Lifeforce was originally billed as “from the director of Poltergeist“. That’s only partially true, as it has become legend how little control Tobe “The Texas Chainsaw Massace” Hooper actually had on set, with Steven Spielberg being the one really in charge. So when Cannon Films offered him a three picture deal with the incentive of complete creative control, you bet he leapt at the chance. With the aid of Alien Co-Writer Dan O’Bannon and the biggest budget Cannon ever offered, his first film was this enormously ambitious production (The other two films were the Invaders from Mars remake and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which will also be released from Arrow in November). Unfortunately, this ended up being a flop, and something of the beginning of the end for Cannon Films. However, it did develop quite a healthy afterlife on home video, and became a cult title. Now Arrow Films have brought Lifeforce back in a dazzling new Blu-ray edition, and while the film still has a lot of problems, what works about it stands out all the more.
Space Shuttle Churchill, a US/UK joint operation, have discovered something while investigating Halley’s Comet; a hundred and fifty mile long apparently derelict alien ship. On board, the crew discover, among a large number of huge, bat-like corpses, three perfectly preserved humanoid bodies, which they decide to bring back to Earth. This turns out to be a very bad idea, as the three aren’t dead, definitely not human, and they have an appetite for the very energies of life. What’s more, their victims also rise with the same hunger…
This film is one that wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s based on a novel by Colin Wilson, The Space Vampires, but there are some very obvious other sources that have gone into this. Much of the path of the story is similar in structure to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The lone expedition to the vampire’s lair, the ship bringing them back to England who’s crew falls prey to them; those familiar with the original story will have fun playing “spot the plot-point” with this. It also has a lot in common with Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials; in fact, bits and pieces from all of the stories turn up in here roughly in order. One can also see a lot of the screenwriter’s previous Alien in the opening sequence, even down to the organic look of the ship. Finally, the climax has a full-blown zombie apocalypse, with its undead looking a lot like the ones in O’Bannon’s own The Return of the Living Dead. All these different sources have been drawn together into one fairly unique experience.
This is one of the issues with this film though; it’s almost overstuffed with ideas. So much is happening, so many concepts being bought up that at times it’s hard to keep up. The film starts out with a creepy investigation of an alien ship, and by the end London is tearing itself apart in a frenzy of the undead and supernatural forces. Looking back you can find yourself going “how the heck did we get from there to here”, especially given the film’s odd diversions, like a side trip to an insane asylum that really only fills up running time. That also brings up the way that the space vampires’ powers seem to change as the story requires. The asylum comes from a subplot where it turns out the vampires can hide their minds in other people, but what exactly they gain from doing this is pretty unclear. It’s not the only time the film seems to change the rules of how the whole thing works, and there’s at least one big revelation at the end that seems completely mystifying.
It’s also worth mentioning that there’re some dodgy gender politics at work. The vampires are lead by the “Space Girl” (Mathilda May) who spends almost all her scenes in the buff, something the film draws a lot of attention to. What’s more, there aren’t any more major female characters, outside a nurse the Space Girl may have swapped minds with, and she’s not treated that well either. In the film’s defence, this can be seen as another Dracula reference, only this time an inversion. In the original, Dracula was often shown as being irresistible to women, while here it’s the other way around. Female empowerment, or the excuse to have enough nudity to seriously beef-up the number of teenage boys that rented the VHS; you decide.
As for production, it’s clear that all of the film’s $25 Million dollar budget ended up on screen. It’s a real effects roller coaster, from the opening space scenes, to the apocalyptic finale. Not only are there some very effective make-up effects on the vampires and their victims, but Star Wars‘ John Dykstra delivers with a lot of streams of blue unearthly light visual effects (hey, Hooper did bring something from Poltergeist after all.). Performances are quite good all around, although Steve Railsback‘s somewhat histrionic performance as space shuttle survivor Carlsen does often invoke a few giggles, as does the sometimes almost Ed Wood levels of dialogue. Mathilda May does actually give a truly ethereal and strange feel to the female vampire, and is a definitely credible threat throughout, so much you almost forget about the matter of her wardrobe. Also, watch out for Patrick Stewart, only a couple of years before Star Trek The Next Generation getting a jaw dropping scene between him and Railsback.
Arrow’s restoration of the film is breathtaking, a major step-up from the old non-anamorphic DVD release. The Blu-ray is on two discs, for the two different cuts of the film, the shorter US theatrical cut and the international cut. For record, the international cut is the better one, not least for having more of Henry Mancini‘s score and the full opening on the alien ship. Speaking of, the restoration does allow one to truly marvel at what a slick production this was, with the model work used in the Churchill scenes standing out. Extras include a feature length documentary Cannon Fodder, getting a perspective on the film from the British cast and crew, interviews with Hooper, May and Railsback, and three separate commentaries.
Lifeforce as a well-told story is more than a bit of a shambles, with a confusing, meandering story and some obvious exploitation elements. However, it’s never boring, has a lot of ambition, and there’s plenty to sit back and just look at. It’s a shame that it didn’t do well at the box office, as it’s not bad, certainly not much worse than a lot of other films Cannon were doing around the same time. This new edition has a lot of love behind it, and is highly recommended to fans and to those discovering this for the first time.