Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, July 8, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1985)

7. Lifeforce

After the blockbuster success of “Poltergeist,” Tobe Hooper got a pretty sweet deal. The Cannon Group, the notorious purveyors of eighties action cheese, signed Hooper to a three film deal. Golan and Globus were hoping to legitimize their company by producing big budget, tent pole releases. Hooper was chosen to lead this movement. Cannon was so determined to make the film appear like a classy, mainstream event that they changed the title from the pulpy (if more descriptive) “The Space Vampires” to the more evocative “Lifeforce.” “Lifeforce” was produced for twenty-five million dollars, featured elaborate special effects, and had a story with an epic scope. Cannon’s dreams of box office dominance would be unrealized, as “Lifeforce” flopped back in 1985. Despite that, Hooper’s astro-vampire epic would eventually attract an audience on video and television.

A British space craft known as the Churchill approaches Halley’s Comet. In the trail of the comet, they discover a bizarre alien spacecraft. The craft’s only inhabitants are dead bat-like monsters and three humanoids, preserved in crystal. Astronaut Tom Carlsen is attracted to the beautiful female. When the Churchill returns to Earth, it too is uninhabited, the crew reduced to dried out corpses. The alien humanoids, left unharmed, also arrive on Earth. The female awakens and drains the lifeforce from human victims. She wanders the countryside, claiming more victims, and spreading a virus of vampirism across England. Three government agents, including an obsessed Carlsen, pursue her, hoping to avoid disaster.

“Lifeforce” is ambitious, there’s no doubt about that. The movie is an oddball mash-up of horror and science fiction. The story tosses together an alien invasion, vampires, zombies, body swapping, and the apocalypse. These divergent elements are tied together by a quasi-scientific streak of mysticism, involving “energy” and psychic powers. His budgets have gotten bigger but some things remain unchanged for Tobe Hooper. As in “Eaten Alive,” “Lifeforce” lacks a proper protagonist. Carlsen is out of the story for long stretches, with the hero duties spread across three British government agents. Moreover, the film’s mythology borders on the convoluted. These flaws are probably the reason “Lifeforce” bombed upon release.

Through all this nuttiness, an admittedly novel riff on the vampire story eventually emerges. Instead of blood, the space vampires feed on the titular lifeforce. All the talk about energy will quickly have you rolling your eyes. However, the image of blue electricity surging out of victims into the vampire’s faces is interesting. After a victim is drained, they’re reduced to skeletal corpses. Eventually, “Lifeforce” reveals that the space vampires have invaded Earth before. Our legends about traditional vampires stem from these intergalactic beings. This includes the weakness of being run through. Though an iron blade stands in for a wooden stake and the weak spot is a few inches below the heart.

“Lifeforce” is based off a novel by Colin Wilson. The movie was co-written by Dan O’Bannon, who previously scripted “Alien.” I’m not sure if Wilson was ripping off O’Bannon or if O’Bannon was ripping off himself. Either way, “Lifeforce’s” opening scene blatantly recalls Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. A space crew approaches a derelict alien craft, it’s architecture unusual. Once inside, they find dead bodies of the ship’s previous crew. The sets inside the alien craft even resemble H.R. Giger’s iconic designs. Despite being so derivative, that first scene still begins “Lifeforce” on a strong note. The trail of Halley’s Comet is green, a colorful and nutty choice. The slow pans through space create an unearthly tone. The special effects, including the bizarre looking ship and the floating bat monsters, are fantastic. The image of the astronauts navigating the tunnels, which resemble the fleshy veins of a heart, are certainly memorable. That first scene is so impressive and “Lifeforce” never quite tops it.

But that’s not what people remember most about the movie. No, that honor falls to Mathilda May as “Space Girl,” the female vampire which drives the plot. May is completely naked for nearly the entire movie. She’s introduced in the nude. She stalks through the halls of the research center nude. She wanders off into the night while nude. She occasionally wears a thin slip but it’s often discarded. The character is meant to be Carlsen’s ideal woman, the form chosen specifically to appeal to him. The characters have two rather graphic love scenes. The gorgeous, shapely May certainly fits the role. Packing the film with so much sex and nudity suggests that, even while reaching for higher standards, Cannon couldn’t escape their exploitation roots. But May guarantees you won’t forget about the movie, that’s for sure.

Playing Carlsen is Steve Railsback, the unlikely leading man of “The Stunt Man” and “Helter Skelter.” Railsback’s performance is incredibly sweaty and frantic. After that first scene, he disappears for a half-hour. When he reenters the film, he’s sporting a full beard. He remains jittery throughout. The character is haunted by psychic visions of the vampire girl. Upon looking at her, he immediately fell in love. But it’s an obsessive, manic love. Carlsen is pulled between his mad lust for the girl and his desire to save the human race. Railsback does a good job of playing these contrasting needs. His twitching, unhinged performance is very attuned with the film’s off-beat sensibilities.

