After Tobe Hooper hit it big at the box office with Poltergeist, he could do what­ev­er he want­ed.  He chose to make Lifeforce his next film — and it is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly the most expen­sive, most com­plex and most “out there” film Hooper ever made.  Like the rest of his Cannon out­put, fans and crit­ics were divid­ed over the film’s mer­its — but even the naysay­ers would have to admit that Hooper made one of the wildest big-bud­get films of all time with this fever­ish gen­re-buster.

Lifeforce takes its ambi­tious sto­ry­line from a Colin Wilson nov­el, Space Vampires.  It begins with a joint U.S./U.K. space shut­tle mis­sion led by Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) ven­tur­ing into space to mon­i­tor Halley’s Comet.  They dis­cov­er a sort of giant object “embed­ded” in the head of the comet — and it is filled with dead, bat-like crea­tures as well as some glass coffins con­tain­ing a trio of humanoids in sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion.  When the shut­tle returns to earth, it is a burnt-out husk except for the crea­tures in those three coffins.

Once on earth, the crea­tures in those coffins reveal them­selves to be extrater­res­tri­al “vam­pires” that feed off the life­force of humans, either suck­ing them dry or tak­ing enough to turn them into crazed zom­bies.  Meanwhile, Carlsen lands on Earth in an escape pod.  The British fly him in to deal with the cri­sis.  Though there are gaps in his mem­o­ry, he tries to help S.A.S. Colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth) and sci­en­tist Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay).  Carlsen has a sort of psy­chic link with the vam­pires’ female lead­er (Mathilda May) — and that’s the only hope they have for stop­ping the vam­pires before they kill or infect the entire human race.

Simply put, you’ve nev­er seen a movie like Lifeforce.  Some fans think of it as “a Quatermass movie gone berserk” and that descrip­tion isn’t far off the mark.  It starts off like a space opera, becomes a sci-fi-tinged hor­ror movie and mix­es in ele­ments of mys­tery and erotic thriller before trans­form­ing into an end-of-the-world/plague/zombie epic in its third act.  It has visu­al effects on par with a Star Wars film, cour­tesy of John Dykstra, yet it also has enough creepy, some­times gory make­up effects for two or three hor­ror films.  Finally, it throws in an ele­ment of kinky sex­u­al­i­ty, an angle aid­ed by the fact that May spends most of her screen time stark naked.  Add the bud­get, tech­ni­cal pol­ish and pro­duc­tion val­ues of a mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar pro­duc­tion and you have a propo­si­tion that defies the audience’s eyes and ears with its sin­gu­lar­ly bizarre style.

As a result, there is a lot of crit­i­cism of Lifeforce for sup­pos­ed­ly being an ill-con­ceived film or unin­ten­tion­al­ly campy — but such crit­i­cisms have more to do with the crit­ic than the film itself.  Part of the charm of Lifeforce is that not only is it an insane propo­si­tion, the peo­ple involved pur­sue this path with con­fi­dence and an impres­sive dis­play of tal­ent.  The heart of the film is the smart, ambi­tious script by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, who fill the film with off­beat ideas and con­tin­u­al­ly twist the sto­ry­line in new direc­tions that keep it engag­ing in a “what will they think of next” kind of way.

Tobe Hooper’s direc­tion is sim­i­lar­ly con­fi­dent, eas­ing the audi­ence into the film’s bizarre world with a calm open­ing act full of sci-fi eye can­dy and then start­ing up a roller­coast­er of shocks and plot twists that car­ry the audi­ence into a tru­ly gonzo finale.  Some argue his work here is unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly slick but one gets a feel­ing that he is pay­ing trib­ute to influ­ences on the sto­ry, name­ly Alien and the Quatermass movies, and the use of daz­zling, pri­ma­ry-col­ored light­ing in spots evokes the style of his ear­ly film Eaten Alive, albeit trans­plant­ed to a megabud­get set­ting.  His work has always been known for the abil­i­ty to hit and sus­tain a peak of hys­te­ria — and that skill is on full dis­play in this film’s final half hour.

Speaking of megabud­get, anoth­er rea­son Hooper’s work looks and feels so slick here is because he has the finest above-the-line crew of his career on this film.  Alan Hume’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy is stun­ning, par­tic­u­lar­ly the sce­nes the filmed on the English coun­tryside, and the sleek, com­posed look he cre­ates here pro­vides a styl­is­tic anchor to orches­trate the story’s bizarre ele­ments around.  Similarly, John Grover’s edit­ing brings a propul­sive yet unob­tru­sive flow to the film.  There’s even a surg­ing, full-blood­ed “adven­ture movie” score from Henry Mancini that rivals the most stir­ring work of John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith.

Lifeforce also deliv­ers a bom­bas­tic amount of spe­cial effect spec­ta­cle, all of which real­ly put the dol­lars on the screen.  Dykstra’s visu­al effects and mod­els are a feast for the eye, from the Giger-esque space vam­pire lair to some excel­lent minia­tures of London under siege.  Equally impres­sive are the stun­ning elec­tro-swirl visu­als as the vam­pires har­vest ener­gy from peo­ple. Nick Maley’s pros­thet­ic effects add vis­cer­al impact alongside the film’s spacey visu­als, par­tic­u­lar­ly a num­ber of life­force-drained zom­bies that are filmed under harsh light­ing but still look con­vinc­ing and a bloody “rebirth” scene for the female space vam­pire.

The bud­get also allowed for a fan­tas­tic cast whose straight-faced work goes a long way towards keep­ing the view­er engaged in the storyline’s roller­coast­er twists and turns.  Railsback made a career play­ing men liv­ing on the edge of their san­i­ty so he’s ide­al­ly suit­ed to the char­ac­ter of Carlsen — and he gives it his oper­at­ic all.  Whether he’s rough­ing up a wit­ness or grap­pling with an amorous space vam­pire, he does it all with con­vic­tion.  His work is bal­anced by the unflap­pable English cool of Firth and Finlay, not to men­tion a gallery of ace British char­ac­ter actors like Michael Gothard, Aubrey Morris and a pre–Star Trek Patrick Stewart (his sce­nes yield some of the film’s wildest dra­mat­ic moments, as well as some grue­some effects).

Finally, spe­cial men­tion must be made of May — play­ing a per­pet­u­al­ly naked space vam­pire is a thank­less task but she brings both eerie pres­ence and clas­sic beau­ty to her work.  It also helps that she has what might be the most gor­geous pair of breasts ever cap­tured on cel­lu­loid.

In short, Lifeforce is often accused of going too wild, bit­ing off more than it can chew, etc. but that is what also makes it so irre­sistable to those who can tune in to its arcane wave­length.  Not only do they not make them like this any­more, they rarely had the guts to make them like this way back then — and Lifeforce remains a deserv­ing cult item for the dar­ing gen­re fan.