It's only bleedin' Lifeforce, innit?
Nude space-babe runs amok in London! Ministers get twitchy and order martial law! Zombies are everywhere and there' s a bloody big galactic umbrella perched above the Earth ... and it's collecting souls!
It's only bleedin' Lifeforce, innit?
Tobe Hooper had a bit of thing with alien invasions during the mid-80's. He remade the cult classic Invaders from Mars and nobody took a blind bit of notice. But his first contact with extraterrestrial nasties came in 1985, the year before, when he went for broke and served-up a walloping concoction of giddy Sci-Fi, ghastly goings-on with vampire-spawned zombies, and hormonal giggles at the eye-popping jiggly bits of his leading lady in a breakneck adaptation of Colin Wilson's 1976 novel, The Space Vampires.
It was a go-for-broke creature-feature that felt both old fashioned and outlandishly far-fetched. And, in all honesty, it wasn’t very good.
But we all love it, don’t we?
Wilson’s novel was cold, clinical, austere and a sort of extraterrestrial detective story that was overly wordy and far more interested in cerebral analysis of the possible genesis of the vampire myth. I read it after hearing that Hooper was going to turn it into a film, but before actually seeing the movie adaptation. The book bored me to tears. That said, I was around fifteen and weaned on a diet of Stephen King, James Herbert, Guy N. Smith, F. Paul Wilson and Dean Koontz. I have since returned to the original book and enjoyed it far more, although I still believe it to be dry and stuffy and very old fashioned despite its scientific and psychological forward-thinking. Thank God, then, that Hooper and the Golan/Globus boys turned to Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby to reinterpret the saga for the big screen with the emphasis on action. And boobs.
O’Bannon was deeply versed in the genre already, of course, with Dark Star (in which he also acted), Alien, Dead and Buried, Heavy Metal and Blue Thunder all producing unmistakable benchmarks that he would use to fall back on. The same year as Lifeforce, we would see him delivering another cult gem in the marvelously cool Return of the Living Dead, which he directed and co-wrote. The two films share many similarities, with an eerie sequence involving a gruesome reanimated female strapped to a table linking them both like some gnarled umbilical cord. So this was a fine old time for the seriously eccentric yet brilliantly SF-skewed filmmaker.
Due to its imminent flyby of Earth, the Hooper/O’Bannon adaptation brought in the idea that Halley’s Comet had some nasty space vampires languishing in a vast alien ship hidden within its wispy green celestial tail. Combining the theme about the comet being a harbinger of doom with the cosmic notion of how our mythical vampires came to be, Lifeforce then allows three preserved aliens – two men (one of them played by Mick Jagger's son) and a woman – to be brought back to Earth whereupon they reawaken, break free and commence milking mankind and sending its collective energy back to their long-dormant buddies on the ship. Those drained of their lifeforce become reanimated as ghastly zombies who then have only a couple of hours to garner some soul-juice from another victim before exploding in a shower of ash. Thus, a veritable plague of the undead assails London and swiftly threatens to engulf the world. Only US astronaut Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) and SAS Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) can save the world from annihilation, and they join forces to combat the alien takeover-bid in a wild race against time. Carlsen commanded the space shuttle Churchill that found the aliens and, the sole survivor of that doomed expedition to examine Halley’s Comet, he has a psychic link to the female vampire, who has escaped custody and is actively spreading death and destruction like some virus-queen (AIDs metaphor highly deliberate). Together with Caine he must track her down via some detective work whilst London battens-down the hatches and attempts to contain the riot of zombies on the streets.
Stone the crows, it’s a worse palaver than when that American Werewolf geezer went hunting in Piccadilly Circus! Stroll on!
It’s Alien, it’s Star Trek The Motion Picture. It’s also Dawn of the Dead meets Hammer Horror. It’s a big banquet of literary and cinematic tropes. The Quatermass influence shoots its spores constantly across the fertile ground of Lifeforce. The basic premise is straight from Nigel Kneale. A cosmic invasion of Earth that works by assimilating and taking-over the population, and the concept of mankind being “harvested” by a higher power from beyond. The very image of the popping-face on the rejuvenating guard as he drains the life out of the surgeon who was about to perform an autopsy on him is ripped right from the cover-art of the novelization of The Quatermass Experiment, whilst the vision of blue energy bolts (actually human souls) being drawn up towards the alien ship is a visual reference to the culling of people at Ringstone Round in the John Mills TV miniseries of Quatermass. The very fact that the infected turn to dust if they don’t get their next fix recalls the shocking remains of the mass killings committed in those ancient circles. The notion that these aliens may have been here before and very probably formed the basis of our legends of vampirism is precisely the cultural race memory that Nigel Kneale explored in Quatermass and the Pit, in which the Martian heritage of our belief in the Devil is revealed.