As I said, despite Railsback being more-or-less the movie’s hero, he often vanishes from the story. In his place, “Lifeforce” introduces a trio of characters. Peter Firth plays Col. Caine. Caine admits to being a voyeur and eventually develops into something like an action hero. Yet Firth plays the role very dryly. Frank Finlay plays Dr. Fallada, an expert in “energy” and chemistry. Finley often gets the job of delivering the movie’s exposition, which spirals to some weird ass places. Finley’s performance is also very flat, except when his character becomes possessed at the end. Michael Gothard plays Dr. Bukovsky, another science officer, with a strange, halting delivery. Most notably, Patrick Stewart has a small role as Dr. Armstrong. Stewart wanders into the story, get swept up in the unusual plot, and then disappears. Even then, he brings some authority and eccentricity to the brief role.

One thing is clear about “Lifeforce.” It’s budget is up there on the screen. The film’s special effects are awesome. The miniatures and sets that bring the alien spaceship to life hold up fantastically. The ship’s design, which is somewhat amusingly compared to an umbrella, is also very memorable. It definitely doesn’t look like a traditional UFO. The bat monsters, which are the vampire’s true form, are fantastic designs brought to life vividly. The vampire’s victims appear as reanimated corpses. These special effects are also brilliant, the undead bodies being very expressive with the designs being appropriately grotesque. It’s even cooler when they explode. I’d say “Lifeforce’s” effects are even better then those in “Poltergeist.”

In retrospect, Tobe Hooper may not have been the best choice for a big budget blockbuster. Even while working on a project of this scale, he can’t restrain his kookier tendencies. Despite a story that recalls the dry sci-fi/horror of Hammer’s Quatermass films, “Lifeforce” frequently indulges in Hooper-esque insanity. The film has a ripe kinky side. While possessing another woman’s body, the vampire girl seduces a motorist. Later, this same woman is smacked around by Railsback, who reveals her to be a masochist. The exact impact on the plot of this scene is minor. The chase for Space Girl takes the heroes to a British sanatorium. Upon meeting Stewart's Dr. Armstrong, Railsback quickly deduces that the doctor is possessed by the vampire’s spirit. This leads to a scene where Steve Railsback and Patrick Stewart kiss. Later, while aboard a helicopter, Stewart vomits torrents of blood from his mouth and eye. The blood forms into the shape of the vampire girl. These are not sights you’d expect to see in a big budget sci-fi flick.

“Lifeforce’s” story is always slightly hard to follow. However, as long as it’s focused on the quest to recapture the naked vampire girl, it at least remains sort of lucid. In the last act, as the space vampires spread through London, the film lurches into incoherence. The effects of the vampirism varies, with many infected turning into zombie-like monsters. Like zombies, they descends on their victims, tearing them apart. There are long sequences devoted to Peter Firth’s Col. Caine working his way through the chaotic streets, shooting undead attackers in the head. “Lifeforce” successfully captures an apocalyptic tone, as London goes up in flames. However, why any of this is happening, or even how the situation is diffused, is never clearly explained. By the end, you’ve got piles of dead bodies, exploding vampires, and huge rays of blue light. By going big, “Lifeforce” totally looses whatever meager focus it already had.

If anything ties “Lifeforce’s” various moments of bug-nuttery together, it’s Henry Mancini’s score. Mancini’s main theme is stirring and powerful. An undercurrent of driving strings rest under a barrage of bold horns, belting out a hummable theme. It’s the kind of music you’d expect to hear in an epic war movie or a seafaring adventure, instead of a gonzo space vampire movie. Mancini follows through for the film’s smaller moments, producing memorable and spooky themes for the vampire attacks. Apparently, Michael Kamen also composed some music for the film though Mancini’s work far outclasses his.

“Lifeforce” never comes together into an especially coherent whole. The film is trying many different odd things at the same time, never pausing to see if they make sense together. There’s the components of a truly great horror film in here somewhere. If the story had focused solely on Carlsen’s obsession with the naked vampire girl, it probably would’ve been a lot better. Even with these flaws, “Lifeforce” remains entertaining throughout. Something interesting is happening every minute of its run time. The movie’s most excessive content – a very naked female antagonist, exploding bat monsters – would soon pass into VHS horror nerd legend. For these reasons and more, I kind of have to recommend “Lifeforce,” even if its other merits are debatable. [Grade: B-]

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