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.