As the BBC is today carrying a live feed from the descent of the European Space Agency probe Philae onto the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the time is ripe to repost my review of Arrow’s excellent blu-ray release of Tobe Hoopers 1985 documentary Lifeforce. So here it is…
Lifeforce presents a rather rare problem for me as an honest film critic, you see I think it’s rubbish. Total crap. A catastrophe of galactic proportions. Which would be fine, except for that I also adore it. This is, especially in the longer ‘international’ version, a deliriously entertaining bad movie.
The first of a three picture deal between fondly remember titans of eighties cinematic drek Cannon and then hot director Tobe Hooper (fresh off Poltergeist) Lifeforce was an extremely expensive production. Its relative failure, and the failure of the next two films Hooper made for the studio (Invaders from Mars and Texas Chain Saw Massacre Part 2) pretty much consigned the director to the Z-list. Cannon struggled on through the rest of the decade but like many an vibrant upstart studio it flew too close to the sun, overreaching and overspending.
Based on a Colin Wilson novel called The Space Vampires (the film’s early marketing still carried that title) Lifeforce is clearly derivative of the 1953 BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment (remade by Hammer in 1955 as The Quatermass Xperiment). Both stories concern a alien organism brought back to earth by a manned space mission which threatens life on earth. Both stories largely take place in London, and climax in spectacular fashion in places of worship. In The Quatermass Experiment the final battle takes place in Westminster Abbey, in Lifeforce St. Paul’s Cathedral. Hooper hired his friend Dan O’Bannon to adapt Wilson’s novel into a screenplay. The late O’Bannon’s résumé includes Dark Star, Alien, Blue Thunder, The Return of the Living Dead and Total Recall so you might expect something of equal quality. You would be wrong. What you get is in fact something quite amazing, in essence this is a $100 million dollar episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace in 70mm.
Arrow’s lavish blu-ray includes two versions of the film. Ignore the shorter MGM dictated American cut for the longer International version, there is more violence and nudity, and the short version truncates the film’s magnificent space set opening act.
The plot is thus, Space shuttle Churchill is approaching Halley’s Comet when it discovers a 150 mile long alien cock hiding in the comet’s tail (I hope the mega-johnson at least bought the comet dinner first, but this detail is tragically omitted). As a 150 mile long extraterrestrial phallus is not something you discover every day the shuttle’s captain decides to investigate. What the astronauts find inside the cosmic schlong (after travelling through a giant galactic vag filled with huge bats) is… A HOT NAKED BABE (Mathilda May) – also two naked guys but no one really cares about them. It’s around about this time that mission control lose contact with the shuttle.
A rescue mission finds the Churchill bereft of human life. The crew have apparently perished in a fire. However the rescue team do find transparent disco coffins containing A HOT NAKED BABE – and the two guys no one is looking at.
Once returned to research facilities in the heart of London a team of scientists investigates the HOT NAKED BABE and more or less forgets the two other guys because they don’t have her magnificent rack. The scientists plan to dissect her, but before they can she awakes and all hell breaks loose. See the HOT NAKED BABE is in fact a… space… vampire… and is hell bent on sucking the life-force from everyone around her and sending it back to the colossal astral dong now in low earth orbit.
Did I mention the monster is a. HOT, and b. NAKED? I did? Okay, just checking.
Do not fear hoomins of earth, for there is a surviving astronaut from the Churchill, Colonel Carlsen (Railsback) and he is an American. Hoo-ha. Carlsen joins forces with SAS Colonel Caine (Peter Firth looking like he thinks he works for UNIT) to find a way of vanquishing the unearthly feminine fiend and disable her twin weapons of extreme HOTNESS and NAKEDNESS.
There are some problems with this scenario. Firstly, it is very hard to be scared by a space vampire when she looks like Mathilda May, apologies for being indelicate, but the actress is fit and don’t she know it. Hilariously Hooper does seem to think having a very well developed young lady walking around stark naked is indeed quite frightening and he makes sure she is sans clothes as often as possible.
The film is full of noted British thespians who can’t believe either the pay cheque or the dialogue. There are some appalling lines delivered with all the gravitas understudying Gielgud (who was originally to star alongside Klaus Kinski) at the National can provide. When confronted by a winged alien hell demon on the steps of St. Paul’s Firth does the campiest rendition of stunned surprise in cheesy horror history. Lead Railsback is utterly terrible, reportedly method acting being subject to the romantic attentions of an intergalactic succubus (how does one do that?) Railsback also has an incredible scene where he has to french kiss Patrick Stewart who has been tied to a gurney. Honestly there are so many great moments it would be a shame to give away more.
But here’s the rub, whilst the cast are barely able to keep a straight face (apart from the gormless American), the dialogue laughable, and the plot full of holes, the execution is often incredible. In the accompanying making off it is strongly implied that, er, there was a lot of powdered chemicals being imbibed during production (honestly, I’m shocked) but the film looks fantastic. Shot by Alan Hume who had lensed a lot of Bond movies, the picture utilises primary colours in clear homage to Mario Bava. The special effects work is still outstanding today and supervised by John Dykstra of Star Wars fame. Especially impressive are the desiccated corpses that the homicidal space chick leaves in her wake. These reanimate to then attack the living, and look like the undead from an EC comics strip.
I generally despise the term ‘guilty pleasure,’ you either like a movie or not, but Lifeforce is one of those rare bad movies that is both entertaining and pleasurable. Any fan of B movies, and sci-fi/horror junk has to check this out. It is infinitely more entertaining than the SyFy channel crap that has usurped good honest schlock nowadays.
For AV quality obsessives, Arrows restoration (supervised by Hooper) is superb and the film looks fantastic. There is a 5.1 remix, and an isolated score track.
Extras: a pretty impressive package. Three commentaries, including one with Hooper. A substantial making off that benefits from participants being able to say what the hell they like because they are all retired. Separate interviews with May, and a hilariously deluded Railsback who thinks the film is a masterpiece. MGM and Cannon trailers. All in all pretty good stuff.
This review was previously published on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/