Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lifeforce – review


Director: Tobe Hooper

Release Date: 1985

Contains spoilers

It is my belief that if were not for the sci-fi vampire films Queen of Blood and It! The Terror from Beyond Space, then we wouldn’t have the film Alien (1979) – at least in the form we recognise today. The influence of those films is clear to see when you watch them. What has this to do with Lifeforce? Well Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien, co-wrote the screenplay for this film with Don Jakoby (who, incidentally, wrote the screenplay for (John Carpenter’s) Vampires) and the film, based on the novel “The Space Vampires” by Colin Wilson, is O’Bannon’s sci-fi vampire effort.

In itself it shows a distinct love of the British sci-fi films of yore, such as the Quatermass films and, despite O’Bannon and director Tobe Hooper being American, this has a totally British feel. On the surface nothing should go wrong with this film, with spacecraft, vampires, zombies, possession, disaster and Mathilda May naked for much of the film. The result is more than a little schlock in places, with some overacting, but it is great fun. Let us, before we look at the film, tackle the issue of Mathilda May who does spend a great deal of the time naked and looks great. Whilst a plus to the movie, the film has much more going for it than a level of sexploitation and should you wish to catch some images of Ms May in the altogether then I guess you’re going to have to watch the film!

The film begins with the spacecraft the Churchill, humanities first craft with exploring the alien shipartificial gravity, approaching Haley’s Comet to carry out scientific research. They have reached a point where they cannot contact earth because of interference when they detect something in the cone of the comet. A 150 mile long something. Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback) decides that they will investigate it and leads a space-suited expedition in.

Inside they see occupants floating, or the desiccated husks of the occupants, and there are thousands of them.alien bat form They are described as bat-like and as they touch one its finger/claw breaks away and crumbles. They decide to bag it for research purposes. Unfortunately there isn’t a good view of these things at this point and the screenshot is from later in the film. As they bag it, an area filled with bright light opens up in the ship and an umbrella type affair unfurls from the ship but the activity stops almost as soon as it started.

Mathilda May as the space girlCarlson leads his team into the bright area and they find three pod like affairs, almost like glass (though we find out later it is more like a force field) sarcophagi. Two contain two male humanoids (Chris Jagger & Bill Malin) and the other a female (Mathilda May) all three are naked. Carlsen decides to take the pods on board though we feel, even then, that his actions are strange and, once back on their ship, the male crew seem to be behaving oddly.

We cut forward thirty days and the Churchill is back at Earth but their communications are down and they are off orbit. The Challenger is sent to dock and they find that the interior of the ship is badly damaged by fire, the crew dead but the pods are intact and they are taken to the European Space Centre in London. We discover later that an escape pod was jettisoned and that the logs have been wiped clean.

The pod containing the girl opens and they decide that they should carry out an autopsy. vampire feedsHer body is placed in a theatre and we see a guard enter the room as though his will is not his own. He holds his hand to her and her eyes open then she sits up. She approaches him, removing his breathing mask, and kisses him. This is spotted on security camera by Dr Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) who runs down to the theatre. We see the lights flicker and a swirl of energy as they kiss. By the time Bukovsky gets there the guard is a desiccated husk and the girl approaches the doctor saying “Use my body”.

Peter Firth as CaineAgain this is spotted, this time by Dr Fallada (Frank Finlay) – an expert on death (or so he says) – and when he gets there Bukovsky is looking drained, but alive and the girl is gone. They feel it will be easy to intercept a naked girl but with the ability to project energy, to get past guards and smash windows, she is soon free and Colonel Caine (Peter Firth) of the SAS is called in.

Meanwhile the two male vampires awaken. They approach two soldiers who open fire but their bullets do not stop them and so they throw in a grenade. By the time Caine gets there the vampire bodies are in pieces, or so it appears.

zombie feedsAn autopsy takes place on the guard, two hours after his ‘death’. Suddenly his eyes open and he sits up. He cannot speak but seems to motion to the pathologist (Jerome Willis) who moves towards him. The guard grabs the pathologist and there is a transference of energy from pathologist to guard, desiccating the pathologist and reviving the guard – who then freaks out. Both the revived guard and the ‘dead’ pathologist are placed in cells.

A further kill is found in Hyde Park, the body of a naked girl. They realise that the female vampire is now clothed. Back at the base another two hours have passed. Suddenly the guard reverts to a desiccated state and desperately tries to grab the observers through the bars. When he fails to get anyone he falls to the floor, truly dead. When poked, his side crumbles. Then the body of the pathologist awakens, he runs at the bars to get to the living and explodes on impact into a shower of dust.

