The Film: 4/5
**This review is based on a test disc provided by Arrow Video and may not reflect the final product. We will update the review if and when the final product is received.**
Space agencies from the U.S. and the U.K. have joined forces to explore the universe with the shuttlecraft Churchill. A team of astronauts from both countries commanded by Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) intercepts Hailey’s Comet during its rare appearance and discover a 150-mile-long alien spaceship concealed in its tail. The exploration team travels inside the craft and finds a myriad of dead bat creatures and three nude humanoid aliens - one woman (Mathilda May) and two men (Chris Jagger, Bill Malin) - in stasis inside glass sarcophagi, which are then taken back aboard the Churchill. One month later, Mission Control loses contact with the shuttle and a rescue mission is launched into space. They find the shuttle has been damaged and all that remains intact are the three aliens. They are taken back to Earth to be studied, but eventually the woman wakes up and stars draining anyone who makes the mistake of coming into close contact with her of all life via one deadly (but so worth it, says every guy who watches this movie) kiss and leaving them to survive as shriveled zombies who need to take the “life force” of others or explode into dust. The two men are revived after the “Space Girl” begins her very naked rampage and soon London is overrun by these energy-sucking vampires from the stars and their thousands of crazed living victims. The only person who can bring an end to the madness is Colonel Carlsen - the sole survivor of the Churchill who ejected from the shuttle after inadvertently reviving the female vampire and establishing a psychic link - with the help of S.A.S. Colonel Caine (Peter Firth) and scientist Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay).
Based on the 1976 novel The Space Vampires written by the late Colin Wilson, Lifeforce was the first of three films Tobe Hooper made for Cannon Films in the mid-1980’s. Hooper signed on with Cannon at a time in his career when his talents for bringing intensified horror to the screen was in doubt following the “Who directed Poltergeist?” controversy that left fans of the 1982 haunted house horror perennially unsure if it was Hooper or high-powered producer Steven Spielberg who actually called the shots on the production. He was the first director attached to Return of the Living Dead when it was originally planned to be filmed in 3-D, but his duties were soon turned over to Dan O’Bannon - best known at the time as the writer of Alien and Blue Thunder - whose original screenplay had been penned specifically to suit Hooper’s directorial skills. Hooper later drafted O’Bannon and Don Jakoby (Arachnophobia) to adapt Wilson’s novel (with an uncredited assist from Olaf Pooley and Mark of the Devil director Michael Armstrong), which had been given to the director by Cannon honcho Menahem Golan, into a workable screenplay. By far Lifeforce would be a grand production the scale of which both Hooper and Cannon Films would never come close to topping for the rest of their days, though the studio gave it the old college try with their expensive flops Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Budgeted at $25 million (a huge number for the mid-80’s), Lifeforce’s long and complicated production on massive soundstages at England’s Elstree Studios indicated that its director had come a long way since his days shooting the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a few hundred thousand dollars in the brutal Texas summer heat in 1973. The scale was greater than even that of Poltergeist, but having no one to answer to but Golan and his partner Yoram Globus ensured Hooper would be the God, Allah, Buddah, and J.R. “Bob” Dobbs of Lifeforce, which began filming as “Space Vampires” until Cannon decided that title to be too reminiscent of a cheesy 1950’s B-movie. Which to me is very amusing since much of Lifeforce is indeed reminiscent of a cheesy 1950’s B-movie. You half-expect there to be an anti-Communist message embedded in the plot as you watch the film. This is one of the single most ludicrous movies made by a Hollywood studio during the 80’s, a decade which gave Lifeforce no short amount of crazier competition. It’s a headlong crack-up between heady, reserved British sci-fi and horror films like The Quatermass Xperiment and Day of the Triffids and the more intense American genre films that surfaced in the wake of Star Wars and Alien. The two different styles go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise, but it’s a weird taste you get used to after a while and may even enjoyment. It all depends on how well you can stomach the purest crap.
Lifeforce comes packing from its opening moments with a surfeit of unintentional laughs and exploitable elements you wouldn’t typically find in a film of this type. The central performance by Steve Railsback is a real hoot because he seems to be operating on a vastly different wavelength than the rest of the mostly British cast. Much of his dialogue is often spaced out by panic breaths, he sweats profusely, his eyes bug out like they’re trying desperately to escape his exploding skull, and he overreacts to the slightest problem. Railsback is a great actor not given to over-the-top performances, but sometimes he plays characters who are already over the top and he’s just trying to match his acting to the demands of the part. Something tells me that Colonel Carlsen was on the verge of cracking up before he and his crew on the Churchill discovered the alien ship. This is apparent in a sequence where Mathilda May’s consistently buck ass nude “Space Girl” appears to him in a dream and they make love. Cut to Carlsen waking up screaming and (of course) sweating buckets. This might possibly be the funniest-for-the-wrong-reasons moment in a movie overflowing with the stuff. Maybe it’s just my inherent maleness talking, but I fail to see the reasons for Carlsen having such a reaction to what is definitely a pretty damn good dream. Do you know how many guys would kill to have dreams like that on a regular basis? The estimated amount could fill up the Superdome ten times over.
