By Jerry Chandler
Lifeforce is an odd film. I could just as easily write it up as an entry in my “They’re Not Bad, They’re Just Filmed That Way” series and few people would have blinked twice at its placement there. On the other hand, there’s a pretty solid following for this film, and those followers would be pretty vocal about placing the film on any sort of “So Bad it’s Good” list. I should know, I’m a part of that pretty solid following. But one thing I think everyone can agree on- whether they like the film, love the film, or hate the film -is that this film is absolutely full on excremento de murciélago crazy.
Lifeforce started life as The Space Vampires, a 1976 novel by Colin Wilson. The novel was an entertaining if schizophrenic blending of horror and science fiction. Coming along in the era of Star Wars and Alien, the studios were once again on the hunt for such materials to turn into celluloid gold at the box office. Unfortunately for The Space Vampires, the studio that got hold of the rights to it was Cannon Films. There’s an entire discussion to be had on everything that was wrong with Cannon, but since the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films covered that ground extremely well; I’ll just suggest you go have a look at that for now. Trust me, it’s worth it.
The book was turned into a movie script by (reportedly) none other than Alien’s Dan O'Bannon with the aid of Don Jakoby. There’s actually some discussion out there that their script was largely ditched and the shooting script rewritten at the last minute by others. The film was directed by Tobe Hooper, and according to many it may have been the last gasp of greatness in Hooper’s once promising career.
LifeForce starts out with the mission of the European space exploration shuttle Churchill and its multinational crew already underway. Their task is to monitor the passing of Haley’s Comet and see what they can learn about it. As the shuttle approached the comet, they discover that there’s an object hidden in the tail of the comet. Their instruments indicate the object is solid, of intelligent design and construction, and around 150 miles long.
The call is made to investigate the object, and a small group suit up and head out into the vacuum of space to see what there is to see. One of the crew floating over to explore this alien object is Col. Tom Carlson as played by Steve Railsback. It’s Carlson who has the most unusual reaction to the object, sensing a seeming connection to it he doesn’t understand.
As they begin to explore what is clearly a large ship, they find the corpses of numerous giant, bat-like beings. Following the trail of bodies, they discover three completely nude humanoids- two males and one female –in large, crystalline containers. They decide to move the containers to their shuttle and continue observing the comet before returning to Earth. It’s during the return journey that mission control loses all contact with the shuttle.
A team is sent to investigate the shuttle when once it gets closer to Earth. The insides of the shuttle are gutted. Some damage looks like someone smashed the instruments, but most of the damage looks like fire tore through the shuttle. As they continue to look for survivors, the rescue crew discovers the three crystalline containers, untouched with their occupants intact. They seek to recover any data they can, and bring that and the three containers back to Earth.
As the various powers that be attempt to salvage the data so as to figure out what went wrong on the mission, the three humanoid aliens are sent to a research center in England for study. Before the autopsy procedure on the female alien (Mathilda May) can begin, she opens her eyes, stands up, and starts a pretty impressive killing spree. The alien is a space vampire. But instead of drinking blood, these vampires call back to some of the oldest Romanian legends by feeding on life energy, life force, and leaving a drained husk. The alien causes a wall of glass to explode outwards, allowing her to exit the facility and disappear into the night.
As the government mobilizes a task force to track down and recapture the alien, another task force is sent to investigate an object that entered into Earth’s atmosphere and crashed in Texas. The object turns out to be an escape pod from the Churchill, its only occupant Col. Carlson. Carlson is brought up to speed on the situation on Earth and asked to explain what happened on the Churchill. He tells them about how things started happening on the shuttle that they couldn’t explain. The problems were small at first, but then the crew started dying. He claims that he eventually realized the source of the danger, and, as the lone survivor, set fire to the shuttle and fled in an escape pod.
The situation in England continues to grow worse as he’s flown there. The two males awaken but are believed to be destroyed, but the victims of the female alien begin to come back to life and drain anyone near them. When they feed, their bodies go from looking like mummified remains to normal human again. But this only last for a short while before they begin to revert to this form and are driven to feed again. The guards from the research center are contained and observed. It’s discovered that if the affected humans do not feed within a set period of time, they explode into ash and dust.
