starring Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May
screenplay by Dan O'Bannon & Don Jakoby, based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson
directed by Tobe Hooper
by Bryant Frazer The early 1980s must have been a weird time to be Tobe Hooper. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had made him one of the most notorious directors in the world, and Poltergeist vaulted him onto the A-list. He would have been on top of the world if not for an extended controversy over that film: Poltergeist was produced by Steven Spielberg, and there were widespread rumours that he actually directed it, too. Hooper denied it and Spielberg issued oddly-worded statements that permanently muddied the waters. Whatever the truth of their collaboration, the controversy was a blow to Hooper's reputation. His Texas Chain Saw felt almost like outsider art--raw and twisted, it was the antithesis of the burnished Spielberg style. Poltergeist, on the other hand, was the very quintessence of a Steven Spielberg film, from its familiar suburban family in distress to its richly-detailed mise en scène. If Hooper really did direct it, it doesn't say much for his authorial voice that he left virtually no discernible fingerprints on the final product.
For whatever reason, Hooper was no stranger to behind-the-scenes drama. He had previously exited during the shooting of 1979's The Dark and 1981's Venom, and in fact was set to follow Poltergeist with The Return of the Living Dead before leaving that film for the production that would become Lifeforce. It was originally titled Space Vampires--the first movie of three that Hooper made for the B-movie mavens at Cannon Films, but with the $25 million, A-movie budget Hooper hoped for. Based on a novel by Colin Wilson, a British intellectual whose interests leaned towards the occult, the project had quite a pedigree. Visual effects would be supervised by John Dykstra, who'd worked on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, while the production designer was John Graysmark, art director on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hooper would be supported on set by journeyman British DP Alan Hume, no stranger to genre filmmaking, and in post-production by editor John Grover, who, like Hume, had worked on a few James Bond movies. Commissioning an adaptation by Alien and Dark Star screenwriter Dan O'Bannon and O'Bannon's Blue Thunder co-writer, Don Jakoby, Hooper saw Space Vampires as a throwback to quality British horror films--with their accomplished performances, handsome production values, and gothic sensibilities--as well as a nod to the more overtly erotic and nightmarish work of the Italians.
Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus apparently had something a little tonier in mind, changing the title, late in the game, to the resolutely bland Lifeforce. The finished horror opus, replete with reanimated corpses, gory zombie action, and dense exposition, was promoted, incongruously, as "The cinematic Sci-Fi event of the Eighties," which goes to show the disconnect between what Hooper's bosses expected and what he could provide. He was never going to craft a glossy science-fiction epic, though he did manage to deliver a somewhat formless work that played a little like Quatermass and the Pit by way of Mario Bava. That wasn't a strong commercial proposition in 1985, but it was at least an intriguing starting point.
Space Vampires--er, I mean Lifeforce--shoots its sci-fi wad early with a long, lavishly-rendered opening sequence in which the crew of the English space shuttle Churchill investigates a 150-mile-long, needle-shaped spaceship concealed in the halo around Halley's Comet. The VFX-heavy space exploration scenes channel similar material from Alien, except with a much more colourful production design that's strongly suggestive of reproductive organs--one shot sees the Churchill's astronauts floating through a long, positively vaginal antechamber as one of them deadpans, "I almost have a feeling I've been here before." Once they reach the heart of the spaceship, the astronauts encounter hundreds of desiccated, bat-like corpses suspended in zero gravity. Pressing further inward (and forward through an alien sphincter), the crew finds a handful of human-size glass chambers holding three nude figures in apparent repose: two men, genitals obscured, and one woman, body fully visible. And if you remember only one thing about Lifeforce, odds are you remember this.
