rubenstein pretty much stated that he was incapable of working on much of that film due to intoxication) did not help his long-term career or reputation. Whatever the truth, with a screenplay that was still being written as the film was shot, it would seem that Lifeforce demanded a director with steady hand to keep things under control, and it seems fair to say that Hooper wasn’t that man.
Shooting took place in the UK, at Elstree studios, at the start of 1984. It had special effects from John Dykstra, who had been the main FX man behind Star Wars, music by Henry Mancini, and some of the best technicians in the country working on it. Not to mention a screenplay and direct by two of the (theoretically) hottest names in horror and science fiction at the time in Hooper and O’Bannon. There is no suggestion that the film was supposed to be anything other than a huge, blockbusting epic – even though it contained extensive nudity, ensuring that it couldn’t achieve the PG rating that helped propel summer blockbusters of the era (and, indeed, today), there was every expectation that Lifeforce could at least be as big as Alien. But on release, the film was savaged by the critics and only made back half the original budget. It quickly became a byword for trashy excess – a film that was deadly serious but seemed high camp – a mad folly by producers that had no taste (the Cannon team of Golan and Globus were widely mocked as Philistines throughout their career, often more out of thinly veiled racism and elitism than anything else) and a director who was out of his depth and probably off his face.
But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the critics of Lifeforce are wrong. Okay, let me rephrase that. They are, on the surface, correct. But as with Showgirls, it seems that they are just looking for the wrong thing and taking the film at face value. I have no idea how much anyone involved in Lifeforce quite knew about how deliciously kitsch the film would become – and I can’t, in all good faith, say that I think it is a film that is particularly knowing – but the fact is that as pure entertainment, this delivers the goods with aplomb.
It’s not, of course, a ‘good’ film in any conventional way of making that judgement – but it is so outrageously trashy, deliriously silly and relentlessly entertaining that it’s impossible to resist. If we assume that the main – in fact, only – point of a movie like this is to entertain, then Lifeforce is a triumph – one of the highlights of the decade, a gloriously deranged and perfectly ludicrous effort that is very much in the grand tradition of British horror, just cranked up to 11.
The film starts out at least vaguely following Wilson’s story, though it is already taking liberties – the novel is set in the late 21st century, while the film has a contemporary setting. When the British / American team aboard the space shuttle Churchill stumble upon a massive alien spacecraft hiding in the tail of Halley’s Comet, the discovery sets in motion of series of apocalyptic events. Finding three naked humanoids amongst the desiccated bat creatures that fill the ship, the team take their discovery back onto the shuttle. But the humanoids are not dead, as they soon discover.
These opening scenes are remarkable, especially in the extended international cut that is the one you should all be watching. No matter what else you say about the film, there’s no denying how spectacular these moments are, the vast space ship interiors outdoing anything Giger might come up with and Mancini’s epic score giving a real sense of hugeness to the film. It’s one of the most visually arresting moments you’ll ever see. But within this, there are signs that the film will be entertaining for other reasons, with some remarkably clunky dialogue and a bizarre performance by Steve Railsback.
Cut to some time later, and the Churchill is adrift in space. A rescue shuttle is set up and find the ship burnt out, the crew missing or dead. Recovering the humanoids – still encased in class tombs – they bring them back to London, where they suddenly revive – the female creature (Mathilda May) sucking the life force out of one man before breaking out of the institution they are being held in.
This is where Lifeforce becomes a work of genius. There’s a heady combination of spectacle, high camp and a curious, parochial, authentic Britishness given the American writers and director. Matilda May is, of course, astonishing. The scene where she first sits up, naked, is the sort of thing to cause a collective intake of breath from audiences, male or female, straight or gay. It was often joked that she was the film’s best special effect, and her astonishing physical perfection is something to behold. Yet interestingly, the film rarely treats her as a sexual object – she might spend most of the film naked, but her cold, expressionless manner and the matter-of-fact way the scenes are shot, neither emphasising or coyly hiding the nudity, essentially de-sexualise her.