All of these potent flavours do seem a bit haphazard in a film that simply rockets along from one set-piece to another.
It’s also got a veritable slew of acclaimed top drawer British thesping talent adorning its garishly fantastical tableau. That’s Michael Gothard sweating and sniffing in the thrall of the space girl’s celestial ardour. Nicholas Ball is a long, long way from low-rent gumshoe, Hazel, let alone Earth as a confused astronaut. Aubrey Morris wrangles his inane dialogue as a Ministry blue-blood as though he has a mouth crammed with Werthers Originals. John Hallam (Flash Gordon, Dragonslayer) turns those usually cruel features inside-out as a frightened orderly in a mental asylum. A pre-Picard Patrick Stewart has the ignominy of being possessed by an alien whore and then attempting to snog Railsback in the film’s most hilariously uncomfortable moment. John Forbes-Robinson exudes withering dignity as another eyebrow-cocked minister. But the most memorable casting wallop is, of course, Frank Finlay as the Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen of the astro-physics world, Dr. Fallada. When even his character’s name reminds you of some sort of unhealthy street grub served with greasy onions, it is no surprise that the former Musketeer chews through the scenery like there’s no tomorrow. If you listen, there isn’t one line of his that doesn’t make you wince … yet it is a joy to see him blustering through such a scenario. “Here I go!” he comically utters in a moment of screentime that I doubt he’s used to impress the grandkids.
But the two stars of the piece – aha … no you don’t … not Miss May’s glorious top-bits – are fudge-mouthed Texan chimp Steve Railsback and curly bonce Peter Firth, more on whom later. Railsback is actually a good actor, very committed and absurdly in-the-moment. Nailing the villainous essence of Ed Gein in Chuck Parello’s film of the same name, as well as portraying Charles Manson in 1976’s Helter Skelter, and holding his own against another confirmed over-actor in Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man, Railsback was also something of a champion of low-budget exploitation. His rebellious turn in the tremendous Nasty from Down Under, Turkey Shoot (aka Blood Camp Thatcher) and his suspicious angst in Deadly Games revealed a passion for genre fare before he stepped into the world-saving boots of the star-crossed Carlsen. Now, I say that he’s a good actor … and he is … but his performance, here, is so on the nose and played so straight that it does go against the prevailing wind of tongue-in-cheek that, otherwise, dominates the proceedings. Forced to deliver such cringe-worthy lines as “I was in love on a level you’ve never known, Caine!” and to put himself through telepathic observations of the space vamp’s atrocities with overly sincere conviction only makes it seem as though he is over-acting terribly. And considering the company he is in and the stratospheric scenarios that they all must endure, this is really saying something. But the strange and highly unfair thing is that you come away from Lifeforce totally believing that he was bloody rubbish in it.
Cor Blimey, Gav’ner … that space babe ain’t got any clothes on!
There is no denying that Lifeforce has a major claim to fame with its copious scenes of Mathilda May’s intergalactic hussy harbinger going about the business of world-devouring in her birthday suit. To say that the film played a major part in the private lessons of self-discovery for many teenage boys is something of an understatement. Whenever you mention its title, blokes of a certain age seem to come over all misty-eyed for a second before breaking into a salacious grin. Quite how Hooper got away with it is still a mystery, but with May’s willingness (and undoubted naiveté), the film’s popularity was absolutely assured. The story revolves around her mesmerizing ability to bend men to her will, luring them to their doom, or simply using them as pawns in her hostile game. Whilst the plot likes to make clear that she is able to do this out of some alien mind-power, it is worth mentioning that most red-blooded males would do pretty much whatever a beautiful woman told them to, anyway … especially if she was starkers. So when Hooper and various other observers claim that the film explores the relationships between men and women and how one sex can manipulate and corrupt the other, this is really just smoke and mirrors for an excuse to get visually smutty. They got a gorgeous French girl to walk around in the buff whilst guys collapse at her feet, their bodies spent and, ahem, drained of juice. I don’t care what Dr. Fallada says, it ain’t rocket science that’s keeping our attention.
Would you Adam and Eve it … Scooper thinks he’s in the SAS!
Once the larking scamp, Scooper, in vintage kids’ TV show Here Come the Double-Deckers, Peter Firth found himself a few rather unique roles. He went horsing-about in Sidney Lumet’s Equus and then, as Russian sailor-boy Peter, he created some Glasnost of his own when he wooed Scouse girl Alexandra Pigg in the enjoyable romantic drama, Letter to Brezhnev. There was also The Hunt For Red October waiting in the wings. But donning a raincoat that curiously reminds you of the Cold War thrillers of Harry Palmer, strutting about with a surly attitude and slapping D-Notices on silly situations he becomes one of the least convincing SAS men until Robert De Niro exposed Sean Bean’s less-than-special ops background in Ronin. He’s a very hard character to get a handle on. On the one hand, he is merely a reactionary stooge. But, on the other, we see glimmers of a dark and distrustful heart of his own that makes him a deviously underwritten support player.