Or, rather, her. She is Mathilda May, a lovely, 19-year-old French ballet dancer who happens to have fantastic breasts. What Hooper does that's so unusual and memorable is that he just photographs her at length, in the nude, in scene after scene. In a Eurohorror of just slightly earlier vintage, such a thing would hardly be worth mentioning. (The woman is beautiful and she is unclad. Of course you photograph her. In fact, you try to avoid cutting away from her for as long as you can get away with it.) But in an American genre film, especially one with a budget and even one with an R rating, the effect is commanding. You start to become distracted by the fact that Hooper has not resorted to increasingly ridiculous ways to shield the woman's naughty bits from view, as would be the norm in a picture of this ilk. Instead, he showcases them. Who knows what May was thinking as she soldiered on day after day, shooting her screen debut in the altogether? Whatever it was, it works. She exudes a preternatural calm--satisfaction, even--in her scenes that invites Kuleshov interpretations of her gaze.
May plays, of course, a space vampire--an alien being in human form who lives by commandeering the life force of anyone unwary enough to gaze into her eyes and fall under her spell. Generally, that involves a long, open-mouthed kiss framed by luminous swirly clouds moving in a circular pattern overhead (Lifeforce was absolutely born in that moment in history when anything that glowed blue on screen was the height of cinematic chic). The deadly kiss creates a bony, wasted zombie corpse (Hooper called them "the shrivelled dead") that will eventually reanimate. Like any zombie, it must feed within a couple of hours or die trying. It's these vampire victim-zombies that give the film some of its signature images. (One comes to life unexpectedly on an autopsy table, in a tableau forever immortalized on the cover of FANGORIA. Another dashes itself to dust by lunging at a metal cage.) May's character--credited condescendingly but not uncharmingly as "Space Girl"--escapes into the night and begins racking up victims, hopping from body to body as a kind of refugee soul while her original corporeal form lies hidden somewhere in London. As civilization crumbles into zombified chaos, it's up to Colonels Colin Caine (Peter Firth) and Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), a survivor from the original Churchill mission, to track her down before NATO decides to quarantine the U.K. by melting it with nuclear weapons.
It sounds wildly entertaining, yet the main problem with Lifeforce is that it peaks early. It's not that the first half-hour is especially good, mind you. What it is is bold, and it establishes a narrative momentum that flags as soon as May is off screen. Good in The Stunt Man, Railsback is not impressive here; nor is Firth, who spends the last twenty minutes of the film gearing up for a confrontation that ends up fizzling, leaving him as a passive, baffled observer. Frank Finlay, as the silver-haired Dr. Franz Fallada, looks a little more at home in his overheated surroundings, as does a pre-Trek Patrick Stewart--in fact, Stewart seems to understand the camp-melodrama tone demanded by the screenplay better than anyone else involved. Hooper himself doesn't seem to know whether we're supposed to be taking any of this at all seriously, and the result is a strangely po-faced film seemingly forever on the verge of cracking a joke without remembering the punchline.
Hooper was good at haunted-house yarns--horror stories built around insular, claustrophobic spaces where the rules of the outside world didn't apply. Think of the nightmarish homestead in Texas Chain Saw, with its banal dining room doubling as torture chamber, or the titular house of horrors in the wry, self-reflexive The Funhouse, itself a kind of family home. The alien spaceship here is an obvious haunted-house surrogate, as is the lab back on Earth where the space vampires first escape captivity. Hooper does a decent job establishing those locations, and I wish that Lifeforce had good reasons to spend more time there. Once the canvas expands to include all of London, succumbing to unremarkable end-times mayhem, the film's originally spooky erotic focus is diffused.
Make no mistake, there is fun to be had, particularly during a sequence set at a hospital for the criminally insane where Stewart's character plays an unexpected role in the chaos at hand. Throughout the film, VFX supervisor Dykstra and his team do solid work that's reminiscent of the much more generously budgeted Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Further, some of the make-up effects overseen by Nick Maley are truly special, like his lovingly articulated animatronic vampire-zombies, or the irrationally bone-chilling moment when two corpses being airlifted by helicopter suddenly start bleeding out, their bodily effluvia congealing in mid-air to reveal Space Girl in angry effigy. Cameraman Hume breaks out extreme wide-angle lenses that give some scenes a disorienting, through-the-looking-glass feeling.* Lifeforce has an impressive, handmade quality that increases its watchability.
