The year 1985 proved to be an epic year for the horror movie business. That year saw the release of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator as well as George Romero’s Day of the Dead. 1985 also saw the release of Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead and Lamberto Bava’s Demons. Tobe Hooper released a lesser celebrated, equally but important gem in 1985 called Lifeforce. What a year to have a subscription to Fangoria magazine! Famous for creating one of the greatest horror movies of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper directed Lifeforce as part of a three picture deal with Cannon Films.
Lifeforce could be classified as a science-fiction film as it concerns the discovery of a race of space vampires that have been hiding in tail of Haley’s Comet. The film takes place in Britain. Likewise it has a very British feel with long dialog driven scenes with a lot of static shots. It feels very much like British horror films of the 60’s and 70’s. Sticking with that archetype, the pacing is methodical and deliberate. Lifeforce represents a significant departure from previous Tobe Hooper works.
The Opening – The Spacecraft Churchill
Much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film begins with an extended narrative. It rattles off some nonsense about a special Nerva engine that can simulate gravity. This detail proven inconsequential to the rest of the movie, so one wonders why Hooper added it in the first place. The narrative sets the stage for an American/British joint excursion on the space shuttle Churchill. The mission is to investigate Haley’s Comet. The crew detects a massive derelict craft hiding in the comets coma.
Lead by Colonel Tom Carlsen, played by Steve Railsback, the crew disembarks to investigate. I will forever be amazed at the willingness of scientists to leave a perfectly safe spacecraft to investigate an alien ship that they know nothing about. Apparently these scientists don’t watch the same movies that I do.
Interestingly, Dan O’Bannon wrote the screenplay for this film. You may recognize that name from another movie with a similar plot, Alien (1979). It is pretty clear that many of the design details of the ship resemble H.R. Geiger’s work on Alien, albeit at a much lower quality.
On-Board the Alien Vessel
Aboard the ship, the team encounters hundreds of large bat-like corpses floating inside the ship. These creatures are dead, dry and brittle. Continuing the search, the team discovers a massive chamber. Inside they find three human-like bodies in perfect condition, seemingly in a kind of stasis. One of the bodies is female, and the others are male. They choose to bring all three, and one of the dead bat creatures home.
Later, the Churchill floats haplessly in near-earth orbit. The NASA Space Shuttle Columbia docks with the Churchill and finds the ship and the crew to been burnt to a crisp. The three bodies from the derelict craft were preserved safely in their pods. The crew of the Columbia bring the bodies back to earth.
The opening scenes are the hardest to enjoy. I wonder if Tobe Hooper was learning CGI on the job. It’s easy to say that things look good for 1985, but better effects had been adequately established by this time. This film had a budget of $25 million dollars. Alien(1979) set the bar with half of the budget. There is point where one one of the crew exclaims that the tunnel they are in looks like a giant artery. Conversely, at that exact moment I was literally thought they were floating in a giant lower colon
Additionally, the crew’s dialog is clunky and ails to provide authenticity. The crews movement through space in their space-suits is comical. Again, the whole things started with an out-of-place narrative about some baloney technology bits. Likewise, it provided nothing of value that couldn’t have been communicated through five or six lines of well planned dialog. It does get better.
Lifeforce – Space Vampires vs. Classic Vampires
Once on earth, the action starts rather quickly. Once freed from her pod, the woman vampire, played by Mathilda May, reanimates. She drains the lifeforce from the first person she comes into contact with. With space vampires, the mechanics work slightly differently than the traditional bite on the neck. Instead, the space vampires initiate more of an energy transfer buy pulling the bluish electrical light from the victims body. Fortunately, the special effects for this process dramatically improve. In fact, it appears that Tobe Hooper borrows some design sensibilities from his previous film, Poltergeist.
The space vampires share other features of conventional vampires. They possess a mind control power over their victims, and draw them close through extreme sexual attraction. Furthermore, the vampires change shape. These shapes could be that of other humans. They also can commandeer a persons body and ride shotgun like a psychic parasite. Finally, the ‘bite’ of the vampire transfers the infection to the host, condemning them to harvest the lifeforce of other to survive. The victims must feed every two hours or they shrivel into a emaciated corpse.
If not for Tobe Hooper, Lifeforce would be easy to dismiss as just another science-fiction film. However, the craft of Tobe Hooper goes much deeper than that. Disregarding a few details here and there, this film follows a very familiar template.
