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Lifeforce - 1985

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Written by Dan O'Bannon & Don Jakoby
Based on a novel called "The Space Vampires" by Colin Wilson

Starring Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May
Patrick Stewart & Michael Gothard

On an alter in St Paul's Cathedral in London, Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) and an alien entity in human form (played by Mathilda May) copulate as paroxysms of blue-lighted energy - the "lifeforce" of many people, are beamed up into an ancient spacecraft. We're deep into Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, and by this time "crazy" has been the key word to describe what we've seen. I don't think you'd find a review of the film that doesn't use the word at least once. It was always destined to be a cult classic - there's no suspension of disbelief possible, but by lord there is much nudity, and all kinds of varied make-up effects and destruction. The theme is clearly sexual, and Hooper's decision to make his own version of a Hammer Horror production (he once mentioned Quatermass and the Pit, which has many parallels with this film) gave this production it's own distinct feel, not quite on par with your average 80s horror/sci-fi film. He now commanded a motion picture nearly three times the budget of Poltergeist - and had no Steven Spielberg to guide him. The results were spectacular, but did not lead to box office success.

Col. Tom Carlsen is commander on a space shuttle mission to Halley's Comet when an alien spacecraft is detected hidden in the comet's coma. They explore the interior, and amongst a number of desiccated alien corpses find three intact bodies - humanoid in physical appearance - encased in transparent containers. It's decided to take them on board the shuttle for examination. Some time later, the shuttle (named Churchill) is discovered by Earth-bound ground control - it has been abandoned. The three bodies are the only survivors of what appears to have been a fire - and they are brought to Earth. Once here, the female awakens, and begins draining the elemental "lifeforce" from people, who in turn need to drain that same lifeforce from others to survive. Carlsen is later found alive in an escape pod, and when the alien vampire escapes he teams up with Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth), Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) and Dr. Leonard Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) to hunt her down. Is this where the legend of vampires originated? If the intrepid group don't succeed, that won't matter, and it will mean the end of humanity as we know it.

Lifeforce is one of the four films that decided the fate of Cannon Films - owned by the infamous pair Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. The norm for Cannon was B-films, but Golan and Globus were anticipating stepping up into blockbuster territory and competition with all the larger studios in Hollywood. Along with Masters of the Universe, Over the Top, and especially Superman IV : The Quest For Peace, Lifeforce was budgeted accordingly, and in the end all of them failed to even meet their production costs at the box office. Tobe Hooper, after his string of successes which included The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist, was signed by Cannon to direct three films for them - all of his choosing, and all with creative freedom. When coupled with the fact that he'd be working with budgets he never would have dreamed of before this moment, Hooper must have been well pleased with this turn of events. Golan and Globus thought Lifeforce would compete with the big blockbusters of 1985 (the likes of Back to the Future, Rambo : First Blood Part II and Cocoon) so when the production fell behind they kept pouring more and more money into it.

No expense was spared, and thankfully that shows on the screen. John Dykstra, one of the wizards behind the groundbreaking special effects of the original Star Wars headed up an impressive effects team. He'd already won an Oscar for his Star Wars work, along with a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy. He'd been nominated for Star Trek : The Motion Picture, and in later years Stuart Little and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and win his second Oscar for Spider-Man 2. He made use of up-to-date laser technology and the various laser effects look fantastic, even today. Nick Maley created various animatronic puppets and prosthetic devices which depicted those who had their lifeforce sucked out of them, and all of these are also wonderful to watch and very well designed and operated. Maley created the animatronic creature you see at the end of the film - an alien vampire in true form which howls when stabbed below the heart. All in all, the effects side of Lifeforce were a huge success and have stood the test of time, being one of Lifeforce's big plusses. The fact that this and female nudity didn't turn into box office success illustrates to cynics that more is needed to make the general public happy.

The effects team paid tribute to veteran cinematographer Alan Hume, fresh from filming Return of the Jedi which must have made him stand out to the producers at Cannon. There's much complexity to his work lighting-wise, and spatially this is pretty much what you'd expect from the director of photography. It seems Hume had signed some kind of deal also, for he'd work on the likes of Supergirl and Runaway Train for Cannon. The only visual aspect which feels dated is the use of models which are filmed standing in for a London beset with explosive calamity and fire - obviously CGI would be used today, and while not perfect that does less to give itself away than models do (these models were stumbled on by the production, and not actually constructed for it.) Hume worked closely with John Dykstra, and was a big name in Britain, performing his photographic duties on James Bond films such as For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and A View to a Kill - another big name for the inexperienced Tobe Hooper to work with. He gets in a few artistically aligned shots on the space shuttle - making his mark and making things interesting. He probably had more time to set them up earlier into the production.

Design-wise, there's much to like as well. Tom Adams designed a spacecraft which obviously took a lot of inspiration from Alien and H.R. Giger - nearly too much inspiration, but just enough to not be thrown into the "complete rip-off" basket. He was instructed to make everything sexual (as Giger also did) and we ended up with a very phallic looking alien ship (something rather obscured by the way it's filmed.) The detail is ever so impressive (it was hand painted - by the same man who painted the alien skies in 1980 film Flash Gordon), but unfortunately, once again, is something drowned out by the film's effects and lighting. Production Designer John Graysmark was a two-time Oscar nominee when he came to work on the film (Young Winston (1972) and Ragtime (1981)) - he'd also worked on Flash Gordon. It all certainly impresses, but doesn't reach the heights of the great science fiction films like Alien or Arrival - it still has the feel of B-Movie inventions, with a bigger budget not providing artistic inspiration to go with it.