“And this was murder … you say?”is a great little line of deadpan incredulity when he surveys the ravaged, desiccated corpse of a drained victim of the space-babe. But I doubt that an SAS man would need to be told how to operate a flare-pistol. O’Bannon’s script doesn’t quite grasp the nature of his status, yet you have to concede with a smirk the frustration and disappointment he feels when told that NATO have assumed control of the situation.
The film really benefits from the whole military angle. We’ve got Paras running about the Space Research Centre, albeit armed with some very un-British weaponry, and the sight of berets and DPM really evokes memories of UNIT and Doctor Who. The sequence with the two guards battling the male vampires is a corker. “Don’t look bloody dead to me!” snaps one of them a second before the soul-drainers renovate the entire basement with alien energy and advance upon the squaddies who fight an impressive rear-guard action. I love the way that the two of them both expend their ammo and then, in unison, opt for grenades as a final resort, literally doing all this like clockwork and with well-honed coolness under-fire. The film actually gives the common soldier much more common sense and credence than it does the officialdom. Michael Gothard’s Dr. Bukovsky is a bland somnambulist and just wait until you see what the PM has in mind for Miss Haversham behind the big chart!
Apples and pears, me ald china – it’s right old cockney carnage on a grand scale. Geezer!
For a mainstream genre movie, Lifeforce is unashamedly exploitational. We’ve covered the uncovered charms of Mathilda May already, but the film is also gleefully gruesome. Bodies of the infected exploding in showers of dust was certainly something new, and the air-bladder contortions as lifeforces are sucked from unwilling benefactors were all part of the era of the transformation movie, though given a refreshing spin courtesy of makeup man Nick Maley’s lurid sensibilities, but Hooper also allowed for some Romero-esque zombie mayhem as Old London Town becomes engulfed in cosmic carnage. Kudos must go to a glorious head-shot that comes straight out of the Savini guidebook on exit wounds. Some icky skin-shedding from high-altitude is a hokey sight, as is a gloopy arm severing (replete with comedy squelch-pop sound effect), but the blood effigy that builds itself out of the bodily fluids cascading out of Patrick Stewart’s and Aubrey Morris’ nose and mouth is a real sight for sore eyes.
And for all the X-Men fans out there … Stewart’s infamous interrogation sequence actually seems to play like an alternate origin story for Professor X! There’s some mighty telekinesis going on around him, and the screams from the asylum inmates sound like a voice-check for the babbling of Cerebro!
As advanced and as cool-looking as the zombie puppets are – intricately detailed cadavers with eyes so sympathetically realized that they are almost hypnotic – they did seem a touch too artificial even back in 1985. But they are wonderful to behold, regardless. Check out the snotty gunk streaming down the guard's boat-race as he slurps up the lifeforce from the surgeon! Nick Maley took care of the makeup and the practical FX whilst John Dykstra ladled on the visual smorgasbord of interstellar spacecraft, floating astronauts, galactic clouds and comets, and the whiz-bang evaporation of millions of Londoners. The copious shots of swirling energy bolts and columns of light are very similar to those seen in Ghostbusters, actually. In a nod to Romero’s lead zombies, Hooper even has some visually interesting infected cadavers getting involved in the rampage from scene to scene. Look out for the nun and the Bobby and the punk rocker.
Another theme running through the film is that of voyeurism. We are forever watching people looking-on as terrible things occur. The two witnesses of the park attack were hoping to catch some lesbian action and got a little bit more than they bargained for. Carlsen is able to observe certain deeds via his telepathic connection to the space vampire girl. The authorities are always peering through windows in the SRC at poor wretches being attacked or just exploding. Both Caine and Bukovsky idles away time watching people on surveillance monitors. When Carlsen employs some rough tactics to get information out of a female possessed by the vampire girl he suggests that the SAS man should leave the room, to which Cain replies “not at all. I am a natural voyeur,” and sits back with a salacious twinkle in his eye.
It is not too much of a leap to imagine that this is what Hammer would have unleashed had their budget ever been enough. What is so cool is that Fallada is clearly set up to be a surrogate Van Helsing, especially when he begins to expound about leaded-iron swords being used to penetrate the vampires’ energy centre just beneath the heart … but the narrative brilliantly pulls the rug from beneath your feet.
Roll out the barrel!!!!!
