Lifeforce (1985)A column article, Classic Film/New Blu by: Adam Barraclough
I’ve always considered Lifeforce to be a genre-fan’s slam dunk: written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, The Return of the Living Dead) and directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist), the film merges sci-fi and horror via a plot involving space vampires, zombies and a giant bio-mechanical spaceship hiding in the tail of Halley’s Comet intent on sucking the titular “life force” from everyone on Earth. As it’s helmed by Hooper, there are copious amounts of gore and a creep factor that well exceeds any prevailing standard. The film also features a stunning female antagonist who appears entirely nude throughout most of the film. What’s not to love?
Unfortunately, the film debuted in ’85 right as a softer, gentler brand of sci-fi emerged in the form of Ron Howard’s Cocoon, which buried Lifeforce at the box office. Lifeforce found its audience on home video, but I’d always felt it was vastly underserved by the US theatrical cut (rumors swirled of a longer UK cut) and underappreciated in general. Thankfully, Scream Factory has seen fit to bring Lifeforce to the world in all of its gory and naked glory via a Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray/DVD combo. Not only have they restored the film to the original director-approved and supervised run-time (even longer than the fabled UK cut!), they have added a raft of special features and post-production tweaks to make this release the best it can be.
Chock full of juicy practical effects courtesy of John Dykstra (of Star Wars ILM fame), the film holds up fairly well to Blu-Ray high-definition transfer. The “walking shriveled,” the name Hooper assigns to the zombie-like victims of the space vampires, are a marvel of puppeteering;, gaunt wasted corpses that heave to (un)life, shocking in their familiarity to the victims of extreme starvation and eating disorders. Dykstra’s concept for the alien spacecraft is wildly imaginative and stands in stark contrast to the tech used to represent the human explorers which are based largely on Space Shuttle variations. It may feel a bit dated, but it never feels “off” and comes across well on Blu-Ray.
Of course if we’re talking about special effects, the greatest effect in Lifeforce has always been recognized to be a natural one, the appearance of Mathilda May. You won’t find a review that doesn’t discuss her beauty or the frequency of her nudity. She is a powerful and radiant presence in the film; there is no need to engage suspension of disbelief when considering her character’s powers of seduction. I was also fascinated to discover that her appearance is not dated in any way by the standards of beauty that held sway in the 80’s; no teased hair, no wild makeup, no “inflated” proportions. May possesses a very natural and abundant beauty, as well as the poise necessary to make walking around in the buff seem perfectly normal.
Though this was an American production, it was set in and shot mostly in the UK, and there is a dominant British vibe throughout. It would probably be stretching a bit to start making WWII analogies, but the spacecraft that initially makes contact with the alien race and sets the whole series of events in motion is called the “Churchill” and we encounter many scenes of a devastated London as the space vampire’s energy harvesting plans kick into high gear. One could even draw a parallel between the appearance of the space vampire’s victims and that of the victims of the Holocaust.
These leaps and associations may be too wild, as Hooper and others are on the record stating the primary subtext concerns the relationship between men and women, of the feminine power and its ability to hold sway over the minds and hearts of men. That idea is clearly at the forefront of the film as the main protagonist, Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) has fallen into some sort of mind-link with the unnamed female antagonist (played by May, credited as “Space Girl”) and is utterly in thrall to her.
She uses this to manipulate him, as the mind-link also gives him insight into her weaknesses, leading Carlsen and British SAS Colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth) on a wild goose chase into rural Britain as the main plan begins to unfold in the heart of London. Railsback as Carlsen is the sole Yank amongst Brits, and the lone survivor of the initial contact with the alien ship and its inhabitants. His rather ludicrous Southern accent becomes even further problematic as he descends into madness induced by his attraction to and mind-link with “Space Girl,” leading to a performance that is alternately cringe-worthy and laughable. It doesn’t help that he’s up against theater stalwarts like Michael Gothard and Patrick Stewart; their glib dramatizations a stark contrast to his Texas-boy-going-crazy shtick.
If this all sounds irrepressibly insane, it is. By the time we get to a scene in which two corpses vomit enough blood to congeal into a temporary body for “Space Girl” to inhabit (still nude, even in blood-form) things have clearly gone off the rails. But what it lacks in coherence, it more than compensates for with spectacle. Scenes of a devastated urban London crawling with the “walking shriveled” and full of explosions and balls of light and blue energy utterly amaze, as does the image of the colossal bio-ship hovering over it all like a giant artichoke-esque phallus, ready to fuck the world.
Dangerous Beauty with Mathilda May
Space Vampires in London with Tobe Hooper
Carlsen's Curse with Steve Railsback
These are newly produced featurettes created specifically for this release by Shout Factory/Scream Factory. They average in length from about 8-15 minutes and feature the stars in present day looking back on the film. The anecdotes are amusing, and welcome. Lifeforce spawns many questions, the most prominent being “what the hell were they thinking?” and it’s good to get some perspective here. Mathilda May is ravishing even 23 years later and it is enlightening to hear her take on the role and what it was like to be on-set stark naked in her first real film performance. Tobe Hooper is at his usual unapologetic best, while Railsback gives us a rundown of how Lifeforce fits in with and impacted his career as a whole.
Vintage “Making of Lifeforce”
About 20 minutes of classic Cannon hype for the film, with some cool behind-the-scenes glimpses of what they obviously thought would be a big-budget box office smash. I’m not sure where this originally appeared, but it is unquestionably of-the-era.
Vintage Trailer and TV Spot
Commentary with Director Tobe Hooper and Tim Sullivan
Both commentary tracks are new to this release. Here, Sullivan moderates and provides talking points for Hooper, who seems to have endless anecdotes about the film. Truly a treat for fans of the director and of the film specifically, including a priceless discussion of Mathilda May’s intimate grooming.
Commentary with Make-Up Effects Designer Nick Maley
Maley is joined by Michael Felcher, who essentially interviews Malley about how he became involved with the picture while breaking down specific make-up effects.
In addition, the film is presented in the original Theatrical Cut as well as the new-to-this-release Extended Cut. Shout Factory also produced spectacular new cover artwork for the release, and the original cover/poster artwork is printed on the reverse so that you can choose how you wish it to be displayed. You also get DVD as well as Blu-Ray copies.
At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons.
He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.