Anyone steeped in classic horror easily recognizes it influence on this film. It calls back to some of the Hammer Studios horror films we know and love. For starters, Tobe Hooper invests heavily in the in the lady vampire motif. Second, the dry English way of shooting long dialog driven scenes with static camera angles is a Hammer hallmark. Finally, and most importantly, there is a ‘Van Helsing’ and he has style like Peter Cushing did in the Hammer horror films.
Dr. Falladay plays the eccentric scientist that knows a little something that everyone else doesn’t. He researches life and death. Accordingly, his research reveals that life is predicated on a force, a lifeforce. Fallday understands the nature of the vampire zombies. He deciphers their needs and limitations. Even more critical, he discovers another similarity. He believes that the space vampires bear a striking resemblance to vampires of legend. He discovers that they have a similar weakness. A leaded iron ‘stake’ buried in the energy-center of the space vampires, right below the heart, will kill them.
For Hooper, what’s old is new. And his deviation on the traditional vampire cliche is masterful.
The space vampires escape from the lab, violently sucking the lifeforce from several guards along the way. Subsequently, a beacon from an escape pod from the Churchill is detected. Later, A search party rescues Colonel Carlsen from the pod. The second act of the film chronicles a manhunt for the vampires. Carlsen and his partner Caine try to find the female. The lady vampire hitches a ride in a female body, Ellen, to avoid detection. Colonel Carlsen shares a neural link with the female vampire, and it able to track her. Meanwhile, the male space vampires are disguised as soldiers and are infecting the entire city of London with their disease.
In one of the more revealing scenes, Carlsen finds the female vampire hiding in the body of Dr. Armstrong, played by Sir Patrick Stewart. They sedate Armstrong’s body and question her. She reveals that their bodies are not important to them and that they assumed their current forms right before Carlsen’s crew boarded the ship. Specifically, she pulled her image from deepin Carlsen’s mind. To him, she is the perfect answer to his desires.
Later, Carlsen explains that it was he that opened her pod, lamenting that he was overwhelmed with feelings of desire. “I was in love on a level you will never know, Caine.”
Finale – Channeling the Lifeforce to the Mothership
Back on London, the male vampires have been spreading their plague exponentially. The city descends into chaos. Buildings burn, explosions fill the sky and vampire zombies scramble in the streets. The female vampire takes root in a cathedral as she siphons energy from the zombies and channels it to the mothership. She beckons Carlsen to join her. Meanwhile, Carlsen’s partner Caine procures a leaded iron dagger from Falladay and storms the cathedral. During their embrace, the female vampire explains to Carlsen that she gifted him her lifeforce when he opened her pod. This transformed him into a real space vampire, not a zombie castoff.
Eventually, Caine is able to get the dagger to Carlsen. Carlsen stabs both himself and the vampire as the embrace. This destroys the energy channel and the world is saved. Refueled with fresh lifeforce, the spaceship leaves to find another world to pillage.
Lifeforce – Not Perfect, but Clearly Under-Rated
When released in 1985, Lifeforce missed with audiences and critics. At the time of its release I was just a kid. I will admit that the moved a bit slower than many of the horror films released that year. When comparing Return of the Living Dead to Lifeforce, one finds two completely different styles of film. Over the years Lifeforce aged very well.
Tobe Hooper does a tremendous job creating a cerebral thriller. Undoubtedly, anyone watching the film notices the inherent sex appeal that permeates the film. Again, Hooper’s tip of the cap to the history of vampire cinema while maintaining a unique angle is a testament to his mastery of horror story telling.
Along with the greatness, the film stumble in a few areas. To recap, lame opening narration gives way to some sub-par space effects. Orchestrated by John Dykstra, these effects blaze with dazzling color, but fail to evoke the realism of films like Alien. Steve Railsback’s performance as Colonel Carlsen is terribly flat. Considering his over-the-top role as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter, I found the performance disappointing.
All said and done, the goodness of Lifeforce far outweighs the bad. It may fall just short of being a classic, but it is a very good film and a must for vampire fans.
Lifeforce (1985) - The London Space Vampire Massacre - Malevolent Dark
Director: Tobe Hooper
Date Created: 1985-01-01 00:00