As the aliens cause increasing havoc, spreading their vampiric infection from person to person, SAS Colonel Caine (Colin Firth) and Dr Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) try to track her down, with the assistance of Colonel Tom Carlsen (Railsback), the sole survivor of the Churchill who’s escape shuttle has brought him back to Earth and who seems to have a strange psychic connection to the space girl. For reasons that are never fully explained, she can move her spirit from body to body while her physical form remains hidden, and this sees her moves from a ginger nurse to lunatic asylum head Dr Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), as London soon becomes overrun by zombie-like creatures. With martial law declared and a NATO plan to nuke the city if the infection can’t be contained, it’s down to Carlsen and Caine to find the girl – though Carlsen’s connection to her makes him as much her slave as her potential Van Helsing.
Lifeforce cheerfully lifts both plot points and atmosphere from classic British horror – it feels like a multi-million dollar Hammer film and clearly references Quatermass movies, most significantly Quatermass and the Pit, which has a similar – if considerably less spectacular – apocalyptic finale. As noted earlier, the sheer Britishness of the film is remarkable – aside from the presence of Railsback (who is missing for half the film anyway), there are no concessions made for an American audience and the dialogue, characters and references are so specifically British that you can only marvel at it.
And for all the special effects extravagance – and there’s a lot of that – this is, in the end, pure trash on a grand scale. Every genuinely impressive moment is undermined by something so terrible that you can only marvel at what is happening. The dialogue – and, just as importantly the way it is delivered – is frequently jaw-droppingly nonsensical. And the lead performances, Mathilda May aside, are pretty awful – Finlay chews the scenery wildly, while Firth is determinedly straight-faced but completely unconvincing as a tough guy and Railsback still seems to channelling his Charles Manson role from Helter Skelter a decade earlier. But there’s great support from familiar names and faces – Aubrey Morris, Michael Gothard, Nicholas Ball and John Hallam among them, who all bring the film another tangible connection to the British horrors of previous decades.
It’s perhaps understandable that the cast often look confused, though. Plot wise, the film has enough holes to drive the alien spaceship through. It feels as though entire plot points are missing (at one point, London is in chaos and has been under martial law for hours, yet the first our heroes hear of it is on the news as they fly into the city from a few miles away) and much of the story seems to have been made up as it goes along. Wilson’s book is increasingly jettisoned (he understandably hated the final film, stating in his autobiography “John Fowles once told me that the film The Magus (made from his highly successful novel) was the worst movie ever made, but after seeing Lifeforce, I sent him a postcard, telling him I had done him one better.”) as the movie instead stumbles from one moment of spectacle to another, with little sense of coherence.
Yet somehow, the film transcends all its many failings to be hugely entertaining. Perhaps it’s because it’s so fast-moving that you never pause to think about the incongruities; certainly, it’s because the unintentionally high camp nature of the film makes it hilarious and fun. There are moments of genuine greatness – the afore-mentioned opening scenes, the final revelation of the bat creature, the sheer epic scale of destruction – and moments that are terribly, endearingly shoddy… even in 1985, the prosthetics were a bit crap, frankly (the dummy head used for Patrick Stewart during an otherwise astonishing, surreal and bloody moment is dismal, the animatronic revived corpses far too puppet like).
But it all comes together in a film that positively demands your attention and defies you not to be thoroughly entertained. I’m unashamed to say that I love this movie, both the good and the bad, and all the points that manage to be both simultaneously. Thankfully, the film has started to be recognised as the thoroughly entertaining, entirely fantastic and marvellously overblown mad folly that it is – and at least Hooper got to see it somewhat rehabilitated in his lifetime. I just wish it had been released as Space Vampires, a catchpenny title that seems to be perfect for such an overblown, grandiose, trashy and ludicrous movie.