The film's score - thundering and echoing throughout as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, was composed and created by Henry Mancini. By this stage in his career he'd won an Oscar for "Moon River", and the score which we hear in Breakfast at Tiffany's along with "Days of Wine and Roses" in the film of the same name, and the score of Victor/Victoria. It was a strange choice for a Tobe Hooper sci-fi/horror film, but the bombastic, sci-fi adventure music has been praised by many - and I agree, it's not bad. I don't know if it really matches what we see on screen - it has more of a fantasy/adventure feel to it, and never really develops a hand-in-hand relationship with horror, which is obviously a part of Lifeforce. Later on, TriStar Pictures, which was distributing the film for U.S. markets, felt the same and tinkered with the film's score in places (using Michael Kamen), adding more of a horror bent to it. This post-production messing with a film never really works out well - and there was a lot of it with Lifeforce, making the original filmmaker's vision more blurry as more messing is done.

That brings us to the aspect of Lifeforce that's painful for film purists - the fact that Tobe Hooper's final cut of the film was taken by the distributor and executives - well after editor John Grover (a Bond film stalwart - being involved with the editing of Bond films from The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 to Licence to Kill in 1989) had finished his editing job and left the film. Tristar made a great number of changes, clumsily cutting and shifting scenes around to suit their aims. Tobe Hooper was of course aghast - and everyone who loves film should feel somewhat this way. Lifeforce has a great many issues that I'd put down to editing, and it's impossible to know for sure, but I have a feeling the messy aspects can be put down to this unsanctioned shuffling done to the film. The Space aspect was greatly reduced, and shifted around to get us to the vampire scenes on Earth in a shorter time span. Some performances were completely edited out of the film - and apparently one or two important scenes went missing. The film feels disjointed and uneven, and not everything makes perfect sense. Some of that, I'm sure, is on Hooper - but some is also on the people who made late changes to it.

I love certain aspects of Lifeforce, and I have a lot of admiration for it. Some scenes I enjoy to the hilt. Overall though, I don't think I could call it a "good" movie. It leaps around the place in a madcap fashion, like a story being told by someone very much under the influence. It can be tremendously silly, and now and then just plain dumb. It's uneven, and doesn't have an easy rhythm to it. That said, it's also often glorious, and revels in it's absurdity, pace and pedal-to-the-metal explosive force. It's a film full of enthusiasm, and a free creative expression writ large on the screen - with nothing held back. The acting is wooden at times, and Steve Railsback does not cover himself in glory - but Patrick Stewart arrives late and for around 20 minutes lights up the screen looking like he's the only guy completely buying into what Tobe Hooper is doing (tellingly, he's an actor who rates Hooper as one of his favourite directors.) Stewart's moment is fabulous. Then he melts and the oozing blood from himself and others turns into an apparition of the space girl. Moments like that in Lifeforce are completely normal.

Tobe Hooper didn't learn from Funhouse however, and he should have. His desire for perfection held the production back, slowed filming to a crawl and ended up costing the film some very important scenes which had to be abandoned. You feel it when you watch the film - it's not complete. He'd already been fired from productions for being slow, and cost Funhouse important scenes as well. Here, on Lifeforce, he did it again - costing Cannon more money, and at one stage halting the production altogether when funds ran out. Lifeforce could have been a lot better - and perhaps it could have performed better at the box office if Hooper had of controlled himself, and if the distributors had kept their hands off of it. In the end, he had himself a cult classic many years later - and I can see why. I have that same affection for it. Mathilda May's nudity provides one of the best representative instances of the perfect human body, the special effects look great and the camp aspect of the old Hammer Horror films is clearly detectable. It's lots of fun, enjoyably silly and never, ever boring.

Lifeforce seems to have walked a fine line, and at times seems to have been close to becoming a fiasco - but it's cult credentials are secure and it's a film I firmly like despite it's flaws. A big budget B-movie based on Colin Wilson novel "The Space Vampires" (which is what it was nearly called.) It would have felt more accurate to call this The Space Vampires - more in tune with it's off-the-wall, anything-goes mentality. It kept Tobe Hooper's perfect record intact up to 1985 - although he maintained that perfect record in one of the most uneven, see-sawing ways I've ever seen, with his record of being fired, adding loads of arthouse to his horror, and having Spielberg help him out and making no-budget experimental films like Texas Chain Saw. He had a keen eye for filmmaking though - and this was a talent that outshone many of his contemporaries. Rumours abound of unusable footage being filmed, drug addiction, mental breakdowns and the like - but he had a distinct eye for cinema, and his success thus far was no fluke. His eye, though, might sometimes take him places his audience wouldn't recognize or understand - and this clash led to an animosity between him and film executives, determined to keep audiences happy on a large scale. They wouldn't have been happy with "cult classic" - they wanted "blockbuster".