It’s funny how the very name of certain films will get a noticeable response. Especially when talking to fans of genre movies and connoisseurs of the obscure and cult. If you mention Lifeforce to a film buffs of a certain age you’ll more than likely get one of following three reactions.
• Oh that’s the one where that woman wanders around naked all the time.
• Didn't that star Peter Firth? (Usually said with a degree of incredulity)
• That was one seriously fucked up movie.
Now all of these are true and totally justified. Remember that we are talking about a film featuring a naked female space vampire who’s found on a spaceship in Halley’s Comet, brought back to earth where she zombiefies half the population of London and confounds Shakespearean actors and an ex Double Decker (click here for clarification).
Before we proceed, let us quickly reflect upon the history of this cinematic oddity. Lifeforce was the last of a three picture deal between Canon Films and celebrated director Tobe Hooper. The other two films were a remake of Invaders from Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Canon films had become big on the back of a string of cheap action films made in the early eighties and where now looking to hit the big league. Lifeforce was supposed to cater to the public’s appetite for both sc-fi and horror which were extremely marketable genres at the time.
The movie was originally filmed and promoted under the title The Space Vampires, based upon Colin Wilson’s novel. Cannon Film spent over $25 million on the production intending to create an international blockbuster. In an attempt to distance themselves from their own low budget past, the film’s title was changed to Lifeforce to try and avoid any exploitation connotations. However what was originally envisaged as sci-fi horror filled with American and European stars ended up as a curious over blown B movie with a distinctly British cast and flavour.
On paper the basic premise for Lifeforce was sound. Tobe Hooper was (and still is) a director with a reputation and the market was ripe for a blockbuster of this kind. Remember that Aliens came out the following year and was a massive commercial success. However Lifeforce was not destined to be a comparable movie. The production was extremely problematic. There were financial issues, continuous revisions to the screenplay, casting changes, further re-writes, arguments between the producers and the director, arguments between the producers and the effects team, arguments between the producers and the cast. Finally it ended with arguments between producer and producer.
After much blood, sweat and tears Tobe Hooper produced an initial cut of the film clocking in at 128 minutes. This was then trimmed down to 116 minutes, removing much of the early material set on-board the space shuttle. Due to poor test screenings the US version was further reduced to 101 minutes. This turned an already confused film into an incoherent mess. These factors along with the lack of any US actors of note (apologies to Steve Railsback) doomed the film. The critics turned on it with relish, the film tanked and Canon films moved a step closer to bankruptcy.
Let us take a few moments to reflect upon some flaws that can be found in Lifeforce. Remember that this movie was originally conceived to be a big budget, star driven, cinematic blockbuster. Consider the following:
• Since when have Frank Finlay, Peter Firth and Michael Gothard been A list box office stars?
• Why do the security guards try to apprehend the naked female space vampire by offering her a half-eaten biscuit?
• Why did the costume department think that SAS officers wear roll neck sweaters and flasher macs?
• Who thought casting Nicholas Ball was a good idea?
• Who the fuck wrote this dialogue?
• Exactly how big did the production designers think the space shuttle was?
• If a corpse sits up as you are about to carry out an autopsy, wouldn’t it be prudent to make like Scooby Doo?
• Why do the UK military have Bloodhound anti-aircraft missiles deployed on Blackheath, when they are supposed to be fighting a communicable contagion?
• Why does Mathilda May spend the whole film naked. Really, why? I mean I dig naked women (usual caveats and small print applicable) but this really has no relevance.
• Why is Halley’s Comet green?
Lifeforce has to be seen to be believed. The dialogue is appalling and yet the film is littered with British character actors of good standing. The effects work, particularly Nick Maley’s animatronics are superb. Henry Mancini’s score is also very effective and is wasted on such drivel. Yet this utter train wreck of a film still exudes a morbid fascination and can be compelling viewing. Furthermore you can see brief references and flashes of inspiration derived from wider genre works. The ending in particular has an uncanny similarity to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. Yet Lifeforce ultimately fails because the producers, Menahem Golan Yoram Globus simply had no idea how to handle such material and a production of this size.
Once you have seen Lifeforce, you will begin to understand the reactions I listed at the start of this post. It's a film that stays with you for a long time after viewing. You may frequently find yourself musing on it and ending your thought process with the phrase “what the fuck?” Finally I’ll leave you with some dialogue from the film. It may entice you into watching it. I regularly do so, although I’m not entirely sure why.
Colonel Tom Carlsen: She’s resisting. I’m going to have to force her to tell me. Despite appearances, this women is a masochist. An extreme masochist. She wants me to force the name out of her. She wants me to hurt her. I can see the images in her mind. You want to stay? Otherwise wait outside!
Colonel Colin Caine: Not at all. I’m a natural voyeur.
NB The DVD and Blu-ray versions of Lifeforce currently available in the US and Europe, feature the 116 minute international print as well as the shorter theatrical release.