The majority of the humor comes from the British characters trying hard to make sense of what is happening while maintaining the straightest of faces throughout the lunacy. Even when things are at their worst everyone who isn’t Carlsen plays it cool and detached. I guess that’s why the potential zombie apocalypse in Shaun of the Dead was sorted out in a manner of hours; the English know how to get their shit together. Hooper and his supporting cast certainly have fun with the material while treating it with the utmost importance and respect. There’s no winking at the camera here. It’s a droll treat watching storied British character actors like Aubrey Morris (A Clockwork Orange), Nicholas Ball (Croupier), and Michael Gothard (The Devils) react to the craziness surrounding their characters like mature adults. As I watching Lifeforce for the umpteenth time since first catching an edited-for-television version of the truncated U.S. theatrical cut on USA All Night sometime in the mid-90’s it started to dawn on me that it was a sexual, high-tech update of Bram Stoker’s original novel Dracula. May’s nude energy vampire is a shrewd stand-in for the evil Count, Carlsen is both Jonathan and Mina Harker, Colonel Caine is the all-action side of Professor Van Helsing, and Dr. Fallada encompasses both the professor’s scientific side and Dr. Seward. The Churchill is discovered with its crew dead and the vampires in their glass coffins in a manner similar to the wreck of the Demeter. The ending is even reminiscent of both the novel and subsequent film adaptations of Dracula.
Both Peter Firth (Equus) and Frank Finlay (Murder by Decree) handle their respective roles of Caine and Fallada with professionalism and intelligence. Firth makes Caine the real hero of Lifeforce, a real take charge kind of guy in sharp contrast with the utterly nuts Carlsen. Patrick Stewart puts in an early film appearance as the overseer of an insane asylum who plays a ridiculous role in the plot and even gets his first on-screen kiss, courtesy of Steve Railsback. You have to see it to believe it. Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre narrator John Larroquette returns to lend his deep tones to the opening scene. The lovely Mathilda May makes the greatest impression with her hypnotic eyes, a minimum of dialogue (outside of some expository lines), and…..something else that I can’t quite remember. Can’t be her wardrobe. Well anyway, she’s very lovely though she never quite exudes the menace a true villain requires. The vampires aren’t really evil seeing as how they are simply doing what is in their nature: to ensure the survival of their race. We never get a real sense of the threat they pose until the third act when all Hell quite literally breaks loose.
The visual effects work in Lifeforce represents the finest in a Tobe Hooper film. Cannon spared no expense to make sure this one was done absolutely right. Production designer John Graysmark (The Bounty) made effective use of existing locations in England and helped to create some impressive sets, from the interior of the alien spacecraft to the Gothic cathedral that provides the battleground for the climatic scene, with the assistance of a terrific team of art directors captained by Robert Cartwright (The Devils). John Dykstra (Star Wars) headed up a special effects crew that transformed what had barely existed in the pages of the Colin Wilson novel into a candy-colored wonderland of extraterrestrial vessels that resembles clotted arteries and fantastic displays of alien power tearing apart the city of London. The prosthetic effects crew that included Nick Maley (The Empire Strikes Back) and an uncredited Stephen Norrington (the future director of Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) bring to life the nightmarish horrors that are the decaying and exploding victims of the space vampires, most of whom resemble zombies with severe crack addictions. Sequences where ordinary human beings are drained of life until they’re walking pieces of stale biscotti are the most disturbing visuals in the entire film. Next to May’s glorious nudity it’s the real enduring legacy of Lifeforce.
Alan Hume - cinematographer on several “Carry On’ features, Return of the Jedi, and Runaway Train - photographs the insane action with brilliant visual clarity and gives the interior scenes in the Space Research Centre a film noir-style shadowy look that adds drama to simple scenes where nothing seems to be happening. The editing by John Grover (Labyrinth) keeps a marvelous pace and never allows dialogue scenes to become static or the action set pieces to go on longer than necessary. The legendary Henry Mancini’s music score (replaced partially in the American cut by new music composed by Michael Kamen) is exactly the kind of bombastic accompaniment Lifeforce. It’s a full-on orchestral assault with a main title theme that would usually seem better suited to an epic adventure but fits marvelously here and moodier cues that could have been written by James Horner, who was originally approached to create the score.
Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Lifeforce features both the international version of the film and its truncated U.S. cut distributed theatrically by Tri-Star Pictures in the summer of 1985 and later on VHS and laserdisc by Vestron Video the following December. Remastered in AVC encoded 1080p high-definition, new transfers for the two different cuts were prepared by current rights holder MGM using original film elements with the participation of director Hooper for Shout! Factory’s collector’s edition BR released this past June. This is Lifeforce as no one has seen it most likely since it first played theaters around the world almost three decades ago. Hooper personally oversaw the color timing for MGM’s HD transfer and the results are a vast improvement over previous releases. Much of the fine grain in the print was removed and the colors sport renewed vitality especially when it comes to the effects-heavy scenes. The flesh tones are warmer and more realistic, while details have been noticeably sharpened and the work really shows in the chaotic third act.