But Hooper doesn't articulate much of a perspective on the material. It's tantalizing to think what his contemporaries Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg would have done with this script, since if Lifeforce can be said to be about anything real, it's about love and sex and the fear thereof. The Space Girl is a Greek siren and a case of vagina dentata all wrapped up in one attractive package. On his newly-recorded audio commentary, Hooper muses that the film is about relationships between men and women but doesn't mention its perhaps-accidental correlation with the then-burgeoning AIDS crisis. (If you've seen someone waste away from AIDS, the visual metaphors suggested by the picture are almost too awful to contemplate, so maybe that's just as well.)
Even if you give it credit for being a loose fable of desire and sexual role-playing, Lifeforce is never especially sexy, although a gothic-tinged dream tryst set, maybe, in a cemetery and lit with flashes of red and purple light gets part of the way there, and I'm thankful for it. In another scene, Carlsen tracks down a woman whom he believes is inhabited by the Space Girl. He comes on strong, like an aggressive private dick from a 1940s film noir, slapping her around and growling, "Despite appearances, this woman is a masochist--an extreme masochist." Caine settles in to watch and declares himself "a natural voyeur." The moment comes apropos of nothing--if there's an intended subtext, it's undeveloped and wasn't going to make sense to a mainstream genre audience anyway. And some of the most daring moments, including a same-sex smooch between Railsback and Stewart, were elided for the film's U.S. release. Speaking of elisions, we see plenty of Mathilda May, but what of the two buff male humanoids who accompanied her, their genitalia carefully obscured in most every shot where they might appear? (Playing one of them is Mick Jagger's brother, Chris.) Were the rest of their scenes excised from the shooting script? In a movie about space vampires who essentially seduce their human prey, you'd expect their presence to pay off at some point, perhaps through the introduction of actual female and/or gay characters who might find them alluring. Instead, the boy vampires vanish until the very ending, the resulting narrative dominance of their female counterpart reinforcing every long-standing sexist genre trope about the sexually predatory female you can think of.
Well, Lifeforce endures, not as a quality picture on the order of Hammer horror, but as a cheeseball classic. Golan and Globus might not have gotten the blockbuster SF epic they were banking on, but they did get a modest cult film with surprising staying power. (On my most recent viewing, I was completely surprised to note, for the first time, the appearance of a bunch of pudgy little space vampire babies at the climax, suggesting that if this Blu-ray does really well, it may not be too late for Damon Lindelof to start working up Space Vampires 2: The New Batch.) Hooper himself wasn't so lucky. The next two movies he made for Cannon were the much lower-budget Invaders from Mars and a project he had avoided directing, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The latter at least earned a profit, but the damage was done and Hooper's career never recovered. The worst thing about Lifeforce is how bland it turned out--it's utterly crazy and yet surprisingly restrained, freaky in concept but generic in execution and badly wanting for any hint of an expressive artistic sensibility. Hooper's unhappy distinction was that he made a big-budget picture that was simultaneously more loony and more anonymous than anyone would have expected.
Lifeforce is being treated well in the afterlife, as Shout! Factory presents the "director-approved cut" and the abbreviated U.S. theatrical release on the same disc, making comparisons easy for armchair historians. I watched the longer cut in full, followed by a sample of the domestic edit, and I found no reason to spend any more time with the shorter version. The lengthy opening sequence involving the exploration of the alien spacecraft gets truncated so severely that it plays out like a "Previously on..." segment in front of a TV show, leaving no opportunity for mood and atmosphere to build. Elsewhere, quite a bit of expository dialogue is excised--usually a smart move, except in this case the effect is to decimate the movie's mythology and downplay the "space vampires" conceit. And crucial moments like Steve Railsback's reluctant on-the-lips smacker with Patrick Stewart and his show-stopping "she wants me to hurt her" monologue have been removed, robbing the cheese of its flavour.