Henry Mancini was a curious choice for composer, and not the first idea that Hooper had. He’d originally wanted James Horner to score his movie, who had been kicking up a symphonic storm for five years with one classic genre score charging after another – Wolfen, Brainstorm, Star Trek II, Aliens, Cocoon et al – but the new young wunderkind was unavailable. Mancini was known primarily for his upbeat, lushly orchestrated and jazzy scores for The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade and The Great Race and, of course, the Peter Gunn theme. But how could the man who wrote the swooning heartbreak of Moon River be expected to cope with swarms of the undead, nude space minxes and bouts of alien atrocity? Well, to make such an assumption was to totally ignore his atmospheric music for Orson Welle’ Touch of Evil, Terence Young’s blind terror of Wait Until Dark and Arthur Hiller’s moody eco-chiller, Nightwing, as well as the fact that his original score for Hitchcock’s Frenzy was rejected and replaced by one from Ron (Where Eagles Dare) Goodwin because it was deemed by the master of suspense, himself, as being “too menacing”!
With incredible verisimilitude, Mancini totally embraced the wacky, way-out concepts of O’ Bannon’s screenplay and delivered a thundering powerhouse of a score that has since become legendary. That main title theme is justly hallowed as one of the most rousing in the genre and was something that the composer has had great crowd-pleasing pleasure in celebrating in his concerts. Strident, heroic and martial, it is a grand, old school fanfare that, in many ways, seems at-odds with the hysterical dramatics that occupy the majority of the movie. But this is pretty much the point. Mancini is paying tribute to the sensationalistic attributes of a film that is literally charging along in about five different directions at once. With such a scattershot approach to the narrative, he can’t help but pitch in with something equally as over-the-top. His full score is an absolute delight that manages to be eerie, suspenseful, beatific, dreamy, seductive and thoroughly exciting. Sadly, his experience on the project was not a happy one, due to the omission, swapping-around and ultimately the replacement of his painstakingly crafted cues. When the studio decided they wanted a shorter cut of the film, and drastically truncated the opening act when the Churchill meets up with Halley’s Comet, he was unable to return and rework his score accordingly … so they brought in Michael Kamen to troubleshoot. Kamen did some good stuff, actually, mixing evocative tonalities with moments of abject terror, and the International Cut, though predominantly luxuriating beneath Mancini’s lyrical blanket, also contains elements of the younger composer’s work.
Tobe Hooper was entering a curious phase in his career. His seismic breakthrough with Texas Chainsaw was over a decade before, and despite some incredible work on the TV two-part adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot and the wonderful chiller The Funhouse, he had the dubious honour of tackling the classic Poltergeist – but we all know who was really pulling the strings on that one, and it wasn’t Hooper - he needed another big hit that would put him back at the top of the genre ladder. Lifeforce was a huge undertaking. The budget, the FX, the cast and the sheer scale of it all was way beyond what he was used to, yet he tackled it with the sort of chaotic vigour that it needed. In someone else’s hands, it may well have been a “better” film, but I doubt considerably that it would have been anywhere near as much fun. He creates a dream-like mood for the introductory space scenes, and the flashback detailing what became of Carlsen’s crewmates. His depiction of England is actually very good indeed – like John Landis, he makes the environs, the dialogue, and the attitude all seem credible … and with this script that is actually an incredible feat. And he handles the action extremely well, from the intimate scenes of alien seduction to the epic realization of mass destruction. In fact, the way that he depicts the zombie attacks in the street and especially Caine running the gauntlet as the bloodthirsty mob converge upon him is quite inspiring. What could he have done with a true zombie apocalypse story, one wonders?
Wearing his influences with pride – a vast alien object poised threatening above the Earth hails from Star Trek The Motion Picture and the cryo-chamber in which the vampires are found recalls the diamond-hex landscape from deep within V’ger’s core, the actual conclusion to Lifeforce very crucially mimicking the transcendental love that saves the day in Robert Wise’s 1979 film. Quatermass, with even the explosive finale on the ravaged city streets is highly reminiscent of the madness spawned during the conclusion of the great Quatermass and the Pit, Doctor Who, Alien (in Scott’s film the human explorers enter another world via a vaginal opening – here, they do it via an unmistakably anal orifice … make of that what you will) and then there is the whole Romero/Dracula contagion premise. But the film also helped later efforts to visualize their own ideas. The whale-calling interstellar toboggan from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home stems from the geostationary orbit that the vampire ship parks itself in above London. The idea of a profoundly dangerous yet devastatingly seductive female monster was also incorporated into the equally daft and thespian-stuffed SF romp, Species. And even 28 Days and Weeks Later and World War Z seem to owe little visual nods to how Hooper marshaled his rampage through the streets of a metropolis. WWZ even pinches the rapid-fire need to latch onto another victim pretty damn pronto, once you’ve been infected.
Lifeforce is very definitely a guilty pleasure. Opulent, outrageous and off its trolley, it is a masterpiece of genre shotgunning. Not everything hits the target, and the resulting impact makes quite a mess, but you would be hard-pushed to find an elaborate, big budget schlocker that is anywhere near as entertaining as this.
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