In the 1980s, Cannon Films became a prolific producer of low-to-mid budget movies across a whole range of genres, who were best known for cheap and cheerful action-thrillers such as Missing In Action and American Ninja. However with Lifeforce they wanted to go big, hiring Tobe Hooper shortly after Poltergeist to make them a sci-fi epic.
It was one of the most expensive movies of 1985, which the always hyperbolic Cannon billed as ‘the sci-fi event of the 80s’. However the problem with the movie is that it has the script and sensibility of one of their really cheap movies, but with lots of very expensive sets and special effects. That’s perhaps not surprising considering it went into production under the title, ‘Space Vampires’.
Unsurprisingly it didn’t become a hit, but over the years it’s developed quite a cult following. You can see why because it’s campy, silly but fun, with moments that range from the unintentionally hilarious to the really rather impressive. In that respect it’s somewhat similar to Cannon’s other mid-80s attempts to conquer the mainstream sci-fi market, Masters Of The Universe.
The film opens with the British spaceship Churchill on a rendezvous with Halley’s Comet. However it’s not an iceball, it’s a 150 mile long alien craft containing desiccated, bat-like creatures. The crew also find pods containing a naked woman and two naked men, which they decide to take back with them. When the Churchill arrives at Earth, the crew is dead, except for one man – Carlsen (Steve Railsback), who managed to get away in an escape pod.
The Brits take charge of the naked aliens, who aren’t as dead as they appear. Soon the woman (Mathilda May) has woken up and revealed that she has the power the drain people of their lifeforce in order the feed herself. While her victims appear dead, they soon come back to life and want others’ lifeforce. What the Churchill has found are space vampires, who may be the source of the blood suckers of legend.
Attempts to contain the creatures soon fail and the female is out on the streets of London. Tracking her becomes even more difficult when it becomes clear she can shift her consciousness into other people. The only person who can track her down is Carlsen, who appears to have some sort of psychic connection with the woman.
It’s an impressively silly story, but there’s an odd amusement in how serious and committed everyone is to it. The likes of Frank Finlay, Peter Firth and Patrick Stewart really put their all into it, and they do a surprisingly good job of making you swallow what’s going on – almost. There’s also a vast amount of effort gone into the sets and special effects to tell this ridiculous story, and while some of the SFX now looks a little cheesy, a lot of it holds up surprisingly well.
While the seriousness could have made it eye-rollingly awful, mixed into this are moments where a line in the script is so daft that it can’t help but make you smile, especially considering how committed the actors are to it. The same is true of the endless scenes of exposition, where the cast gamely wade through acres of explanation, saying the silliest of things as if the fate of the world rested on it – which I suppose in the movie they do. The effect is to allow you to drift into a state of entertained mild incredulity.
There are also things such as the female alien’s seeming inability to wear clothes. There’s no real need for it apart from the vaguely pornographic showing off of female flesh and a vaguely sexist edge to the script of women’s sexuality sucking the life out of men. Mixed with some Austin Powers-esque moments where things move into place to hide genitalia – especially of the male aliens – it can’t help but bring a wry smile.
Lifeforce is far from a good film but it is a surprisingly entertaining one. Part of you will feel that this may be the stupidest movie you’ve ever seen, while the rest of you has an unexpected smile due to fun silliness of the whole thing. It helps that Tobe Hooper is actually a good director in terms of visuals and keeping things going, even if with Lifeforce he only has a vague idea of what audiences will and won’t think is impressively stupid. In the special features there’s a suggestion that Hooper may have been fuelled by more than just caffeine and youthful enthusiasm during the exceedingly long shoot, which may explain why he thought mega-budget space vampires would be such a huge hit.
This first UK Blu-ray release for the movie offers a great package. The film itself is offered in two versions, the shorter theatrical edition and the longer (and better) international version. Both transfers are well done, showing off all the work that went into the movie’s look and effects, which help to highlight how at odds these are with what’s actually going on onscreen.
Alongside the two versions of the movie are some good extras. The hour-long ‘Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce’ is well worth a look, with various members of the British crew talking about the making of the film, from the amount of drugs people took to the intricacies of trimming Mathilda May’s pubic hair. Tobe Hooper is on-hand, but it’s interesting that much of the time people talk about him with little comment from the man himself about his more eccentric behaviours.
It’s difficult to escape the impression that Cannon essentially gave Hooper whatever he wanted to make anything he felt like, without too much attention paid to what the film was and what was happening on set. It’s probably why Lifeforce is the sort of odd, idiosyncratic movie it’s difficult to imagine any company having given the greenlight – at least with the sort of budget it had – if there’d been the kind of Hollywood oversight that only cared about the true box office potential.
The release also features interviews with Hooper and stars Steve Railsback and Mathilda May (who shows here she can actually wear clothes), as well as a trio of audio commentaries. It’s a surprisingly interesting and informative bunch of extras, and it’s well worth going through them on the two discs that movie comes on. It may not back up the greatest film ever made, but Lifeforce is unexpectedly fun, and the story behind it is entertaining too.
Overall Verdict: Lifeforce is about as good as a movie originally called ‘Space Vampires’ was ever likely to be – amazingly silly, but made entertaining by how committed everyone is to the nonsense and some moments on unintentional humour. And with a good set of extras, it’s worth a look on Blu-ray.
‘Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce’ Documentary, Space Vampires in London: An interview with Tobe Hooper, Dangerous Beauty: An interview with Mathilda May, Lifeforce’s iconic star, Carlsen’s Curse: Star Steve Railsback looks back on Lifeforce and his career, Original Theatrical Trailers, Collector’s booklet
Reviewer: Tim Isaac