I am going to make a controversial statement, and it is one that I rarely make because every slightly off-the-beaten path movie gets slapped with this moniker. However, I will come right out and say that Lifeforce is the one movie out of the 1980s that has been denied its place as one of that decade's classic science fiction films. It is, to use the cliché, an underrate sci-fi gem which was treated horribly by the studio, by critics and, as a result, by audiences, much like its director was.
Tobe Hooper had his first big hit with his second feature film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in 1974. It eventually became a major hit, earning quite a bit of a profit on its low budget and becoming a horror classic. Despite that Hooper's career pretty much went up and down; his next movie, Eaten Alive, was another horror film, and although it has its own cult following these days it didn't have the same appeal as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The latter movie's popularity was still enough that CBS hired him to direct their big-budget adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, which earned him some critical recognition. He released another low-budget horror film, The Funhouse, before getting his big break: Poltergeist.
This is also when things started to go wrong. Poltergeist was produced by Stephen Spielberg, and was filmed at the same time as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. In fact, both movies were being filmed just a short drive away from each other, so much that Steven Spielberg was almost always on the set of Poltergeist. Unfortunately, this led to rumors that Spielberg secretly directed the movie - something he was forbidden from doing at the time - and that Tobe Hooper largely sat back doing little to nothing. Despite a number of actors and eyewitnesses contradicting this rumor, it eventually went to litigation and persists to this day. In the end it undermined what should have been major mainstream breakthrough for the Texas-born director.
Controversy on who directed it aside, Poltergeist was a huge hit, as was everything Spielberg was producing or directing in the early 1980s, and having his name on such a big movie got Hooper the attention of Cannon Pictures. Cannon, owned by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, often churned out b-movies of varying quality, and spent a good amount of its existence teetering on the edge of insolvency. They saw in Hooper a way to break out of that cycle, and signed him to a three-movie deal. The first out of the gate was a movie, written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby and based on Colins Wilson's novel The Space Vampires. Originally retaining the name of the novel, Golan and Globus were afraid it would be perceived as another of their b-movies and renamed it Lifeforce.
At an unknown point in the future the space shuttle Churchill is sent to do a scientific study of Halley's Comet during one of its returns. In its tail they find something unexpected - a 150-mile long ship filled with the bodies of bat-like aliens, with three seemingly human figures preserved in cases. 30 days after losing contact with the shuttle, it returns to Earth orbit, with all the crew apparently dead after a fire, with only the three cases remaining and an escape pod missing.
The cases are brought to the Space Research Center in London, under the care of Dr. Bukovsky (Michael Gothard). The female alien (Mathilda May) awakes, completely drains the guard in her chamber before partially feeding on Bukovsky, and escapes. This results in the involvement of the Special Air Service, who send Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) to investigate. A colleague of Bukovsky's, Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay), proposes that the behavior of the creatures and the fact their victims must subsequently feed on others, may be the root of vampire legends. Concerned that the female may continue to turn others, Caine gets a break when the Churchill's escape pod lands in Texas, with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) being the only survivor. While on the return home he tried to destroy the creatures, but was unsuccessful. Still, he carries within him some of the energy the female provided him, allowing him to track her whereabouts, even as her consciousness jumps from body to body. With time running out, and London overrun by vampiric zombies, both Caine and Carlsen work to find a way to end the menace.
I have endeavored for a while not to fall back into my old habits of recapping too much of the plot in my reviews, but with Lifeforce it is a bit difficult. A good portion plays out like Dracula, including the ship of the dead and Carlsen filling in for Renfield. Then we have Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla thrown in as well, only abandoning the lesbian undertones and just fully sexualizing the female vampire - Mathilda May famously spends almost all of her screen time nude, which unfortunately seems to be about the only thing most people know about this film. While it does follow a similar path to Stoker's novel, it continually switches gears, going from a space opera with set design and effects which recall the first third of Alien (which O'Bannon also authored) to horror, followed by police procedural and then a full-out combination of zombie apocalypse and alien invasion. All the while it mashes together '80s American science fiction movies with the Hammer Horror aesthetic of the 1960s.
With a state-of-the-art effects team and A-list writers one would expect a rather expensive film. For Cannon, at $25 million, it was, and all of it well spent. The practical and lighting effects still look quite fresh. The design of the alien ship, both inside and out, is unique and amazing (few movies even went the biomechanical route at the time) and, no matter how far off the rails the movie goes, the actors tend to take it seriously. This movie should be talked about for its effects, story and interesting combination of genres, and not just for a naked Space Girl.
In addition to everyone else involved, this has a score by Henry Mancini. Not that many people would have known that if they had seen the American version back in 1985. Hooper delivered a movie that included a long scene aboard the alien ship, with little dialogue, featuring Mancini's music, and letting the action play out on Earth once it got there. At some point this was changed, with the time on the alien ship cut down and the voyage back to Earth shown in flashbacks. If this had been the only cuts it received, that would be fine - this is really the only major alteration the European version received, and though Hooper didn't like it the movie still stayed intact. However, Tri-Star pictures, with whom Cannon had a distribution deal, were afraid of getting that dreaded X-rating and were also concerned that audiences wouldn't understand the film. The music was changed to largely feature a more horror-oriented score by Michael Kamen, little of the discovery of the ship remained and some characters were cut out completely while others had so many scenes cut that their reason for being there was unclear.
Despite the cuts some critics came down on Lifeforce for May's full-frontal nudity, treating the movie like it was another in a long line of nasty films trying to corrupt America's youth (although, in all honesty, the R rating was there to supposedly keep them away). The movie failed miserably and, though it has had its fans over the years (myself included), it wasn't until the 2000s that most Americans got to see the movie in some way close to the way Hooper meant to present it. It has seen a resurgence of interest, as audiences seeing it now get to see the European copy, and while it is still a movie that goes in a number of different and strange directions, it at least makes sense.
While I have always been a fan of Lifeforce, finding its reputation as a bad movie quite undeserved, it does have its problems. The pace slows down from the time Carlsen comes back to Earth and helps Caine track down the female vampire, with a lot of hopping from place to place, including some strange scenes that have nothing to do with the plot. It picks up again once it gets past the strange interrogation scene with the nurse Ellen (Nancy Paul), one of the first people the vampire possesses. The major problem during this whole part, before Peter Firth's character starts to be more prominent again toward the end, is that Steve Railsback's performance is over-the-top to the point of annoyance. After awhile he falls into the amateur acting trope of shouting lines to show great emotion. When everyone else around him is acting in a reserved, typical British horror kind of way, his histrionics seem even more out of place.
Despite Railsback's limitations as an actor, Lifeforce manages to successfully merge all the genres. Even though the movie failed, Hooper still fulfilled his deal with cannon: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, which resulted in some controversy and low theatrical distribution when Hooper stood firm on not editing the movie to get an R rating, and a remake of Invaders from Mars. Sadly, neither of them reignited his career, and he started to spend more time making television and direct-to-video movies of diminishing quality. It's a pity because the first two Chain Saw movies and Lifeforce shows what a creative force Hooper was, despite attempts to undercut him every time he was on the cusp of success.
Time: 116 minutes
Starring: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay, Michael Gothard
Director: Tobe Hooper