Written by: Dan O'Bannon & Don Jakoby (screenplay), Colin Wilson (novel)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, and Mathilda May
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“That girl was no girl. She's totally alien to this planet and our life form... and totally dangerous."
In the twenty years since its demise, Cannon Films has achieved a cult appreciation that belies its status as a Hollywood laughingstock towards the end of the 80s. It was an appropriate and timely demise, as the studio was finally crushed under the weight of its own excess just as the decade of excess was winding down, thus solidifying itself as the quintessential movie studio for the 80s. And if that’s the case, then Lifeforce is quite possibly the masterwork of the Cannon repertoire—a big, nutty, “Cannon Extravaganza” indeed, one that’s so excessive that it bleeds over its own edges and refuses to contain itself to one genre. You may be inclined to laugh at it, but to do so is a defense mechanism to keep you from crying at the fact that major Hollywood studios aren’t making movies like this anymore.
The first of three Cannon features directed by Tobe Hooper, Lifeforce pairs the Texas Chain Saw Massacre director with Dan O’Bannon, who looked to be recapturing Alien glory. This seems especially noticeable when the film opens in space, where the crew of the Churchill discovers an ominous structure floating near Haley’s Comet. After exploring the spaceship, they discover a horde of dead bats and three humanoid figures (including a very naked Mathilda May). Their return journey goes badly, as mission control loses contact with the ship and decides to investigate. They find a ghost ship that’s been ravaged by fire and only contains the three humanoid aliens. Naturally, the trio is brought to Earth so scientists can perform an autopsy on their presumably dead bodies. That’s the wrong presumption. The female (a still very, gloriously naked Mathilda May) suddenly springs forth and literally drains the life(force) from the guard left to watch her.
So, within like 20 minutes of this one, you’ve got a perpetually naked Mathilda May roaming the English countryside, sapping hapless victims and reducing them to grotesque husks—and that’s just the launching point! It gets even nuttier from there when it’s discovered that Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) jetted from the Churchill in an escape pod. He’s recovered in Texas and returned to Britain in the hopes that he’ll be able to explain just what in the hell is going on, and, eventually, everyone starts to connect the dots: we’re dealing with space vampires (a fact known to the audience when the opening credits reveal that the film is adapted from Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires). And if Lifeforce were content to update the old vampire beats with a wacky sci-fi/fantasy slant (the opening scene is essentially the approach to Dracula’s castle by way of Alien), it’d be pretty cool.
But this is Golan and Globus we’re dealing with here, plus Hooper was no slouch (and arguably peaking right around this point—his brief Cannon run would end a year later with the gonzo Texas Chainsaw 2), so Lifeforce really goes after it. I assume Wilson’s novel is also responsible for a lot of the zaniness, and, if so, the film does not shy away from it. This is a very broad, very weird effort that unspools with reckless abandon. Taken as a whole, it feels incredibly audacious for this film to approach the two hour mark (it runs just short of 117 minutes in its uncut, European form), as it’s stuffed with enough ideas and modes to fill up three separate movies. What begins as an updated vampire tale shifts to a pod/possession movie, with Carlsen and company combing the countryside attempting to discover the vessel carrying the female vampire’s consciousness, a journey that leads them to a mental hospital run by Patrick Stewart.
As the film continues to mount, it starts to feel really bloated with the addition of various subplots (May’s vampire has taken Carlsen as her psychic, would-be lover), but the movie’s rarely boring. Each scene is nuttier than the last, and the film moves with relentless propulsion that relies on a ton of crazy exposition and expects viewers to keep up. Carlsen essentially acts as the world’s most cranked-out cipher, a total on-the-edge nutjob who screams his way through the film. He’s not exactly sympathetic as the tortured vampire’s lover—he’s just sort of there to have wild visions and make sure everyone is up to speed on the various developments, of which there are many. Let’s just say there’s so many that the film eventually morphs into a big, crazy disaster movie, where the nigh-apocalyptic London streets teem with the undead while the skies blaze with extraterrestrial lasers. It’s a huge, goddamn incredible mess, the likes of which I wish could be seen more often because Lifeforce goes down swinging and in a blaze of glory.
Which is not to say that Lifeforce is an abject failure. It’s certainly scatterbrained, ridiculous, and completely exploitative (did I mention that Mathilda May is naked for the entire movie?), but it’s also wildly entertaining and filled with top-notch special effects (gore and otherwise), and Hooper’s sense of direction is often striking. He’s far removed from the faux-documentary approach of Texas Chainsaw, as Lifeforce is painted on an expansive scope canvas that’s consistently splashed with bold visuals and accented by Henri Mancini’s blaring, swinging score. Some sequences meld the classic gothic trappings associated with vampires with a sleek, modern aesthetic, while the apocalyptic capper is an insane bit of controlled chaos. And then, of course, there is the (frequently) aforementioned May, a French beauty in a role that has her functioning as the most alluring sort of eye candy. She’s obviously gorgeous, but she has a truly impressive presence that captures both a detached, inhuman alien quality and the absolute sex and charm of a vampire. I imagine that video stores often flowed with the blood of 14 year old boys battling for the opportunity to rent Lifeforce on account of her.
There’s a certain irony to Cannon’s run; in retrospect, they’ve become a poster child for 80s decadence and representative of that decade’s populist filmmaking. Golan and Globus were rarely interested in “high art” and were fully committed to popcorn fare, but few did it with more aplomb, and their filmography is littered with odd, insane risks like this one. For all its extravagance and bloat, Lifeforce has an ambition we don’t see a whole of anymore from current mainstream genre output. This isn’t a rant against modern horror (after all, The Cabin in the Woods is a daring masterpiece), but it does speak to how neutered the blockbuster landscape has become. Cannon didn’t just dump Lifeforce into theaters but staked it as a tent pole right in the middle of the summer movie season, where it quickly faded and was well on its way to becoming a cult classic. It’d be easy to also consider Lifeforce a poster child for Cannon’s demise, as it was a massively budgeted auteur-driven project with very little sense of restraint; however, it was also a massively budgeted auteur-driven project centered around fucking space vampires, and, for that, Cannon should be commended (and eternally canonized for introducing the world to May). What felt like a folly back then feels more like an undeserved calamity now.
It’s arguable that the world just wasn’t ready for Lifeforce, but it’s now had over 25 years to figure it out. It has rightfully become a cult classic, which still has done it few favors on home video during the past decade, where it’s been resigned to a lackluster, non-anamorphic DVD since 1998. That changes with Scream Factory’s impending collector’s edition, though, as the Shout label has restored the film with a glorious high definition transfer for both DVD and Blu-ray. The film (which is presented in its Hooper-preferred uncut European form and the truncated U.S. edition) looks unbelievably pristine and crisp, while the 5.1 DTS-MA soundtrack is rich, robust, and incredibly aggressive. A horde of special features provide both new and old supplements, including a newly-produced retrospective featuring the film’s cast and crew, a vintage making-of featurette, a couple of trailers, TV spots, a still gallery, and a pair of audio commentaries. One features Hooper, while the other contains the musings of effects artist Nick Maley, who crafts some truly jaw-dropping practical gags throughout the film. Long-suffering Lifeforce fans finally have the special edition they deserve, while the rest of the world can finally play catch-up with this thoroughly 80s relic that makes for a good curiosity piece because it’s not only very weird—it’s also very fascinating. Buy it!
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