Monday, January 11, 2010

Wendigo Meets LIFEFORCE (1985)

Tobe Hooper's sci fi-horror hybrid is based on a book called The Space Vampires, but my friend Wendigo worries that some purists may say that Lifeforce isn't a vampire film because the vampire woman (i.e., "the space girl," played by Mathilda May) doesn't drink blood. To those critics he counsels: "Shut up! She's hot and she's naked."

Wendigo has read Colin Wilson's novel so he's a leg up on me and many people who saw Lifeforce in theaters. The film deviates from its source increasingly as it goes on, but apparently a reading of The Space Vampires would still be helpful in figuring out all that happens in this haphazard, often hysterical extravaganza.

I don't know which is a bigger stretch: the existence of space vampires or a manned European space program. It's a moot point, though, since Lifeforce gives you both. It starts with the ESA ship Churchill discovering a weird spaceship and its even weirder cargo of humanoids in what look like plexiglass coffins. An American shuttle (the Columbia, alas) finds the Churchill dead in orbit, all the crew apparently dead, an escape pod missing, and the three coffins and their occupants intact. We later learn that the pod got away with the American member of the Churchill's crew, Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), who tells conflicting stories of his escape from the death ship. Meanwhile, the bodies in the coffins wake up and start leeching away at folks, sucking up their life force and turning them into nasty little husks that wake up later seeking life force themselves. The British authorities try to get things under control, but as they track down the "space girl" London goes all to hell at a halfway point in British movie history between Quatermass and the Pit and 28 Days Later. It's up to a confused, irritable Carlsen and asskicking Col. Caine (Peter Firth) to send the space vampires back whence they came before they suck Britain dry of souls....

"Allow me to take you on a guided tour of scenic, historic London, city of colorful, friendly people who really love life!"

Wendigo won't go so far as to call Lifeforce a guilty pleasure, but he can understand if people don't like it. As a vampire film, it intrigues him because of its exceptional portrayal of vampires who don't drink blood. In tradition, he notes, vampires could feed off people in many different ways, but ever since Dracula writers and moviemakers have pigeonholed the vampire as a blood sucker. While Lifeforce and its source novel propose that the space vampires are the ancestors of the "vampires of legend," its own vampires are refreshingly free of the standard bloodlust.

"Is that a bat I see before me?" Someone has a bad dream in Lifeforce.

But while it's conceptually interesting, Lifeforce kind of misfires as both sci-fi and horror in Wendigo's opinion, working best as a roller-coaster type action-adventure film. In a way it's a typical post-Star Wars sci-fi film, in which the special effects are treated as a special attraction for you to gawk at. There are long shots of the exterior and interior of vast spaceships intercut with astronauts just looking at them. Filmmakers could not yet take FX for granted and simply integrate them into the film, and the heavyhanded emphasis on showing off both the FX and some admirably colorful and intricate set designs hurts the pace of the film. Both the beginning and end of the movie reminded me of Star Trek, the Motion Picture. Wendigo agrees on the resemblances, and that's not exactly a good thing.

By 21st century standards some of the effects work in Lifeforce has a Georges Melies look to it, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Arguably the film's best special effect is Mathilda May, the space girl. You will recall that she is hot and she's naked. She has the allure that a succubus needs to be a convincing seductress, and one of the problems with Lifeforce is that Hooper and the late Dan O'Bannon contrive to take May off the screen for much of the middle of the film.

Modes of Mathilda May. We elect to leave her less clothed scenes to your imagination.

Her hapless romantic interest, Steve Railsback, is the weakest part of the movie. He gives the sort of over-the-top performance we should like, raging and raving throughout, but there's an all-too-obvious air of desperation to his emoting, a sense that he doesn't really know what he's doing. Fortunately, Peter Firth takes much of the film's heroic weight on quite capable shoulders. In addition, Patrick Stewart screams a lot.

As a horror film, Lifeforce has numerous echoes of Dracula, more than the source novel. Carlsen is a little bit of Jonathan Harker, a little bit of Mina Harker and a little bit of Renfield, disappearing during a long journey, coming back a bit crazy and unwittingly aiding the space vampires. He and Cain and some others make up a crew of vampire hunters. The Churchill is an analog for the doomed Demeter, while the asylum where Patrick Stewart presides parallels Dr. Seward's asylum, and Stewart's character is arguably another Renfield. While Dracula sleeps in Carfax Abbey, the space girl sets up shop in a cathedral. And like the then most recent cinema Dracula, Frank Langella, the space girl seems to get away at the end. All of this almost subliminally reinforces the vampire archetype amid the sci-fi trappings. While Hooper looks back in subtle fashion, Lifeforce also contributes a new archetype, since Wendigo believes it to be the first film to feature exploding vampires.

If we're correct, you're looking at the second exploding vampire in cinema history. You can see the first in the trailer below.

Rather than let them explode, you can also kill a space vampire with a sword, as Peter Firth is studying to do here. Below, however, is a cleaner, more erotic way to be rid of the pests.

Lifeforce will most please people who turn it on looking for constant berserk action, and fans of cinematic skin will definitely appreciate Mathilda May. Wendigo suspects that many people who consider themselves vampire movie fans will dismiss this film, but as he always says, anytime anyone says something is the wrong kind of vampire, that person's the one who's wrong. Lifeforce is a film of its moment, down to the tie-in to the return of Halley's Comet, and its sexuality, of a kind hard to come by today, takes on the taboos that have always been vampire territory. Wendigo likes it better than I do, but I'll only add that it's a film that becomes easier to like with the right company to share it with.

The R-rated trailer was uploaded to YouTube by CrowTRobot1313. It lets you see more of Mathilda May and hear some of Henry Mancini's unusually muscular musical score.


TheAnswerMVP2001 said...

I recently rented this from Netflix, haven't watched it yet, but Patrick Stewart in a B-movie horror intrigued me.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Oh, what a glorious mess this movie is! Watching EATEN ALIVE recently it struck me that Hooper's career seems far more interested in glorious excess than in the sparse "documentarian" style TCM fans are always wanting him to "go back to" (even though it really seems it's only that one movie where he did anything of the sort), and LIFEFORCE shows him at arguably his most unrestrained and unhinged. I can just see him cackling behind the camera, mentally tabulating how much money he has left and what tonnage of batshittery that will buy him. And he blows it all--oh yes he does.

I didn't mind the "not a real vampire" thing--I totally bought into the Quatermass-ian idea of these creatures being the basis for later legends of vampirism, where "blood" eventually got substituted for "glowing ethereal life juice." It's just shorthand, that's all.

Bonus points for the Screaming Puppet Dust Bombs, and of course the gloriousness of Matilda May. I'm surprised you were actually able to find a screencap of her with clothes on!

And agreed on the weakness of Railsbeck in this--he was absolutely, distractingly awful, and you know it's bad when it bothers even ME. Luckily the madness of the rest makes up for it.

dfordoom said...

I may have to get hold of this one. After Texas Chainsaw Massacre I swore I'd never see another Tobe Hooper film, but this one does sound intriguing.