Lifeforce was the first of three films that Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, among others) directed for Cannon Films, a studio known for for its schlocky, violent (and often awesome) action titles. What Hooper and company ultimately delivered was a sci-fi fever dream that could have only come out of a place like Cannon when given 25 million dollars to spend.
This movie was Hooper’s follow-up to worldwide box-office smash Poltergeist, and Lifeforce plays like its strange, EC Comics-obsessed evil twin. It’s almost as if having Steven Spielberg hanging around was cramping his style. Ancient spirits attracted to a little girl’s life force keep her hostage from her family? Ho-hum. Nude space vampires sucking the life force from people by more or less making out a lot? Now we’re talking.
Adapted from Colin Wilson’s amusingly-titled novel The Space Vampires, Lifeforce follows the crew of ship who happen upon a massive umbrella-like spaceship in the plasma crown of Halley’s Comet. Inside, the crew finds, among several hundred dried-up bat-man corpses, three humanoids encased in crystal. Naturally, they bring them aboard their ship, and all hell breaks loose. What starts off as a mission to locate one of the escaped space vampires ultimately leads to the whole of London being reduced to a post-apocalyptic pile of rubble and zombies.
If that plot sounds like it has a few links and segues missing, that isn’t because I’ve omitted them for the sake of this review. It is very much because they aren’t there. Lifeforce is driven not necessarily by its plot, but by the strength of its imagery. The digital effects have a timeless cheeseball quality to them (including prisms of soft blue light seemingly held over from Poltergeist), while the practical effects are top-notch, nailing the creepy, otherworldy vibe the film aims for. This is doubly impressive because the film doesn’t bat an eyelash at its own ludicrousness. Everything, from Patrick Stewart yelling like a banshee to Steve Railsback’s strange, pervy staring to its copious amounts of female nudity is played 100% straight. It is an honest-to-God pulp sci-fi epic, up there with David Lynch’s Dune; they’re movies whose reach are in complete defiance of their grasp.
The script, co-written by Dan O’Bannon, has some of Alien‘s grubby xenomorph fingerprints on it, though Lifeforce is nowhere near as lean or tense as Alien is. Instead, this feels more like O’Bannon’s Dark Star, where the script is basically an excuse for weird and/or amazing things to happen on screen. In Dark Star, it was a series of stoner-era dark comedy, absurdism and slapstick. Here, it’s raw phantasmagorical visual spectacle, all columns of light and animatronic mannequins.
Ultimately, Lifeforce has the same loud, boisterous, completely po-faced quality I admired in John Boorman’s Excalibur, but with space vampires instead of knights and wizards. Almost everything is shot with wide lenses, giving this whole universe another layer of eeriness and distortion. A feat of practical effects and ambitious sci-fi bric-a-brac that isn’t always cogent, but never less than fascinating.
Lifeforce is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.
Directed by Tobe Hooper; written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby; based on the novel The Space Vampiresby Colin Wilson; starring Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May, and Patrick Stewart; 100 minutes.