Saturday, October 16, 2010

1980's "Movie" Flashback: Lifeforce

In the blink of an eye, the terror begins!

Lifeforce was a 1985 sci-fi horror film directed by Tobe Hooper from a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby (based on the novel "The Space Vampires" by Colin Wilson, which was published in 1976). The film stars Steve Railsback as Col. Tom Carlsen, Peter Firth as Col. Colin Caine, Frank Finlay as Dr. Hans Fallada, the incredibly beautiful Mathilda May as the female Space Vampire, Michael Gothard as Dr. Bukovski and Patrick Stewart as Dr. Armstrong (two years before beginning his stellar run as “Capt. Jean-Luc Picard” in Star Trek: The Next Generation).

While investigating Halley's Comet, the British-American crew of the space shuttle Churchill discover a 150-mile long spaceship hidden in the coma of the comet. Upon entering the alien spacecraft, they find hundreds of dead and shriveled bat-like creatures and three nude humanoid bodies (two male and one female) held in suspended animation within glass coffin-like containers. The crew recovers the three aliens and begins a return trip to Earth, however Mission Control loses contact with the shuttle as it nears Earth and a rescue mission is sent to find out what happened on board.

The rescuers find the Churchill completely gutted by fire, with everyone on board dead, except for the three suspended animation cases bearing the aliens. All three are taken to London where they are watched over by Dr. Bukovski (Michael Gothard) and Dr Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay). Uncertain if the beings are actually alive, an autopsy of the female 'vampire' (Mathilda May) is scheduled, but she awakens and sucks the lifeforce out of a security guard and escapes the research facility – still fully nude. Dr. Fallada and Col. Colin Caine of the Special Air Service determine that the aliens are a race of space vampires that consume the “life force” from living beings by moving through various host bodies and then upload this energy to their mother ship.

Meanwhile an escape pod from the shuttle Churchill is located in Texas with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) still alive. Carlson is quickly flown to London and he tells how his crew was also drained of their life force. To spare Earth from this fate, Carlsen himself set fire to the shuttle and escaped in the pod; however under hypnosis it is revealed that Carlsen has a psychic connection to the female alien. Carlsen and Caine therefore succeed in tracking the female alien to a hospital for the mentally disturbed, but then must heavily sedate the hospital's director, Dr Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), who is revealed to be possessed by the creature. Unfortunately this small victory was merely a trick to lure the pair away from London.

As Carlsen and Caine are transporting Dr. Armstrong back to London, the alien girl breaks free of his body and disappears. They soon arrive back in London where the two male vampires have also escaped from confinement and begun to transform most of London's population into zombies. Martial law has been enacted to prevent the spread of the plague; whose victims cycle into the living-dead every two hours and seek out the living, absorbing the life force from other victims. These people themselves become vampires and the transformation process repeats. This energy is being collected by the male vampires who direct it to the hidden female vampire who transfers it to the waiting spaceship in Earth's orbit.

Dr. Fallada impales one of the male vampires with a sword made of lead, surmising that the legends of vampires were drawn from a previous visit by this race. Carlsen admits to Caine that while on board the Churchill he felt compelled to open the female vampire's container and he shared his life force with her. Carlsen realizes that his psychic connection is being used to lure him back to the alien so that she can regain the life force she had shared with him. Caine follows Carlsen through swelling hordes of plague victims, and kills the second male vampire using the same lead sword he had obtained from Fallada (who had already succumbed to the plague).

Carlsen has Caine throw him the sword and he sacrifices himself, impaling the female alien and himself in the process. Wounded - but not fatally - the female vampire returns to her ship, taking Carlsen with her in a burst of energy that blasts off the top of the church building in which she had been hiding. The two ascend up the column of light into the spaceship, which then departs towards the comet in the last shot of the film.

Despite a $25 million dollar budget, Lifeforce earned disappointing box office returns going head-to-head against the 1985 Ron Howard sci-fi film, Cocoon. This was one of the most elaborate films ever produced by Golan-Globus and the film features an impressive pedigree of creative individuals such as director Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem’s Lot, Poltergeist), screenwriter O’Bannon (Alien, Heavy Metal, Blue Thunder, Return of the Living Dead), composer Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses) and it has excellent special visual effects by John Dykstra (Silent Running, Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), which still hold up very well in this age of computer-generated digital imagery.

Opinions remain mixed over Lifeforce, with some "know-it-alls" disparaging the film as being cheesy, with sub-par plotting, excessive nudity and one-note characters; but those of us who know better realize that this film is a spiritual descendant of classic 1960's & 1970's Hammer Films (like Quatermass and the Pit) and it is a good precursor to topnotch current BBC stuff like Torchwood & Doctor Who. The cast also elevates this film with Railsback and Firth in particular, turning in exceptional performances; plus the significant cameo by Patrick Stewart is intriguing if only to see the weird kiss that occurs between Carlsen and Armstrong (while possessed by the female vampire). Actress Mathilda May is reportedly embarrassed by her association with this movie and does not list it on her film resume. That’s unfortunate! She turns in a subtly effective performance despite remaining totally nude throughout the entire movie (photo; above middle, being the only exception). This aspect is what gives this film its greatest notoriety. I don’t really think armchair critics have given her the respect that she deserves for daring to perform completely in the buff, while also making the antagonist of the picture riveting in ways that have nothing to do with her being naked. I actually loved her then and still hold her in very high regard, and I’m also happy to report that she has remained a strikingly attractive woman through a lengthy television and movie career, albeit mostly in her native France.

If you haven’t seen Lifeforce, please give it a try. I think that it is one of the best genre flicks of the 1980’s and guarantee that you will enjoy it too. Besides the hot alien chick IS definitely worth seeing in the raw!


Runs.with.Ferals said...

Saw this on the big screen in a crappy theater with an out-of-control air-conditioner. prob'ly woulda got a woodie if it hadn't been so cold. it was a solid flick, as i remember~ and~ the Hot Vampiress definitely deserves a 2nd, 3rd, & 4th look...

Pappy said...

I've seen Lifeforce three or four times since its release. I still own it on videotape. I agree that people ought to give it a look. If they can tear their eyes away from one of the most beautiful nude girls to ever appear on film, they get a movie that is kind of a wild ride, especially with Steve Railsback as the hero. He's one of the more interesting actors to come out of the era and whatever happened to him, anyway? I agree with your assessment of the movie, Chuck.

Chuck Wells said...

Pappy, I think that using the expression "wild ride" is probably as appropriate as anything that I said about Lifeforce.

Railsback continues to act and actually filmed a genre flick called "Plaguers" last year that had elements in common with Lifeforce. It either wasn't widely released or went straight to DVD, I currently have it on my Netflix list so I'll have to let you know.

Lysdexicuss, I've already passed my 4th viewing, but no complaints here.

Britt Reid said...


The vhs is the American theatrical release version.
The DVD is the European version with additional footage (especially at the beginning, where there's an entirely different credits and opening sequence.)