In the 1980s, Israeli film-producing cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were in charge of the Cannon Group, a filmmaking company that had been around since the late ’70s and, under Golan and Globus, were known for making mid-budgeted genre films from bargain-basement scripts. It was they who made the Death Wish sequels, Chuck Norris action yarns like The Delta Force, the Sly Stallone suck-fest Cobra, and the incredibly stupid and hence legendary dance movie, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. (They also produced Hercules and Invaders from Mars, about which I’ve already written.) However, everything seemed to come together for them when, in 1985, they somehow got director Tobe Hooper, writer Dan O’Bannon, composer Henry Mancini, and special effects legend John Dykstra together to make a movie about naked vampires from outer space. And it was awesome, you guys. That movie, of course, is Lifeforce.
Based on Colin Wilson’s aptly-named novel The Space Vampires, Lifeforce is a mixture of science fiction, gothic horror, apocalyptica, erotic literature, and ’80s schlock that works so incredibly well. As the story goes, Golan had a meeting with Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, who had more or less just come off of Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, and asked him to read the Wilson novel over a weekend at a resort (paid for by Golan, of course). Hooper obliged and quickly decided he’d direct, but wouldn’t write, the film. For that, he turned to somebody who was familiar with the mixing of sci-fi and horror, Alien writer Dan O’Bannon and his then-writing partner Don Jakoby.
The story begins out in deep space aboard the Churchill, a jointly-funded space shuttle mission by the British and Americans. The expedition is commanded by Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), and it’s meant to get as close to Haley’s Comet as possible. They spot something in the comet’s tail: a 150-mile-long spindly object that appears to be man made. Carlsen and several crew members jet over to the object in spacesuits and find it to be fast and cavernous. Eventually, much to their horror, they find dead creatures, which look to them like enormous bats. Exploring further, they find a huge hive-like piece in the middle of which are three nude humans (or humanoids), a female (Mathilda May) and two males, in suspended animation. Carlsen is strangely drawn to the female (probably because she’s hot and naked), and they bring all three, plus one of the bat creatures, back aboard the ship.
Thirty days later, the Churchill reenters Earth orbit, but there’s no answer. A retrieval party finds the ship’s crew and interior to be dead and burnt to a crisp, all except for the three nude people. They are brought to the Space Research Centre in London, whereupon Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) and Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) begin to piece together what happened. Each of the aliens are placed in quarantine, but a weak-willed young guard goes into the female’s cell and she wakes up, kisses him, and promptly sucks the life out of him, leaving him a shriveled husk. She escapes the facility and makes her naked way into the London streets. Bukovsky calls in Special Air Services (sort of like the secret service of Britain) Col. Caine (Peter Firth) for help. While an autopsy is begun on the guard, he suddenly sits up and sucks the life out of the medical examiner. It appears, as Fallada (an expert in living and dying… you know, normal) figures out, the aliens are spreading a lifeforce-sucking disease that could spread forever unless properly contained.
While the womanhunt continues, it appears that Carlsen, who was aboard an escape pod, lands in Texas. He’s shaken up from his ordeal in space and gets brought over to England to help Caine and Fallada figure out what’s going on. He knows more than he’s letting on, but apparently, the “space vampires,” as Fallada has taken to calling them, sucked the life out of the crew, but left Carlsen alive for reasons. Carlsen has a connection to the female and he and Caine chase its trail up the countryside while Fallada attempts to figure out a cure. Only, he doesn’t realize that the two male vampires haven’t died and soon the whole city of London is overrun by deteriorating, life-sucking zombie people.
This is a movie that starts weird and just gets weirder. There are so many themes and styles at work here and, somehow, they all seem to work. The ideas seem to mesh together in a way that might not seem applicable if you just hear the premise “vampires from outer space.” I mean, Mario Bava did that in the 1960s, but it wasn’t quite the same thing. As O’Bannon did so well in Alien, the melding of science fiction and gothic horror plays with the best aspects of both. In Alien, it was the haunted house movie only in space, and here, it’s the ancient European succubus myths, but attributing them to extraterrestrials that visit every 76 years, when Halley’s Comet returns. Genius ideas.
There is actually two full movies’ worth of plot going on in Lifeforce. It’s like we’re watching both part 1 and part 2 of a saga all at once. One whole movie could have been about the spaceship finding the vampire ship, retrieving the vampires, the crew slowly being driven mad and dying before finally the last man standing (or floating) torches the ship and escapes, only for it to be found and brought to Earth. That could be an entire movie. Then, the sequel could have been the vampire aliens waking up and causing havoc while Fallada and Caine try to stop it. Then, when Carlsen lands, he’d be the holdover from the first movie. As it is, we get the first movie sped up and told in pieces while the second movie plays. This works very well and allows us never to fully know what’s going on, even if we think we do, because we don’t know the whole story yet.
The character of Fallada acts as a Van Helsing-type of older hero. He’s the one who figures out what’s going on and is the “expert” in the phenomenon, even if nobody’s ever seen it before. Casting Frank Finlay in this role was a stroke of genius. While not as immediately recognizable as Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, Finlay nevertheless was a staple of British horror in the ‘60s and ‘70s and often played characters such as these, who give the otherwise ridiculous and outlandish subject matter a much-needed sense of gravitas and legitimacy. He’s terrific.
Railsback is a nutjob of an actor and perfectly suited to a role as someone being driven slowly mad by alien vampires. His performance is over-the-top, but it fits the rather baroque nature of the movie. Similarly, Firth as Col. Caine is smarmy, slick, but also heroic when necessary, and the two play off each other very nicely. Also in the film is Patrick Stewart as an insane asylum director who gets taken over by the vampire girl’s essence. So, if you ever wanted to see Captain Picard pretending to be a woman alien, this is the movie for you.
Hooper’s direction is masterful. This may well be his most accomplished film. He took what he learned on Poltergeist with the big, huge special effects and added his own sense of style and dread we saw in earlier films like The Funhouse and Texas Chainsaw. This movie has huge sequences, and Hooper carries them off with “aplomb,” which is a word I’ve seen used before. Having John Dykstra (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, other awesome things) involved doing special effects makes everything look that much better. The space stuff looks amazing, and they were even able do a fair amount of stuff with the astronauts on a soundstage to make everything seem more realistic. There are enormous model shots of London in ruins toward the end of the movie that are so big, they actually were able to use remote controlled helicopters that were to scale.
Lifeforce is a movie that grows on you, spreading like the vampire plague. Even if you acknowledge its crap-cinema tendencies, you have to appreciate that, by rights, none of the disparate elements should make a cohesive narrative and yet they do. The movie was not a big hit, but over time it has grown into one of those “cult classics” people keep talking about. It’s even going to be shown in Los Angeles’ Aero Theater this weekend, I’m told. There are things for horror and sci-fi fans alike in this movie, and it’s definitely more than just, “The movie where the woman is naked the whole time.” But, seriously, she’s naked pretty much the whole time.