Fright Fest 2018: Lifeforce (1985)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Written by: Dan O’ Bannon and Don Jakoby
Starring: Steve Railsback; Peter Firth; Aubrey Morris; Mathilda May; Patrick Stewart
After Poltergeist was released to critical and box office success in 1982, director Tobe Hooper was a hot commodity.* Having already established himself as a genre master with his debut film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the twisted backwoods horror Eaten Alive (which featured an early appearance by a very young Robert Englund), a superb television miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and the underappreciated (and unnervingly creepy) classic The Funhouse, his collaboration with Steven Spielberg seemed to set Hooper on a much deserved and long overdue transition into the mainstream spotlight.
So it’s small wonder he set his sights on directing a film adaptation of Colin Wilson’s 1976 Sci-Fi/Horror novel Space Vampires. Hooper inked a multi-picture deal with then-rising film studio Cannon Pictures, who poured into the project what was likely the most money they had allotted to a single production at that time. Alien co-creator Dan O’Bannon was hired to write the screenplay with Don Jakoby. With an established horror director in place, a genre-favorite screenwriter on board and a solid budget, it appeared as if the so re-named Lifeforce couldn’t lose.
It did. Big time. At the time a critical and box office failure, there persists to this day rumors the poor reception to Lifeforce was part of why Hooper eventually agreed to film the sequel to Texas Chainsaw for Cannon. Despite his best efforts to stay in the game, the director never quite reached the heights he had in the seventies and early eighties, with only the early 21st century remake The Toolbox Murders earning Hooper the level of recognition and praise he’d received in his earlier years.
In a similar manner, Cannon fell into disrepair.** Lifeforce was one of several flops (another was the ill-fated 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars, which Hooper also directed) draining the resources of the company. Eventually reduced to producing grade C film franchises like American Ninja and the late entry Death Wish sequels to stay afloat, they inevitably declared bankruptcy.
I consider this to be an absolute travesty, in no small measure due to my love for Hooper as an artisan. I have no clue as to what was keeping audiences away from Lifeforce in 1985, but I’m thrilled a loyal and ever-increasing fan base has emerged surrounding the film in the decades since, because it is- and always was- an amazing motion picture.
The story finds Commander Carlsen (a terrific Steve Railsback, who most fans will recognize from his chilling performance as Charles Manson in the superb 1976 mini series Helter Skelter) of the of space shuttle Churchill leading a joint American/ British mission to explore Halley’s Comet.
Upon approaching the comet, the crew detects an extraterrestrial ship one hundred and fifty miles long inside the comma. They disembark to explore the craft and discover thousands of fossilized corpses floating inside, all of which resemble giant bats.
Even more unsettling is the discovery of what appear to be three humans- a female and two males- perfectly preserved and encased in some sort of crystallized force fields. The crew takes the three humanoids back to the Churchill, along with one of the bat-like extraterrestrials.
Events then slip forward to a month later, with the Churchill (long since having fallen out of communication with Earth) appearing in orbit. The ship comes in on a pre-programmed course and another shuttle is sent up to investigate. It’s revealed a fire has gutted the Churchill, killing everyone on board. Eerily intact are the three humanoids from the alien spacecraft.
The three bodies are taken to London for examination. There, while under watch in the early morning hours, the female awakens and sucks the life out of a security guard. Energized by the life force she has stolen, she powers her way out of the building and steals into the night.
Meanwhile, the murdered security guard comes back to life. In a spectacular sequence, his emaciated corpse sits upright, grabs a doctor performing an autopsy on him and – with a brilliant display of light and sound- sucks the man dry until all that remains is a withered husk.
As the British scientists begin to realize each successive victim will awaken after two hours and claim other victims – who will themselves awaken and drain the life from fresh victims- word arrives the escape pod from the Churchill has touched down in Texas. It’s sole occupant? Commander Carlsen.
The British government brings Carlsen in and fills him in on what’s transpired. Teaming with Colin Caine of British Intelligence ( Peter Firth, who essays his character with an unwavering conviction and diligence), Carlsen races against the clock in an effort to deduce what the female space vampire will do next and how to stop her. Along the way, secrets are revealed concerning what really happened on board the Churchill after it lost contact with Earth as the depth of the horror facing humankind becomes terrifyingly clear.
It reads as if I’ve given away the movie. Trust me, I haven’t. There’s a lot going on here and one thing I admired a great deal about Lifeforce is how skillfully the writers and Hooper were able to balance the various plot threads, eventually bringing them together for an epic, apocalyptic finale. There’s no padding in the film- everything goes somewhere and, in the end, it all pays off.