Running 116-minutes, the longer cut is delivered, as per usual, as an MPEG-4 AVC HD file encoded in 1080p at 24fps. Unusually, the 101-minute alternative is an MPEG-2 file encoded in 1080i at 30fps. I'm tempted to bitch and moan about this, but even this version of Lifeforce doesn't look too bad--although MPEG-2 doesn't handle the grain so well, and the fact is that one dual-layered Blu-ray couldn't have held a second copy of the film encoded at similar quality to the first, so compromise was going to be unavoidable. (Also, you have to access the U.S. theatrical cut from the Bonus Features menu, which I guess technically relegates it to the status of an "extra." Nobody is going to be watching it by mistake.) The extended cut looks quite good--not excellent--for a movie of its vintage, displaying a healthy amount of grain in the 2.35:1 image that gets thick in some of the darker scenes. (For example, scenes showing Dr. Bukovsky alone in his office around 19 minutes in have an almost soupy layer of noise.) Shots with optical effects look softer, noisier, and a bit darker--all par for the course. Though black levels are adequate, there is some visible instability and flickering in the shadows, plus a noticeable amount of gate weave throughout. Colours look good, with excellent saturation levels and what appear to be accurate skin tones; Hooper reportedly took a revisionist pass at the HD masters to cool down some of the shots--and, moreover, to ramp up the colours in Carlsen's gothic sex-dream sequence. There is no evidence of digital sharpening or overly aggressive noise reduction.
The 5.1-channel DTS HD Master Audio track is solid, putting some oomph behind Henry Mancini's symphonic score and then amping up the directional sound effects in the scenes featuring hot vampire lifeforce-sucking action. In fact, the amount of whooshing and crackling that goes on in the surround channels is so overstated it's almost comical, if not entirely out of keeping with the tone of the film. The international cut also features a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, for some reason. It sounds like essentially the same mix, but with a lot less dynamic range--all of the elements in the mix are closer to the same volume. Sometimes the effects on the 5.1 track would threaten to swallow up Mancini's score through their sheer loudness; switching to the 2.0 track did allow the score to come through a little stronger in the scenes I tested. However, in scenes where the 5.1 track was not busy with effects, the score had a lot more depth and nuance and was projected more powerfully out of the front soundstage. I sampled the lossy DD 5.1 audio that comes with the theatrical option, figuring it might be a more period-accurate reflection of the multi-channel mix made for the film's 70mm engagements, but that version of the soundtrack is kind of pathetic. It's not just lower in volume and less directional--it's much brighter and tinnier, with artifacts that could indicate a mastering problem. I can imagine that track would be fatiguing at feature length.
Speaking of audio quality, the commentary adorning the 116-minute Lifeforce, featuring a conversation between Hooper and 2001 Maniacs director Tim Sullivan, is fatiguing in its own right. Sullivan gets to yammer on a lot, partly to play the role of sycophant and partly because Hooper just doesn't have much to say. I've never been a big fan of audio commentaries recorded in the "casual chat" mode, largely because the information density tends to be too low make them worth the sit. Hooper offers some tidbits about the production but honestly doesn't seem to have a very good recall of the kind of anecdata that makes a yak-track genuinely compelling. He does, however, remember the confusion of his bosses when the movie was delivered and the decision to change its title was made. "I think the film cost so much money that there was an allergic reaction against something that was considered to be a B title. I'm certain that's what went on," he says. "However, all the way through the film, when I was making the film, the film was called Space Vampires. So that is part of the tone of the film."
A second commentary track, moderated by DVD-extras regular Michael Felsher, has FX artist Nick Maley describing his practical effects work on the film, such as the animatronic zombies and, maybe more tantalizingly, the heavy make-up applied to Mathilda May from head to toe. "There are no natural human blemishes anywhere on her body," he says. "The whole idea is that she's created as a perfect image from Carlsen's mind--so she has to be perfect." Maley has his own theory, by the way, on why the film tanked at the box office: "I think the people in the states thought there were too many Brits in it. And for the people in England, it was too sexy for them to handle."
