WORDS James Gracey
Few can refute that while Tobe Hooper’s oeuvre is wildly uneven — ranging from classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, Salem’s Lot and the underrated slasher flick The Funhouse, to bargain-basement fodder such as Crocodile, The Mangler and Spontaneous Combustion — his films are irritatingly fascinating, unrestrained and, with the very odd exception, very rarely dull. Peopled with grotesque and marginalised characters verging on the carnivalesque, there is a dark, primordial anxiety that floats throughout his best work. Even flawed titles such as The Toolbox Murders and Eaten Alive have moments of brilliance. When he is on top form, few can muster a sense of stifling, claustrophobic dread better than Hooper.
Finding mainstream success with Poltergeist in the eighties, Hooper entered into a deal with Cannon Films and produced three of his most ambitious — and expensive — titles to date, one of which was Lifeforce. A critical and commercial flop upon release, it has undergone something of a reappraisal in recent times. Indeed, despite its many flaws, it is without a doubt a solidly entertaining piece of sci-fi horror hokum. With myriad moments of striking imagery and intriguing ideas — many of which are frustratingly undeveloped — it’s a solid B-movie that mesmerises with its sheer audacity and bizarro chutzpah. Based on Colin Wilson’s cult 1976 novel, The Space Vampires, Lifeforce kicks off with the discovery of a trio of impossibly beautiful, and very naked, alien beings suspended inside glass coffins on board a spaceship. When they are brought back to earth for study, it isn’t long before they reveal themselves to be life-draining extraterrestrial succubi who spread a vampiric virus throughout London as they harvest the souls of their victims to fuel their ship. Co-written by Don Jakoby and Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead), the film is infused with the latter’s typically dark, left-of-centre humour. Coupled with Hooper’s wild direction and some admittedly astounding special effects — some very dated, which helps foster an irresistibly vintage feel — Lifeforce has more than its share of jaw-dropping moments.
Meshing vampire movie conventions with an epic sci-fi scope, the film is imbued with a hectic, off-kilter tone, throughout which course interesting parallels with Bram Stoker’s Dracula: both narratives open with journeys to distant, mysterious locations, feature asylum inmates as harbingers of doom, and the idea of vampires descending upon London, infecting the local populace, plague-like. The psychic bond shared by the female vampire and her chosen mate (spooky astronaut Carlsen) echoes a similar plot device utilised by Stoker. The influence of Nigel Kneale doesn’t go unnoticed either, with London coming under attack from an extraterrestrial threat discovered slumbering in the tail of Haley’s Comet. The idea that all of the lore surrounding traditional vampires was actually triggered by these ghoulish, life-draining aliens’ earlier visits to earth, is an interesting one, but one that is discarded almost as soon as it is mentioned.
The ethereal beauty of Mathilda May, who spends the majority of the film wafting around naked, harks back to similarly fatal she-devils in the films of Hammer; indeed the climax of Lifeforce unspools in a blue-lit cathedral in the dark heart of London, enshrouding proceedings with an oddball, neo-Gothic atmosphere. Her ability to possess human hosts results in a number of outlandish scenes, particularly the one in which Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), under the influence of hypnosis and allowing the female space vampire total control of his body and mind, attempts to seduce Carlsen while strapped to a gurney. Events become even more outrageous when she exits his body, blood spewing from every orifice, swirling together to hint at her true form before splattering upon the walls inside a helicopter over a flaming cityscape. Adding to the offbeat tone is some beautifully wrought production design, most notably the sinister, blatantly phallic spacecraft the astronauts venture into during the opening scenes; floating along a fallopian-like tunnel they discover a womb-shaped space bedecked with the bodies of giant, bat-like creatures. The scenes depicting the fall of London are also handled particularly well, even if some moments seem culled from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Unstrained and anarchic, Lifeforce may not be considered Hooper’s best work, but it’s certainly one of his most interesting and wildly entertaining films, and one that is fully deserving of the cult status it holds today. While it is arguably best enjoyed through the bottom of a wine glass, there are still enough fascinating ideas and concepts brimming beneath the delirious surface to offer intrigue amongst the deluge of laser beams, naked breasts and bonkers carnage.
This beautiful new high-definition presentation of both the theatrical and international versions comes courtesy of Arrow Video and is transferred from original elements by MGM, with supervision by Tobe Hooper himself. There’s a wealth of special features including audio commentaries from the likes of Hooper, visual effects artist Douglas Smith and make-up artist Nick Maley, and the in-depth Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce, a UK-exclusive documentary featuring interviews with key cast and crew, all of whom obviously had a blast making the film. There are also separate interviews with Tobe Hooper and stars Mathilda May and Steve Railsback, a collector’s booklet and the obligatory torrent of trailers.