LIFEFORCE (1985), adapted from the novel THE SPACE VAMPIRES by Colin Wilson, was budgeted at $25 million (a pretty substantial sum for the time). Tobe Hooper was coming off POLTERGEIST, his biggest box office success, and so (rumors that he didn’t actually direct that film aside) was hot. The screenplay was co-written by ALIEN’S Dan O’Bannon, and the extensive special effects were supervised by the great John Dykstra, of STAR WARS. Cannon was evidently hoping for a big hit with this R-rated mess-terpiece, and, needless to add, didn’t get it.
One thing LIFEFORCE did accomplish, however, was to elevate the French dancer-turned-actress Mathilda May, who plays the perpetually nude “Vampire Girl,” into an international sex symbol. She’s since appeared in Claude Chabrol’s CRY OF THE OWL, NAKED TANGO, Werner Herzog’s SCREAM OF STONE and Bigas Luna’s THE TIT AND THE MOON—in which she provided the eponymous tit!
The crew of a space shuttle orbiting Haley’s Comet discover an abandoned space craft. Exploring the craft, the crew discover a bunch of large bat-like creatures and three humans, two male and one female (the latter is fully nude, of course!) encased in glassy structures. The crew transports the human(oid)s to the shuttle…and weeks later another shuttle approaches the first one, having received no transmissions from it. The second shuttle crew finds all inhabitants of the first dead but for one Colonel Carlson (who led the investigation into the alien craft) and the three humanoids. All four are taken back to Earth, which proves a huge mistake!
The three specimens are delivered to a London science lab. There the woman awakens and, still fully nude, sucks out a guy’s “life force” through his eyes and mouth. She and her male companions are psychic vampires who live to drain people’s vital energies, leaving dried-up husks that literally explode into dust. Before long the vampire gal escapes the lab to invade London.
The gruff Colonel Caine is called in to track down the vampire babe. Caine makes a point of recruiting Colonel Carlsen, and the two hunt the bitch through London. In Carlsen’s case the search has a personal dimension: he’s in love with (or at least extremely horny for) the vampire girl.
Around this time an umbrella-like space thing plants itself above the Earth. It’s a collector of the life energy devoured by the male space vampires, who are rampaging through London and vampirizing everyone they see. The woman vamp is a sort of conductor, with all the energy collected by her male companions flowing through her into the alien umbrella. But she still desires Carlsen, and he her…
Obviously any movie about horny space vampires runs the risk of being really stupid, and it’s safe to say that LIFEFORCE falls headfirst into that category. As one who saw the film during its brief theatrical run, I can assure you that it played every bit as ridiculous back in 1985 as it does today.
That’s really too bad, as it’s quite well made: the widescreen photography by Alan Hume is crisp and atmospheric, and Tobe Hooper’s directorial touch is unerringly stylish and assured. The pioneering special effects are fairly good for the most part, particularly in the early scenes aboard the stunningly detailed alien spacecraft. Most impressive of all, the cost cutting endemic to most Cannon pictures seems absent (or at least well concealed).
But really, I fail to see how anyone can possibly take seriously scenes like the one where Carlsen manhandles a woman in front of his shocked superiors, all the while assuring them that she’s a masochist and so doesn’t mind his abuse. Or the goofy screaming fit undergone by a possessed man who happens to be played by STAR TREK’S Patrick Stewart. Or the sight of the protagonist engaged in stand-up sex with the Space Girl as the two are sucked into space.
With scenes of London destroyed by flying vampires, Hooper and co. seem to be deliberately aping British horror/sci fi films of old like THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE and Hammer’s QUARTERMASS trilogy. They’ve definitely caught the archaic silliness of those films, but completely missed the qualities that make them endure.
There is, however, one element I should single out, and that’s Mathilda May as “Space Girl.” The lovely Ms. May was frankly never much of an actress, so the fact that she spends most of her largely dialogue-free role in LIFEFORCE standing around naked is a good thing. In fact, I’d say that in a cast that always seem to be trying to out-ham each other, it’s May who delivers the film’s all-around best performance.
The Cannon Group
Director: Tobe Hooper
Producers: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus
Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon, Don Jakoby
(Based on a novel by Colin Wilson)
Cinematography: Alan Hume
Editing: John Grover
Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay, Nicholas Ball, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard, Aubrey Morris, Nancy Paul, John Hallam, John Keegan, Christopher Jagger