LIFEFORCE is a crazy fuckin movie, my third or fourth favorite from director Tobe Hooper. Three years after POLTERGEIST and one before THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 he made this distinctly weird but effective sci-fi horror film, his first of three Golan and Globus productions.
Based on a 1976 novel called Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, it is about exactly that. Astronauts on a British space shuttle mission to study Halley’s Comet find themselves landing on a weird flower-shaped object and discovering hundreds (maybe thousands) of dessicated corpses of giant space bats. But also they find three naked humanoids hibernating in glass cases, much like the underwear girls behind the front desk at the Standard Hotel.
Most people, including myself, sometimes refer to this as NAKED SPACE VAMPIRES. But another good title would be DON’T BRING SHIT BACK FROM SPACE. But this is a momentous discovery, so understandably the astronauts want to get some samples, including all three of the humanoids. And I don’t want to give anything away so I will just say it is possible that they will come to Earth and scientists will have many great breakthroughs from studying them and there will be numerous benefits for mankind. That is one possibility.
Maybe it’s just me but in my opinion nobody remembers the two male vampires are even in this movie. What they do remember is introducing Mathilda May as “Space Girl.” Portraying an alien race’s interpretation of Steve Railsback’s deepest sexual desire, May was 21 years old and looks kinda like Alyssa Milano sprouting into Vampira. She’s introduced buck naked and stays that way for at least half of the movie (though that only adds up to 7 minutes of screen time if you believe IMDb trivia). I don’t want to be crude, but you can’t really avoid noticing that this has got to be the most boner-inducing sci-fi movie since BARBARELLA. Had this film been a STAR WARS type hit instead of a box office flop, an entire generation of boys would’ve reached manhood early and changed the very course of history. (It opened against COCOON, which went on to make eight times as much money on a smaller budget.)
But I don’t think it comes across as some kind of jerkoff movie. It’s more like a dry joke about the helplessness of men in the face of female sexuality. Every dude in the movie, starting with Railsback as astronaut Colonel Tom Carlsen the second he discovers her floating inside a vaginal (or I guess more butthole-like) room, turns into a speechless mouthbreather in her presence. If he wasn’t wearing an astronaut suit he’d be looking for a clipboard or something to awkwardly hide his boner with. The sight of her turns men into dummies. I would argue that the guy who comes closest to resisting her is the security guard who, seeing her try to walk out of the lab, tries to feed her a potato chip.
When they discuss which of these bodies they discovered to load onto the shuttle, Carlsen says to bring all three of them. This is the first major missed opportunity for comedy, because I would love to see the three male astronauts choose Space Girl as the specimen and try to act cool about it in front of the one female astronaut.
“I mean, I could go either way, I’d sort of rather take one of the male ones, but the female one is on top, it’s just easier for us to access. It’s really a shame actually but I don’t see any other choice, unfortunately.”
“Really? Why can’t we just come in from the side here?”
“Nah, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. I mean, it’s okay, we can take the female one if that’s what you prefer.”
“You said you wanted a male.”
“It’s fine. I’m not mad. We’ll take the female.”
“We can take one of the males.”
“Well, I mean, but now that I think about it, our daughters need role models, right?”
Of course, something goes wrong on the way home. A rescue mission recovers the cargo from the Space Shuttle Churchill when it drifts in like the Demeter, the ship in Dracula that arrives with only a dead captain tied to the steering wheel. There seems to have been a fire, and burnt up bodies float out – a truly Hooper moment when you consider the graverobber art that opens THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or the body pits in part 2 and POLTERGEIST. The crew seems to be dead, but the naked space vampires are brought into the lab still looking stunning.
But of course Space Girl is gonna wake up and rather than suck blood she sucks the– oh, I guess that’s why they call it LIFEFORCE. She seduces dudes into coming towards her and she acts like she’s gonna kiss them but then their energy and essence and soul and life shoot out of their heads like lightning bolts and she absorbs them and they turn into dry yucky mummy husks. And I guarantee you every one of them would tell you it was worth it though.
One other thing: their shriveled up skinbag corpses are gonna wake up in two hours and try to suck themselves some lifeforce. If they get it they’ll keep going for another two hours, if they don’t they’ll get so dry they’ll explode like a dancer pounding his chalky hands together in the Battle of Red Hook. Now, one of these lady-strapped-to-the-table-in-RETURN-OF-THE-LIVING-DEAD looking suckers actually compels a scientist to lean in for a kiss, so unless that guy has a very peculiar fetish then we can assume the space vampires have hypnotic seduction powers. Still, it’s funny to see one security guard watch another on a security monitor as he falls for the ol’ naked-Mathilda-May-lightning-bolt-face-suck, then walk right in and suffer the same fate himself. This is the power of the boner.