The centrepiece of the extras is "Dangerous Beauty: with Mathilda May" (15 mins., 1080p) an interview with May in which the now 48-year-old actress discusses, mainly, getting naked on camera early and often during her six months on the project. She recalls Hooper as being shy, quiet, and "classy" on set and says, diplomatically, that she thought the film was "good" but that she was surprised by the sometimes single-minded focus on her appearance. "The reactions of the people concerning my nudity sort of embarrassed me in the way that it was difficult to say something when your appearance takes over," she remembers. "But that's the problem of many women."
The so-so "Space Vampires in London: with Tobe Hooper" (10 mins., 1080p) is a new interview with Hooper that dwells again on the title of the source material, as if its change were among the most intriguing aspects of the film. (While I do think there's a revisionist-historic argument that the picture's reception would have improved if it had been marketed more appropriately as a big-budget schlock-horror piece, it was never coherent enough to be a mainstream hit.) He discusses other aspects of the production, and scenes from the film and excerpts from B-roll are inserted where appropriate. It plays as a short recapitulation of the audio commentary. And "Carlsen's Curse: with Steve Railsback" (7 mins., 1080p) collects some of the native Texan's "incredible memories" of making the film. He met Hooper on the set of his TV movie Helter Skelter, through actress Marilyn Burns. He talks about hitting his marks when suspended in mid-air on wire rigs for the zero-gravity scenes and tells a funny story about being the punchline when Patrick Stewart was asked, on Leno, about his first screen kiss.
"The Making of...Lifeforce" (21 mins., 480i), a vintage docu-short from an independent production company, is a real find. All in all, it's the most informative feature on the disc, but also a blast from the past with some interesting behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot, in addition to vintage interviews with Hooper, Railsback, Firth, and Finlay, accompanied by mile-a-minute voiceover from narrator Joseph Rustic. Maley and Dykstra also appear. Unfortunately, the dodgy quality is a bit distracting--I wish someone had taken the time to deinterlace the video to get rid of the combing artifacts. Likewise on board are two theatrical trailers (4 mins., 1080i), one transferred from a beat-up print and another upconverted from a crappy SD video source; a :30 TV spot (480i); and a photo gallery (5:17, with just over five seconds per image) with entertaining production stills documenting mainly the on-set special-effects work--including some moiré-plagued shots, apparently scanned from magazines, of a quite hairy and besweatered Hooper directing the animatronic action, as well as scans of very groovy one-sheets from Italy, Japan, and Germany. (One of them still sports a watermark from sci-fimovieposters.co.uk in the top left corner.) Finally, a DVD containing only the longer cut of the film has been inserted into the package as a loaner copy for those friends of yours who still haven't gotten with the Blu-ray program.
*In the process of researching this review, I wound up speaking to anamorphic image guru Joe Dunton--the "JD" in the now-defunct shooting format J-D-C Scope--about some of the lenses he provided for the production. Dunton waxed damned near poetic about Lifeforce, recalling that he struck a print directly from the camera negative for the film's premiere that looked "spectacular," and arguing that Lifeforce represents his "best work in lenses." (This, from a guy who worked closely with Stanley Kubrick.) Dunton made specific mention of a shot at 1:25:16 that used his then-new 6mm (!) non-anamorphic lens, which offered a 220-degree angle of view. He told me the captured image wrapped around the set so far that the camera operator's knees were visible at the bottom of the frame. (I think only one knee is visible on the Blu-ray, and just barely; the picture has likely been cropped slightly to obscure the frame splices that are visible at the very bottom on anamorphic prints and occasionally sneak into frame on this disc.) The shot was integrated into film prints at its original aspect ratio, meaning anamorphic projection stretched the image horizontally, introducing woozy distortions. (See inset.) Dunton joked that he called that rather extreme lens the Sackgetter--both because it sounded like a good German name and because "if you used it on a show you'd get sacked." return