Lifeforce (1985) falls under that veil of films that were either panned by critics or were largely forgotten by fans shortly after the initial release, but gathered cult status several years later. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1992) and Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981) also come to mind. Lifeforce is so unsual that I suspect even non-genre fans might enjoy it. Film historian Leonard Maltin noted that the film is “so bizzare, it’s fascinating”. In an article from Ebert’s blog, film critic Peter Sobczynski described the film as a “commercial indifference” that spent 28 years languishing in obscurity. I agree, but I remember that I liked it on the big screen. It reminds me a bit of Mario Bava’s Terrore nello spazio (Planet of the Vampires, 1965), with photography in gaudy saturated prime colors (the opening sequence against a green backdrop is surreal) and life-sucking alien entities.
Lifeforce was adapted by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, 1979)(a fan of Italian fantasy films) and Don Jakoby from a novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson (Random House, 1976). I’ve read the novel and it is good pulpy fun that draws upon traditional vampire elements, such as using an iron stake to ground out the energy of the life suckers. Lifeforce director Tobe Hooper elected to add various plot devices (the Halley’s Comet flyby and a very attractive nude woman), but the basic story is present in the film adaptation.
Lifeforce was made by a talented group of artists, including director Tobe Hooper, special effects wizard John Dykstra (Star Wars, 1977), production designer John Graysmark (2001, 1968), DOP Alan Hume (various 007 films), Henry Mancini (who composed a lively march), and actors Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Patrick Stewart (who appears in a wheel chair -shades of Prof. X), and 5’10 French ballerina Mathilda May as the queen space vampire or space girl (btw, there is a reason on-line nudity afficionado Mr. Skin speaks prominently about this film).
The film reminds me of an amalgamation of Planet of the Vampires, Alien, Queen of Blood (1966) and the underrated Night of the Comet (1984)(a film that also captilized on the disappointing appearance of Halley’s Comet). Lifeforce is a vampire-zombie-apocalypse-space film!
The story has a joint British and American space team on the Halley’s Comet-bound spacecraft HMS Churchill, commanded by Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback). Inside the head of the comet they discover a spacecraft 150 miles long by 2 miles tall. Inside the ship they encounter several mummified bat-like creatures and 3 nude humanoids suspended in crystal sarcophagi. Men aboard the Churchhill are strangely attracted to the Space Girl (Mathilda May).
The Churchhill returns to earth with an unsual cargo of space vampires. Plenty of energy sucking ensues.
Col. Carlsen teams with Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) to track down the Space Girl and save the earth. But what will Carlsen’s fate be?
Lifeforce is a special effects tour de force, with a staggering array of visual effects technologies: models, optical effects, matte paintings, forced perspectives, animation, stop-motion, use of prosthetics, and puppeteering. We sometimes take films of this nature for granted now that we are rammed chock full of computer rendered synthetics. Check out this animated space vampire.
The film is now available as a special edition “Scream Factory” Blu-ray, including two versions of the film. Tobe Hooper’s cut adds a few more minutes including new titles and a narrative prologue. Be sure to watch the supplemental features, with interesting retrospectives by Steve Railsback and Mathilda May. This is one of my favorite releases of 2013.