Directed By: Tobe Hooper
Screenplay By: Dan O’Bannon, Don Jakoby
Based upon the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson
Produced By: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus
Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Michael Gothard, Mathilda May
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 116 minutes
Review Date: December 17, 2010
From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.
Lifeforce is one of the first films that the Cannon Group rolled the dice on with a big budget. As with most of their grasping attempts to hit it big, their roll came up snake eyes. With a budget reported in excess of twenty-five million dollars, Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires is a sprawling, messy epic with moments of startling horror interspersed with silly plot twists, and characters acting in bizarre ways that somehow make sense when filtered through Hooper’s oddball view of the world.
There’s enough plot in Lifeforce to fill a series of films.
The film opens aboard the space vessel Churchill. A solemn narrator (an uncredited John Larroquette, who also served as the narrator on Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) explains that the vessel is on a joint U.S.-British mission to explore Halley’s Comet as it passes by Earth. At the head of the comet, the crew of the vessel discover a massive ship. Carlson (Steve Railsback), the mission commander, leads a small expedition into the vessel, where they discover hundreds of corpses of bat-like creatures and three nude humanoids — two men, one woman — in cases, existing in a form of suspended animation. Carlson orders the humanoids and one of the bat corpses to be taken aboard the Churchill.
Thirty days later, the Churchill rotates in orbit around the Earth, not responding to radio messages. A space shuttle is sent up to investigate. They discover the vessel to be gutted by fire, what appears to be the entire crew dead, the emergency escape pod missing, and the three humanoids untouched in their cases.
The humanoids are brought to London, where Dr.’s Fallada (Frank Finlay) and Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) of the “Space Research Centre” puzzle over them. After finally agreeing that the humanoids are dead, they decide to begin dissection of the bodies. But at that moment, the woman (Mathilda May, who spends roughly ninety percent of her screen time in the buff) awakens and sucks the “lifeforce” from the body of a soldier, leaving a dried-out husk of a man behind. The woman makes her escape, and her victim eventually rises from the “dead” and attacks a doctor, taking his “lifeforce,” returning him to his natural state. Finally getting a clue, the authorities lock up the soldier and the husk that was the doctor.
Meanwhile, Colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth) of a special British military force arrives to take control of the situation. Before he has much of a chance to understand what is happening, word comes down that the Churchill’s escape pod has landed in Texas. Inside is Carlson, much the worse for wear from his ordeal. Carlson is brought to London to be questioned by Caine, Fallada, and Bukovsky.
In an extended flashback, Carlson tells them that the crew died one by one, leaving behind the now familiar dried-out husks. Realizing that the three humanoids, and more specifically, the woman, were responsible for the deaths, he knows he can’t allow them to reach Earth. He starts the fire and climbs in the escape pod, leaving the humanoids to be destroyed. He is understandably dismayed when he learns that they have been brought to Earth.
For reasons that are never made explicitly clear, Carlson has a psychic link with the woman, so Caine uses him to track her down and stop a burgeoning plague that finds her leaving behind victims that the British government attempts to dispose of before they get up and start attacking other people.
All of this happens before the forty-five minute mark, so you can be assured that Lifeforce is not big on character development. What’s more remarkable is that the version I watched was the international cut that runs nearly two hours. Upon its theatrical release in the United States, distributor TriStar Pictures cut the film down to 101 minutes. The international cut is already rife with head-scratching plot holes, nonsensical leaps in logic, and character interactions that are bizarre, to say the least. It’s hard to imagine how confusing the theatrical cut must have been to audiences. This is probably one of the reasons that the film did so poorly at the box office.
Thankfully, those qualities are also hallmarks of many of the best Cannon productions. They are also right in the sweet spot for Tobe Hooper, who never met a film with over-the-top, tonally insane plots and characters that he didn’t love. While Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains his masterpiece, Lifeforce deserves a special place of honor in his oeuvre for being the first of his big-budget films to embrace his particularly screwy aesthetic.
It may sound like I’m mocking Lifeforce, but I watched the film with a big, goofy smile on my face. Right from the opening credits that play out to a pounding Henry Mancini score (that feels like it was composed for an entirely different movie — one that features castles and swordplay, not spaceships and insane asylums) before leading into an unconvincing model of the space shuttle wobbly approaching a matte painting of Halley’s comet, I knew I was in for a treat.
This isn’t to say that Golan, Globus, and Hooper just threw money into the film that never wound up on screen. They did take pains to bring in Alien scripter Dan O’Bannon (interestingly, O’Bannon also wrote Cannon’s remake of Invaders from Mars, which Hooper also directed, and Return of the Living Dead, which Hooper was supposed to direct but left to helm Lifeforce, so O’Bannon then took over directing duties on Living Dead; such is the small world of feature film production), who eventually left the film in disgust after clashing with Hooper on the direction of the story. They also recruited visual effects artist John Dykstra, an Oscar winner for his work on Star Wars, to create the impressive light show that accompanies the process of the aliens sucking the “lifeforce” from their victims.
Even the cast that was assembled bears the mark of a loosening of Cannon’s notoriously tight pursestrings. While Steve Railsback and Peter Firth aren’t marquee names, they bring a level of craft and commitment to the silly material that many bigger names would have lacked. The supporting cast (Finlay, Gothard, Patrick Stewart, Aubrey Morris, Nicholas Ball) share the same ability to elevate the material beyond what is on the page. Perhaps it’s stereotypical to say so, but Lifeforce feels like the ultimate proof that stage-trained British actors have the world’s best ability to hit their marks and deliver the cheesiest dialogue in the goofiest films without a trace of self-awareness or embarrassment.
Hooper takes great advantage of the idea of the British “stiff upper lip” by mining it for incidental comedy. One of my favorite scenes in the film occurs in the third act: As London is burning to the ground (by way of some terrific model work), Carlson and Caine visit the Prime Minister in an underground bunker. While the world collapses around them, the Prime Minister’s secretary pleasantly offers them a seat and asks if they would like a cup of tea. It’s a throwaway scene that adds nothing to the story, but it’s a hilarious bit of straight-faced comedy that fits into the overall goofy tone of the film.
While Hooper lands some impressive scares early on, the film is less horror and more a sci-fi/action flick. As such, it succeeds admirably, in spite of the story problems. The third act destruction of London is quite stunning. Besides the great model work, hundreds of extras roam the streets as zombie-like creatures, cars flip and explode with aplomb, and amidst it all, Dykstra’s swirling visual effects act as the cherry on top of the sundae. It may sound like overkill, but that’s a term that Tobe Hooper has never understood. He uses all the ingredients to create a convincing tone of apocalyptic doom that adds a little weight to a movie that started out silly and only became more so as it went along.
I hate the term “camp,” and I don’t feel it applies here, but that’s the closest way I can come to describing Lifeforce for those who haven’t seen it. It’s not a great movie — it’s barely even a good one — but I enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s a distillation of everything Cannon as seen through the idiosyncratic vision of Tobe Hooper. I had a hell of a good time with it, for which I refuse to apologize.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.