They work out the exponential rate of the spread of the vampirism plague in the general population if they don’t catch the alien female, and the hunt- led by SAS Col. Colin Caine played by Peter Firth- is on. In the meantime, Col. Carlson is placed under hypnosis to further investigate what happened aboard the Churchill. It’s discovered that he survived because the alien chose him. They now share a psychic connection, and he can feel her general location and presence. He also tells them what these creatures have done during their travels- destroy entire worlds. Despite the fact that this could make him compromised, they choose to use him to find her. The bodies of her first victims are already appearing, and they’ve discovered that she can change her appearance.
Eventually this leads Col. Carlson and Col. Caine to a hospital some distance outside of London. They’ve tracked the alien to this place, and discovered that she’s somehow taken over the body of Dr. Armstrong. There’s a fun bit of trivia with this character. Dr. Armstrong is played by Patrick Stewart. It was while playing this role in this film that Patrick Stewart had his first onscreen kiss. It was with Railsback’s Col. Carlson.
Carlson and Caine believe they have the alien subdued, trapped in the body of Dr. Armstrong. As they’re flying back to London they discover the truth- it was a ruse. It was a decoy to lure Carlson and Caine away from London where the female alien as well as the two male aliens still are. In the time they’ve been gone, London has been sealed off, quarantined by the government over a mysterious plague. It then becomes a race against time to find them and stop them in a London that looks like it’s the heart of a science fiction version of the zombie apocalypse.
Lifeforce is and is not a horror film. It has aspects of horror, but it does lean more towards science fiction with dashes of action and mystery thrown in. It’s also not an entirely coherent film depending on when you saw it and what version you may have available to you to watch. Some of this was Tobe Hooper’s fault, some of it wasn’t.
Cannon wanted this to be one of their first big budget films, a film that would break them away from the reputation they had as a studio that cranked out nothing but low budget, disposable b-movies. Still, they weren’t quite willing to allow for some big movie production requirements. For a movie of its scale and scope, it was given a tight shoot schedule. Hooper went over that schedule, but it was still probably not enough time. According to a number of sources, some scenes were never shot at all and some others were never finished.
Still, Hooper put together what he felt was a cut that told the story sufficiently well and delivered the goods. His cut of the film ran 128 minutes long. The American theatrical release cut by TriStar ran at 101 minutes long. Foreign audiences got to see a longer version (and one that got slightly better reviews) at 116 minutes long.
But the cuts took a storytelling toll in more ways than one, and they angered Hooper. Bits of the story were trimmed out here and there, and some performances were cut out altogether. Other scenes were trimmed and moved around in the film to be used as flashback footage. The original opening and the time spent on the Churchill in the beginning of the film were both longer, and there was one scene put together entirely different than what made it to film.
The last minute cuts and edits also meant the film’s score was now out of sync with many of the film’s scenes. The film’s original score was done by Henry Mancini, and many thought it one of his best works. Rather than have Mancini return to score the new edits, TriStar brought in Michael Kamen. Kamen was a capable writer of movie scores, but he was no Mancini. He also had a different style to his work under normal circumstances, and that was made even more obvious by TriStar wanting his bits to be darker and with more emphasis on the horror elements. In moments when the TriStar cut would shift from original edit scenes to new cuts and back again repeatedly in any given period of the film, the musical changes were almost jarring in the differing mood they conveyed.
The most common cut of the film to find on store shelves today is the 116 minute international cut. While not the full story Hooper filmed and wanted told or in some places in the order he wanted it told, it’s noticeably better than the TriStar cut. The TriStar cut however has been known to still pop up on basic cable television in an even more heavily edited version in order to remove some of the violence, nudity, and language.
The film is visually an incredible sight to behold, especially in remastered HD. Here’s a link to the trailer to check it out. I’m not embedding it here because it does contain Mathilda May in all of her spectacular nudity. I’ve seen interviews with Tobe Hooper and others saying that finding Mathilda May was a revelation as she was possibly the best special effect in the film. I wouldn’t go that far with it. I’d also add some additional comments to that, but I’ll get to those in a bit.
