'Lifeforce': Tobe Hooper's Misunderstood Masterwork
Second Chances #1
Hello, and welcome to Second Chances, the column where I give another look at a largely maligned or forgotten piece of pop culture. Whether movie, song, game, or whatever, everything that shows up here deserves a second chance.
On 26 August 2017, the world lost Tobe Hooper. Tobe Hooper was a horror director that, in terms of how influential he was, ranked right up there with John Carpenter and Wes Craven. His name will forever be associated with two of the greatest horror movies of all time, the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the original Poltergeist. Now, some people question whether Hooper should be given credit for Poltergeist as the big budget feel and effects are more synonymous with the producer Steven Spielberg. In response, I would point them toward Hooper's 1985 sci-fi horror flick Lifeforce.
Lifeforce was intended as a rebirth for Cannon Films. Known for schlocky B-movies (several of which I like like Bloodsport and Invasion U.S.A.), Cannon wanted to elevate themselves to a major studio through a big-budget blockbuster. They grabbed Hooper, fresh off his success with Poltergeist, and gave him $25 million and a book. The book was The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson which told the tale of astronauts who find a group of shapeshifting aliens that drain energy (rather than suck blood) and are accidentally let loose on Earth.
Colin Wilson was noted as hating the movie. He consciously tried to avoid falling back on vampire tropes when writing the book, connecting more with H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. He felt that the movie's embrace of those vampire tropes killed the originality of his monsters. I, however, am not concerned. I didn't read the book, and I know that film adaptations can deviate heavily from the source material and still be good. My favorite horror movie The Shining is a perfect example of that. I am judging the movie on its own, and I find it to be awesome.
Lifeforce had plenty of amazing talent behind the scenes. One of the screenwriters was Dan O'Bannon who wrote the original Alien. He brought some cool ideas to the story like how the aliens were discovered. While the book had them discovered in an asteroid belt, the movie has them discovered hidden in Halley's Comet, fitting since that comet was passing Earth in 1986 when the film was to hit theatres. The award-winning special effects were the work of John Dykstra, one of the original founders of Industrial Light and Magic. The epic score was written by the amazing Henry Mancini and brought to life by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Even though this was intended to elevate Cannon Films out of schlock territory, the producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, didn't completely abandon their B-movie roots. This is primarily shown by the one element in the film they put in that just about everyone remembers from it: the fact that the lead antagonist (played by former French ballerina Mathilda May) spends almost the whole film naked. This decision split opinions. Some thought it brought an other-worldliness to May's appearance and performance while others thought it was just the kind of cheap titillation expected from B-movie tripe. I fall into the former camp. In the scenes when May... no, I'm not calling her "Space Girl" as she's billed; that sounds stupid... escapes from the labs in just her birthday suit, you can just feel her power which is what was intended. The rare times she had something on actually diminished that impression.
The performances all around are quite good. Mathilda May had to learn her lines phonetically as she couldn't speak English at the time, and her performance was still very chilling. Peter Firth did a great job as Col. Caine, the lead investigator. He proved that he could be intelligent and curious about the insanity going on around him but also a man of action as the needs arise. Frank Finlay's performance as Dr. Fallada was enjoyably over-the-top; I couldn't help but giggle at some of his line readings. Even the small role of Dr. Armstrong was intriguing, played by a then-largely-unknown Patrick Stewart. However, the performance that stole the show was Steve Railsback as Col. Carlsen. Being the only survivor of the expedition that discovered the aliens, his guilt and desperation come through in every second of his pained portrayal.
The special effects largely hold up very well. The animatronics for the victims were very impressive for the time, even looking good under HD scrutiny. The sometimes stilted movements are the only real sign that they ARE robots. The light shows are familiar to anyone who saw Poltergeist, and they still worked great (as you can see above). The destruction of London actually looked more convincing here than in V for Vendetta! While it is clearly a movie from the 80s, I'd say it can still impress today.
The plot is the only real stumbling block as it does have some problems. The film skips around a bunch of genres including sci-fi, horror, and detective mystery. It can throw off some audiences. The heavy-handedness of the vampire tropes can get a little overbearing, and some elements are not well explained like the extent of May's powers. Now, some ambiguity is required to make a threatening antagonist; remember how later Texas Chain Saw Massacre movies explained so much of Leatherface's backstory that he stopped being scary? However, a few clarifications on May's powers could have cleared up confusion. Of course, these issues are with the International Cut of the film. The American release by Tri-Star is a MUCH bigger mess. For some bizarre reason, the American Cut removed all references to the aliens being vampires. WHY??? On top of that, nearly thirty minutes were chopped out for pacing, opening plot holes large enough to fly the Churchill through. This is the most likely reason the movie bombed at the American box office.
Let me know if there are other films that deserve another shot for future installments of Second Chances, and take care!