Both versions have been provided with lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and uncompressed 2.0 LPCM stereo tracks for the full sound mix and isolated music and effects tracks in 2.0 LPCM stereo. For either film if you have an elaborate or even basic home theater set-up the 5.1 channel is your greatest option as it features a remarkable balance in the various components of the sound mix, strong volumes on the dialogue and effects mixes that never overlap each other, and absolutely no listenable audio distortion. Viewers with standard television sets will get the same impact from the 2.0 track, but if you watch the film in 5.1 you won’t experience any distortion or other flaws. It’s up to you. Optional English subtitles have also been provided for both features.
Once again Arrow has taken a film released to Blu-ray recently (and in a pretty great package too) in the U.S. and put together a superior edition of their own. The U.S. Blu of Lifeforce had the virtue of sporting two newly-recorded audio commentaries, three informative retrospective interviews, marketing materials, and best of all the shorter American release version in its first home video incarnation since the early days of VHS. Arrow had the foresight to secure the rights to all of those bonus features and sweetened the pot with some U.K.-exclusive extras that will likely have most fans chucking their Scream Factory BR’s and investing in a region free player.
The first of this two-disc set contains the 116-minute version of Lifeforce favored by Hooper and released internationally by Cannon and the bulk of the new and old supplementary material. Commentaries with director Hooper (moderated by 2001 Maniacs director Tim Sullivan) and special effects make-up designer Nick Maley (moderated by Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures) from the Scream Factory BR are joined by a new track with visual effects supervisor Douglas Smith, with filmmaker Howard Scott Berger serving as moderator. The latter two commentaries obviously favor the technical side of the making of Lifeforce but contain their fair amount of production anecdotes, and fans of practical effects will find these tracks a genuine pleasure. As always Hooper’s commentary is a pretty laidback affair and he is veritable fountain of stories and background into the filming. He’s upfront about what works and what doesn’t in the finished movie, but overall he seems very happy with Lifeforce and the cult following it has acquired over the years. All three commentaries are terrific listens and this release would be as naked as the Space Girl without them.
Also held over from this summer’s great Scream Factory Blu-ray are new interviews with Hooper (“Space Vampires in London” - 10 minutes), Steve Railsback (“Carlsen’s Curse” - 7 minutes), and Mathilda May (“Dangerous Beauty” - 15 minutes). Though Hooper’s interview tends to repeat info he already mentioned in greater detail in his commentary, the talks with his male and female leads provide different perspectives on this grand-scale production. Both Railsback and May have fond memories of the shoot and slightly contradictory opinions of Hooper as a director.
The centerpiece supplement of Arrow’s release is Calum Waddell’s extensive new documentary “Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce”, which runs a whopping 70 minutes and features interviews with Hooper, editor John Grover, associate producer Michael J. Kagan, prosthetic/make-up effects artist John Schoonraad, uncredited screenwriter Michael Armstrong, make-up artist Sandra Exelby, sound designer Vernon Messenger, and actors Aubrey Morris and Nicholas Ball. Yes sir, this is a Brit-heavy enterprise that covers almost everything about the Lifeforce production, but the script development gets glossed over big time (co-writer Dan O’Bannon is no longer around to offer his thoughts). The principal photography, post-production, and theatrical release are discussed in excruciating and unsurprisingly candid detail, and almost every participant has an opinion - some frank, others highly amusing - about their director. Some mention is made of Hooper’s on-set drug problem but what drug he was supposedly on is never revealed. One of the best bonus features ever produced for an Arrow release, “Cannon Fodder” makes a perfect companion to Lifeforce and is fearless in dissecting the troubled production’s history but warm and appreciative of what Hooper and his talented cast and crew brought to life when all is said and done.
The first disc closes out with a 90-second trailer for Tri-Star’s U.S. theatrical release and an international trailer with the Cannon Films logo out front (2 minutes). A U.S. television spot and stills gallery were the only extras from the Scream Factory Blu-ray to not be included on this Region B edition.
Disc two contains only the 101-minute U.S. theatrical release cut of the film and no additional bonus features. Including this version of Lifeforce was merely for the sake of making this a complete edition, because Tri-Star’s cut is clearly the inferior one. With large chunks of story and character development removed and other questionable editing choices in regards to the narrative Hooper’s strangely compelling movie is reduced to an incoherent mess. It would have been nice for Arrow to produce a new featurette exploring the decisions that went into creating the American version and providing comparisons between this and the international version preferred by just about every Lifeforce fan, or maybe an expert commentary a la the “Love Conquers All” radical recut of Terry Gilliam’s classic Brazil included on that film’s Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray set.
This Blu-ray also comes with a new collector’s booklet featuring a new essay on Lifeforce written by science fiction expert Bill Warren and a new interview with Oscar-winning visual effects artist John Dykstra by Calum Waddell, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
Lifeforce is a Hammer horror film made for the giggling, prepubescent horndog who keep back issues of Penthouse and Fangoria under their mattress in us all. Arrow has outdone its U.S. competition with a terrific 2-disc Blu-ray set complete with the excellent existing transfer and extras from the Scream Factory BR and an extensive new retrospective documentary. Honor the psychotronic video hound that still lurks within your soul and check this sucker out.