Doomsday Reels: Lifeforce

ReviewsRyan CoveyComment

Lifeforce (1985)

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The Director

Tobe Hooper

The Actors

Steve Railsback (Col. Tom Carlsen), Peter Firth (Col. Colin Caine), Frank Finlay (Dr. Hans Fallada), Mathilda May (Space Girl), Patrick Stewart (Dr. Armstrong)

The Trailer

The Cause

Space Vampires

The Story

"August 9th.  2:30 PM Greenwich Mean Time.  The HAAS Churchill outward bound.  Onboard a joint British/American Space Team, their mission to intercept and study the comet bearing Dr. Edmond Halley's name.  The Churchill is the first spacecraft equipped with he Nerva engine.  It propels the Churchill with constant acceleration, enough to create Earth-type gravity for the first time on an extended flight.  The Churchill is on course for its rendezvous." -opening narration

The Rundown

The recent death of filmmaker Tobe Hooper has ignited a desire in horror fandom to revisit his catalogue of movies in much the way that they did when Wes Craven and George A. Romero passed.  This revisit has brought some much needed attention to films that have always deserved it like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and The Mangler but also today's movie, Lifeforce.

Lifeforce is an adaptation of the Colin Wilson novel The Space Vampires and while it is absolutely as hokey as that name makes it sound it handles its subject matter surprisingly straight in the face of what I can assure you is complete absurdity.

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I'll break this down as concisely as I can.  A space vessel called The Churchill stumbles on a gigantic spacecraft in orbit around Halley's comet.  Upon investigation the crew of the Churchill finds the ship full of dead bat creatures and three naked humans encased in crystal coffins.  Some time later the Churchill is off course on its return trip home and an expedition to check on the ship's crew find the Churchill burned out and empty save for the three humans in crystal.  They take the coffins back to Earth where the female of the three awakens and sucks all the life essence out of a man, leaving only a desiccated corpse, and escaping into London.

The corpse wakes up on the autopsy table and drains the life energy out of a doctor, restoring it to its old human self and leaving the doctor a desiccated corpse.  It's soon found out that anyone whose life essence is taken by the woman becomes a sort of energy vampire that requires regular infusions of life-force every two hours or they will turn into dust.  There is no cure once infections.

Soon the Churchill's American Colonel, Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) lands in the Churchill's escape pod and explains that the woman drained all the crew onboard of life and he only escaped by exercising extreme will over her mesmerizing powers and setting the ship on fire.  Now Carlsen has a psychic connection and he goes out with an SAS Colonel (Peter Firth, no relation to Colin) to find the woman who has been body hopping around England using her mind control powers.  Meanwhile the victims of the woman are feeding on one another throughout London and the two males escape their own crystal coffins and begin to take over the city.

I've watched this movie several times now and I still have a hard time making sense of it.  I don't know why Space Girl (the name of Mathilda May's character in the credits) has the ability to invade people's minds or why she's even doing it.  I don't know why the males can shapeshift or why Steve Railsback's character has a mental link with Space Girl.  (She says he's one of them but that is never properly explained.)  I don't even quite know what the space vampires are doing on Earth, it seems if they just wanted to capture a load of human souls there are much less complicated ways in which to do that.

I don't understand why the first victims of Space Girl turn into dried out rod puppets but the later victims during the big chaotic finale look like run of the mill zombies.  I don't understand why lead to the sternum kills the vampires nor why Space Girl invades an Irish woman and Patrick Stewart.  I don't know how Space Girl becomes trapped in Patrick Stewart's body from sodium pentathol nor how she escapes from his brain by causing all the blood in his body to pool in the air in a bloody manifestation of herself that jumps out of a helicopter in spite of the fact that her body has apparently been in London Cathedral the entire time.

Nothing about Lifeforce or its plot makes much of any sense and though I'm sure a lot of these things made perfect sense on the page of a book, when acted out by actors they seem outright farcical.  I get what's actually happening when Space Girl is seducing Steve Railsback through Patrick Stewart's mind but what actually happens onscreen is that Steve Railsback tries to physically stop himself from passionately kissing an unconscious Patrick Stewart and failing.  Stewart has said that this scene was his first onscreen kiss.

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Lifeforce may not make a lick of sense but it is an incredibly entertaining movie.  Canon Films' lurid paws are all over this movie and there are a myriad of wonderful practical effects throughout the film that are memorable.

The shots of the interior of the alien space-craft are magnificent and the puppets of the dessicated corpses are suitably creepy.  The zombie make-up in the third act is pretty good and the giant bat creature that Peter Firth fights at the end looks amazing.

Many of the morphing effects of people changing are goofy and not terribly believable but it doesn't lessen their impact to look so obviously unreal.  That's not to say that they don't elicit laughter, like that fake bloody-spewing Patrick Stewart head above, but they work well in conveying what they're meant to show.

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Or course the thing most talked about in this movie is Mathilda May's naked body.  Given Canon's r-rated films for 12-year-olds business model and the era in which it was released, Mathilda May's breasts were one of the landmarks of many an adolescent awakening among young boys and some girls at the time and May is probably up there with Linnea Quigley in Return of the Living Dead as a milestone in seeing adult nudity for the first time.

It's more than a bit juvenile bringing up the nudity now, 32 years later but it's a big aspect to the movie to anyone who has seen it.  And while it would be easy to complain about the sexualization of May's statuesque body, the intent of the movie seems to be to ignite that very reaction from the audience.  It is a bit sexist, however, that though Mathilda May never appears clothed in the entire movie beyond one brief moment where she's laying on a slab in a gauzy robe, the male space vampires are clothed almost immediately upon awakening and remain that way.  Even when one of them turns into a ball of light and back into a human he's still dressed. 

Furthermore when Space Girl takes over the mind of another young woman (Nancy Paul) she seduces a victim by exposing the woman's panties, yet Patrick Stewart by all accounts seduces no female victims despite the documented fact that Patrick Stewart is sexy as hell.  Then in a really bit of random reductiveness, when Steve Railsback goes to question the woman who Space Girl had recently been inhabiting Railsback informs Caine that the woman is a masochist and that she wants him to make her tell him.  Railsback then rips her clothing off, leaving her in just a slip, and begins slapping and choking her until she gives up the infromation.  This moment comes out of nowhere and serves no point to the narrative.  Forget the Bechdel test, this movie is actively antagonistic against the few women who are actually in it.

Steve Railsback is, as I said in my review of Turkey Shoot, neither a good actor nor a good screen presence yet manages to have some indescribable likeable quality that carries you through him slapping the shit out of an innocent woman for information.  Unfortunately the crux of the story involves his deep romantic connection with Space Girl and no concept could be playing so powerfully to his weak points as that.

The movie's real champion is Peter Firth.  His character doesn't even seem that important and he doesn't turn up until the movie's already been on for at least half an hour but he becomes the ersatz hero in the third act when he charges into the infected London to help Railsback stop Space Girl.

And that final act is wonderful in the way it portrays chaos on the streets of London as quickly degrading energy vampires pounce on top of screaming people running through the frame.  If I liked nothing else about this movie I would probably still own it for those few songs of the apocalyptic zombie-esque plague destroying London.

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Lifeforce is an odd movie.  It's really not very good at all but it's so interesting, so bizarre, so entertaining that I can't even entertain the idea of telling someone not to see it.  Who knows how much of this movie was based on Tobe Hooper's vision and how much was controlled by Golan and Globus (Hooper famously clashed with the two heads of Canon Films) but even if it's a fiasco it is one worth seeing and owning.

The Shill

Lifeforce is available on Blu-ray/DVD combo.

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