The Churchill’s escape pod has landed on Texas and Carlsen is on board. He is taken to London and explains that the crew had started acting odd on the ship. He says that the radio engineer had smashed the equipment shortly after departing the comet. One by one the crew died, as though the life was drained from them and, eventually, only he was left. He saw that they were approaching earth and set the fire, using the the alien shipoxygen systems, and escaped. It was the hardest thing he ever did, not attempting to destroy his ship but leaving the girl. Carlsen suffers from nightmares of the girl coming to him and Fallada hypnotises him. Through hypnosis they locate the girl, she has shifted her consciousness to another body. With the alien ship leaving the cone of the comet, the race is on to find her…

I want to vampire in blood formleave the story there but we will, when looking at the vampires (and zombies) capture a little more of the plot. The vampires have many neat tricks up their sleeves (or not as they start off naked). We’ve mentioned the fact that they can project energy as a weapon and also touched on the fact that they can move consciousness from one body to another. At one point the female escapes from a host body by causing the blood to flood from the host and take her form.

We discover later that the bat form is their true form and they changed their shape when the Churchill approached. The girl took her form from Carlsen’s mind, she is his ideal. It is mentioned several times, by male characters, that she embodies sexuality – hence their inability to act against her when face to face with her.

Fallada, in a woefully unexplored leap of understanding, realises that they can be killed. The method is staking, but it is through the energy centre below the heart, not the heart itself. vampire stakedThe stake must be made of leaded iron. The results are spectacular. I say it is unexplored and this comes down to the fact that, at one point early on, we see him open a crate with a staking lance in it – though we don’t know it at the time. Later he has it all worked out, including the fact that the male vampires jumped bodies but how he knew to order the lance (presumably from a museum) in the first place is beyond me.

click to full size to see swirly eyesThe entire purpose of the aliens is to gather lifeforce and then pass it, using the female as a conduit, to the spacecraft which is a giant harvester. There is a nice touch, at one point, when we see her eyes and they seem to have a spiral effect within them. The vampires, we discover, are the root of the myth – they have visited earth, as well as many other planets, before.

The zombies are key to their plan. Once ‘transformed’ the lifeforce can be harvested from them (should they have any). They are pushed to feed which in turn creates another zombie to harvest from – the results are exponential. By the time Caine and Carlsenhorde of zombies return to London the city is quarantined, there are hordes of zombies hunting the streets and a thermo-nuclear cleansing is being considered. The scenes of disaster in London are well done. Though a question did come to mind of why, when Carlsen is driving through the city, he left his window open? Still it did lead to a nice tearing the zombie’s arm off and the fingers still moving scene.

The acting can only be Steve Railsback as Carlsendescribed as mis-matched. Firth is great as Caine and Mathilda May is not only naked but manages to capture such an alien presence that her performance is wonderful – even more so as mostly it is done through facial expression. Railsback terribly overacts as though his life depended on it and Frank Finlay could have walked out of any of a dozen Hammer productions. Patrick Stewart makes a great cameo part way through the film.

I must mention the film score by Henry Mancini, a stirring and epic piece with martial overtones it really fits the film well, even if it was the rejected score for Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” (1972).

The effect may appear, a zombieat times, to be a little hokey, especially around the zombies, but they work and I have seen a lot worse. They actually add to the film helping generate a style or feel that is great fun. That is the bottom line, as improbable, overacted and hokey as this might get it is great fun. The version I have on DVD is the longer cut of the film and yet the pace never feels wrong, you watch the film and are thoroughly entertained. This is schlock horror meets schlock sci-fi and it puts a big old smile on your face whilst it does it. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Mark said...

Wow, I've seen this advertised on a lot of my vintage sci-fi/horror dvds and videos, but I never gave it much thought.

Now I'm really curious. It sounds like it's right up my alley!

Taliesin_ttlg said...


I am actually surprised you haven't seen it, it is the sort of thing I'd imagine you'd like.

To be honest, you'd probably appreciate it more than, perhaps, others because of your love of old sci-fi.

Ian said...

I note your restrained use of stills, Taliesin. Surprising, given the numerous opportunities that present for grabbing full frontal shots of the gorgeous Ms May! Curious, me thinks.

Mark said...

I imagine I'll end up buying it. When I saw it advertised on my videos and DVDs it looked out of place among all the older black and white movies being promoted. But now I think I see the connection. Thanks for the review!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Ian, other than one inescapable shot that was a DVD cover I've pretty much restrained the image content to gore but no nudity.

Mark, let me know what you think (he says now hoping that you do enjoy it!)

Bill Dan Courtney said...


I have seen this before and just got it in from a bittorrent site. To be frank I am about to watch it and so I skimmed over your review since, like me,your reviews are loaded with spoilers. It has been so long since I saw it I want to see it again later then I will finish your review.

As I recall this movie was panned by the critics but I liked it. As you said Dan O'Bannon and Hooper are both Americans but the feel is very British, especially the British sci-fi, horror films of the 60's and 70's. I am certain there is a deliberate homeage going on.

He made another film about the same time that was panned called Invaders from Mars, that was a remake of an older film, that I liked as well but everyone seemed to hate. Both of these films were very stylized visually and the acting, I believe, intentionally over the top to parody the hammy, dead pan acting styles of older films.

I be back to finish your review after the film.