The cast is excellent. Railsback is convincing as a tormented, tortured soul who somehow needs this alien monster while being aware of the threat she poses. As mentioned earlier, Firth is full of steel as the intelligence officer, investing his character with believable authority. There’s excellent supporting work from British favorite Aubrey Morris as a liason to the Prime Minister and a wonderful early turn from none other than Sir Patrick Stewart as the director of an asylum.
Equally impressive is how the movie handles the presence of Mathilda May, who occupies the role of the female space creature. May is an absolute beauty and the screenplay requires her to spend much of her time fully nude. There’s no part of her naked body we do not see on multiple occasions.
Yet, there’s no sense of eroticism. While overpowering sexuality is addressed directly in the film as the force which she uses to control human beings, Hooper manages to put this frankly breathtakingly beautiful woman on screen without having the film leer at her. She is presented as something both dangerous and entirely inhuman. In the hands of a less talented director , this could have come off almost as softcore. Here, it’s simply something the viewer accepts as part of the story.
I confess I’ve never read Wilson’s novel, but as a work of cinema the screenplay is an absolute blast. O’Bannon and Jakoby deliver a movie which has the hard science fiction and cosmic horror sophistication of Alien, the chilling sense of losing ground to a pervasive enemy force of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and – by the third act- the full on nightmare of a zombie apocalypse as seen in films like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
The visual effects are top notch- if there was a better looking genre film released in 1985, I didn’t see it. John Dykstra of Star Wars fame brought his “A” game to this project and the result is easily the most polished, high-end production to ever to be released by Cannon. The practical effects here are outstanding and haven’t dated after over three decades.
I’d also like to take a moment to address the fantastic music composed by Henry Mancini. If that name sounds familiar, it’s likely because he was best known for his instantly recognizable theme to The Pink Panther. The score to Lifeforce is majestic in its sweep and scope, adding an extra layer to an already sensational experience. It invests the film with an epic quality, suiting it perfectly. To this day, I hold this to be Mancini’s best film work.
It’s a damned shame Lifeforce couldn’t find a wider audience and more respect at the time of its release. This is a smart, original, exciting, at times scary and incredibly entertaining movie. Perhaps it was the wrong project at the wrong time. 1985 saw movies like Back to the Future, Cocoon, Rambo:First Blood Part II and Out of Africa released to tremendous success. Maybe the public was no longer interested in a dark, Sci-Fi-/Horror epic at a time when comedy, action and drama were dominating cinemas.
In any event, this film has earned a much deserved re-evaluation since then. Many genre fans who had never seen it are discovering its chilling pleasures for the first time (thanks in no small part to the outstanding Blu Ray package Scream Factory released in 2013) and recognizing the genius in Hooper’s work.
Not me, though. I was a fan from the beginning. I’m a fan still.
* For decades there has been controversy over just how much of Poltergeist Tobe Hooper directed. In recent years, some people behind the scenes of the production came out and claimed it was Spielberg’s film. Adversely, Spielberg himself – while acknowledging he had a lot of input- has repeatedly stated Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist.
My take is the proof is in the pudding. Take one look at Lifeforce and you will see clear and unmistakable stylistic similarities to Poltergeist. In my opinion, there’s nothing to discuss- both films were clearly guided by the hand of the same talented man, Tobe Hooper. I’d like to see that controversy laid to rest, because it detracts from an amazing talent we lost far too soon.
** The setback to Tobe Hooper’s career wasn’t the only tragedy inherent in the failure of Lifeforce. That movie serves as a clear indicator Cannon was ready to launch into the mainstream and contend with Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount as one of the main players in Hollywood. The scope of the attempted releases which followed – which included Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and the live action Masters of the Universe movie – bear this notion out. Unfortunately, the poor returns on the earlier projects meant there was no real budget left for those later films, so they in turn suffered. That’s heartbreaking. Had Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars been as successful as hoped, Cannon Pictures – who I always felt had a lot of heart and really wanted to see succeed- would have likely risen above their B movie origins. They might well be operating to this day.
D.S.Ullery has published in various ezines and magazines, as well as the anthologies When Red Snow Melts; Creature Stew; Journals of Horror:Found Fiction; Wild Things:Thirteen tales of Therianthropy ; Paying the Ferryman and The Final Masquerade. Beyond Where the Sky Ends – the first collection of his horror fiction- was published in early 2016. A born and raised Floridian, he lives with a black cat named Jason, who was born on Friday the 13th.