This reminds me alot of the one QUATERMASS movie I’ve seen, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. Because it’s this strange alien thing that’s been discovered, British scientists and officials calmly discussing it, following what’s going on, trying to logically figure out what to do as it spreads and grows into a serious threat for mankind. It starts in a lab (via space) and ends up with the streets of London piled with dead bodies as the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral cracks open and pumps a pipeline of glowing blue human souls into the sky. Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) maybe should be a little more urgent about finding a solution and tell us later about his theory that the idea of vampires comes from creatures like this visiting Earth in the past, but luckily that leads him to figuring out where to stab them.
And it’s probly just me but I kept thinking he looked kinda like the wrestler Ric Flair.
There are several good puppets of these vampirized people, and model heads that melt and spew blood that congeals on the ceiling and all kinds of weird shit. They don’t always do the best job of editing it to hide that the facial expressions don’t change much, but they’re still very cool to look at.
The other major missed opportunity for humor is at the end. When (SPOILER) Carlsen is naked making out with Space Girl and the SAS guy is about to throw him the sword, he should signal him to hold off for a couple minutes.
I’ve seen this at least two times previously and always considered myself a fan, but I also felt it started out good and then kind of lost me as it devolved into chaos in the streets and a bunch of painted on glowing energy beam FX. Luckily this latest viewing was a 70mm print playing as part of the Cinerama’s annual 70mm Festival here in Seattle. On a giant screen and with loud sound all that shit is way more exciting. And then you get to soak in Henry Mancini’s great music marching through your chest during the credits.
I don’t think I ever noticed before (SPOILER) – the space vampires won, didn’t they? Space Girl and Carlsen fly away in the space ship and below them are a bunch of babies in incubation tubes!
Seeing it with an audience also added to the experience. It wasn’t sold out, but I’d say about 2/3 full, many more people than when I saw the #1 ranking Hooper movie there one October a few years ago. The crowd wildly applauded the Cannon Films logo, which I 100% credit to that ELECTRIC BOOGALOO documentary, but that’s okay. When astronauts discussed putting the giant bat in a “containment bag” that was clearly just a net, and the audience didn’t laugh, I thought holy shit, this is a perfect audience, they are taking this seriously. Later, like when the vampire prisoner ran into the bars and exploded into dust, they started laughing more, but not entirely derisively (though some people were a little too shocked about Patrick Stewart being in it, like they thought Star Trek was his first role and it was ridiculous for him to have had any other jobs in his life). And there was applause at the end, too. Maybe more than when I saw APOCALYPSE NOW, come to think of it.
One of the screenwriters is Dan O’Bannon, which makes sense considering how much the opening resembles ALIEN. Hooper certainly doesn’t make it feel as real or as scary as Ridley Scott did in ALIEN, but it is interesting that he was able to successfully mount this large of a production not long after he was, according to legend, too incompetent or stoned to direct POLTERGEIST. We’re talking more characters, more locations, more crowd scenes, more effects, two and a half times the budget. And much weirder subject matter. I think he pulled it off pretty well, with no evidence of Spielberg being there.
Wow, you know, I’ve seen this poster art for so many years that I just knew in my brain it meant LIFEFORCE, but I never really stopped to wonder what the hell that eyeball thing has to do with this movie and why did they think that would make people want to see it? There’s so much great imagery in the movie, and it’s utilized or interpreted in many cool foreign posters, but this is what they sold it with here. That’s Cannon trying to fit in with the normals and choking, I think.
This was one of the most expensive movies they made, as their attempt to throw it in with the big boys, but it would have to settle for losing a ton of money and becoming a beloved cult movie years later. You could argue it was still influential though, because it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t the inspiration for SPECIES and UNDER THE SKIN. Both have a creature from space manifesting on earth as an intimidatingly hot woman walking around naked, causing men to go gulp, predatorily seducing them and suckfacing them to death. SPECIES II even has a somewhat similar Space Shuttle mission opening, lab escape and major astronaut characters. I know UNDER THE SKIN was based on a book, but that was a book that came out 14 years after LIFEFORCE. According to Wikipedia it was “written in, and inspired by, the Scottish Highlands,” which in my opinion means “in between viewings of LIFEFORCE.”
Anyway, even held up against those possible-copycats, LIFEFORCE remains a uniquely enjoyable oddity.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.