Much of the visual FX work was done by a team led by John Dykstra, and his work here is as good as or better than anything else he did in that era. Much of the practical FX puppetry work is hands down amazing looking on screen even by today’s standards, and that’s because they were pushing the envelope a bit with what you could do back then during the production of the film. The reveal of one of the space vampire’s bat-like form in the London apocalypse scenes is a gem in the film.
The makeup FX and the miniature work for the fall of London is likewise amazingly well done. Combined with the visual FX and Hooper’s eye for directing action, the scenes of London overrun with humans turned space vampires was in 1985 the zombie apocalypse scene done right that some filmmakers still can’t match on film today. It is dizzying chaos with a sense of danger and death for the heroes at every step, and you really get the feeling that this is how such an end of the world scenario would look and feel more so than with many other movies’ attempts to capture that on film.
One thing that both works for and against the film is how much is actually packed in there- or at least how much they tried to pack in there. As I mentioned before, the film has at different point the feel of science fiction, action, mystery, detective drama, end of the world apocalypse, and of course horror. Then there’s also the concepts it plays with while trying to flesh out the background on the space vampires.
There are actually elements of that which when combined with the final third of the film that make the film remind me of Quatermass and the Pit. In Quatermass and the Pit the aliens had come to Earth five million years ago, and their appearance combined with their tinkering with mankind had created the common image and fear of the horned demon. In Lifeforce it’s revealed that the aliens have been here before, and their presence here long ago created our vampire legends. In both films our heroes must fight their way through an English city destroying itself, surviving the onslaught of wave after wave of humans now infected by and under the influence of an alien energy. In both films the energy is focused around an alien ship, and the disruption of that energy is key to stopping them- as is one of our two main heroes sacrificing himself in the process. I’m not saying that the book or the film deliberately copied the Quatermass films, but there are some thematic similarities there. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the one while not yet having seen the other, you’ll likely enjoy checking out the one you haven’t yet seen.
Most of the performances in the film are top notch. Steve Railsback basically just does his typical 1980’s Steve Railsback job, but the rest of the cast is filled out by some of the stalwarts of English film and television. They’re faces you’ll instantly recognize, and many of them- especially Frank Finlay and Aubrey Morris –elevate the dialogue they were given to work with by the strength of their performances. One person that does not get a lot of mention when talking about the acting in the film is Mathilda May. Any such talk is usually overshadowed by talk of her appearance. This is kind of understandable as she’s completely nude in almost every scene she’s in, but it’s also a shame as well as a disservice to her.
While her credit in the film features an “Introducing” qualifier, that isn’t quite true. She did in fact have two acting credits prior to this film if only small ones. Her claim to fame at that point was as a ballet dancer. Not only did she have very little training as an actor at the time she got cast in Lifeforce, but she spoke almost no English. She had to learn her lines phonetically and depended on the few crew members who could speak French to explain some things to her. She also listened to Frank Finlay and Michael Gothard to figure out how to vocalize some words properly to convey what was needed.
Despite this, her acting in the film is surprisingly good. You can see where she drew heavily on her skills as a dancer to convey certain mood and idea through movement and body language. There are moments of interaction with Railsback’s character where she keeps her gestures and tone of voice very subtle, but there are moments- especially when she first awakens and frees herself from the research center –where she controls her movements in such a way as to seem as formidable, deliberate, and dangerous as a Terminator. A lot of people just focus on her nudity- and it’s easy to do –but if you grew up on 1980’s junk sword and sorcery flicks you knew early on that just about any Playboy Bunny and Penthouse Pet can and did appear in films adding little more than nudity. Mathilda May more than held her own in that role, and the character would have been far less effective had she not had the acting ability she had at that stage of her now long career.
Lifeforce is far from being a pure horror experience, but it’s more than worth tracking down if you’ve never seen it. It’s also a great film to have on the big screen TV in the background of a Halloween party. The visuals are wild and occasionally terrifying, and at least then no one can complain about not knowing what the hell is going on with the plot.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.