“In the blink of an eye, the terror begins”
What are you doing T.C.M.R. I hear you cry? Out of all the Tobe Hooper films you could pick, you chose this particular film as your first review of his work. “Well! is it not obvious? … No!… Well you should be ashamed”, for it is blatantly clear to us that this little gem will not be the only Tobe Hooper film that will receive T.C.M.R. treatment in future. The fact is – we wanted to review this film anyway so why not start with this exciting cult title by Tobe Hooper – after all he did direct it and we love this movie greatly. Lifeforce (1985) is both quirky and quite grandiose in execution, it also harks back toward many early aspects of good old fashioned Sci-fi/horror cinema that by the time this production came along this old tradition had largely been forgotten by many generations of cinemagoers unfamiliar with this fantasy staple. Though more rugged and graphic than the original material that influenced Hooper’s grand vision the homage remains certainly embedded.
Tobe Hooper clearly wanted to reinvent this formula and his personal end vision for a new audience type, he doing so in a modern guise and recreation that surely could not fail? This often spectacular indulgence delivers in great abundance a far superior movie than the original failing box- office dive bomb would suggest. What this does affirm to me – is that such a false barometer should simply be ignored, especially by many whom originally missed the whole point of what Lifeforce in cinematic terms was trying to achieve and in response we should simply wag a finger at those individuals and critics alike that thought it was not worth the time to view it; a clear point of massive failure on their behalf – in my opinion! Lifeforce is an adventurous and exciting Science fiction and horror extravaganza as one is likely to experience – this particular effort still retaining that unravelling fantastical adventurous backdrop feel of past glories. This cinematic dazzling came along despite the restraint of the technology of the time and quite sometime before the more perfected CGI laden lockers we have come to expect in cinema today. Indeed in the CGI age the way in which directors can use and manipulate special effects is pretty astonishing but can it really offer that genuine organic feel and immersion that this Hooper masterpiece retrospectively and mischievously achieved way back in the mid 1980’s. This production has aged like a vintage wine and despite time and tide still holds up pretty favourably – even today. Lifeforce is one of those last bastions of traditional 80’s special effect epics that undoubtedly had a burgeoning influence of its time and today; still perfectly encapsulates a movie that at the time invested heavily in breaking new and exciting ground in Sci-Fi /horror set pieces. It also obtains a reputable grand scale UK form and style of filmmaking – that is most certainly unmistakable! Yes in parts of the film it does show its 30 year age gap, despite this however its scale and exaggerated storyline are what such things are made of; in both its lavishness, visual spectacle and in particular I direct you toward the last twenty minutes when the… “what’s the phrase i’m looking for here? That’s it… it goes absolutely f**king nuts?” A coarse remark to make I agree, but facts are facts and that is exactly what happens with Hooper’s overflowing – doomed end of the world vision which richly bows without any doubt in time honoured tradition toward the templates laid down by the concepts espoused by predecessors such as Hammer productions wonderful Quatermass series of movies!
Lifeforce is clearly a related homage to those imaginative halcyon days. We here at T.C.M.R. Simply love this recaptured atmosphere of thrills and spills that Lifeforce provides from its space travelling beginnings to the epidemic nightmare anarchy that ensues in the climatic end vision and everything that comes in between these two immersive events. “I mean Space Vampires and then latterly a dash of zombie infestation for f**k sake?” What is there not to get overly excited about with such a mind-boggling concept.
So why did we not start our relationship with Mr Hooper’s cinematic output with the obvious choice that many would make? “If you do not know what I am talking about… then go away now?” Lifeforce when finally released came some three long years after the trials and tribulations of Hooper’s work on Poltergeist (1982) and the perceived problems associated with the ‘alleged’ delicate relationship between Messrs Hooper and Spielberg during that particular production. It is public knowledge of those events and we will leave it there and simply move onward. Sadly his up and coming relationship with MGM and associates Cannon Films aka Menahem Golan – Yoram Globus, though initially lay down the foundations of goodwill and positive intentions by all – would later become a more strained relationship and merely added to the potential expectations that all involved had imagined in this cinematic coming-together. The fact that – foolhardy or otherwise Hooper signed a three movie deal/contract; in the particular case of the director it later became not much better in regard of eventual artistic freedom, or latterly promised budgets that were slashed to the bone and not what had been originally quoted pre-production. At least with this particular first production Tobe Hooper was left largely to his own devises and on this occasion it clearly shows spectacularly… thankfully.
Hooper and Spielberg on location Poltergeist 1982
What we must also acknowledge regarding this effort is the investment of all conspiring departments that where brought together in order to give this production the best of everything available at the time. From a great cast which included some recognisable British acting stalwarts to the younger up and coming spectrum of actors that are quite visible in their roles and easily stand toe to toe with their more illustrious acting colleagues. Add to this cast the method acting abilities of the lone American presence and what you have is a professional ensemble that in large part delivers up a great frenetic tongue-in-cheek pace which is hard not to appreciate and enjoy. Deliver a screenplay which came via the legend that was the late and great Dan O’ Bannon. (Alien, 1979.) and was Co-written by Don Jakoby (Blue Thunder, (1983). And yes we are very fond of that film too J.A.F.O.?) Lifeforce is loosely based on British writer Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampire, 1976. (Also the original intended title for the movie).
This visual spectacle was shot on location in the UK, during 1983 and was largely filmed in Borehamwood Hertfordshire, home of the legendary Elstree studios. The largely British cast of great note included Peter Firth, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart, pre Star Trek: The Next Generation and not forgetting Aubrey Morris of course? Though the director and the main star were American, the actor in question being a T.C.M.R. Favourite – one Steve Railsback the rest of the movie deliberately maintains an obvious Sci-Fi/Horror feel quintessentially British in nature… “well it is, I mean the space shuttle is called ‘Churchill’ damn it!” Again this is quite an amazing fête by Hooper in capturing the Britishness – ‘Hammeresque’ impulse, especially when we consider this effort came from someone who stems from Texas in the U.S.A. The movie opens ‘spectacularly’ I may add with a musical score written by the legend that is Henry Mancini and anthemically performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. The theme music to Lifeforce is just fantastic in capturing that adventurous essence that the film contains. On a personal note, I still believe the Lifeforce film score to be one of the best musical title opening sequences ever to perfectly describe the films full fledged cinematic DNA.
We are introduced to members of HMS Churchill, a space shuttle crew no less whose intended space mission is to travel and pass through and collect information and data regarding Halley’s Comet which is conveniently passing by Earth on its 75 year cycle. A blip on the shuttles radar monitors soon changes all that however as the crew identifies what is a vast space station which is floating in the pull of the corona, (head) of Halley’s Comet. Due to placement in the comets trajectory and pull the Churchill is unable to contact mission control and inform them of their extraordinary find, therefore the missions leader Colonel Tom Carlsen (Railsback) takes the direct decision to investigate what is essentially a craft of alien construction. It is during the boarding of this enormous ‘organic’ space station/craft. An idea used years later in Fantasy, Sci-Fi series Lexx: (1997-2002) and repeated again not long after in the popular Sci-Fi series Farscape, (1999-2003). On board the massive craft we find what is best described by the Colonel himself as “giant bats”, all lifeless and inwardly decayed, “completely desiccated” as described. The investigating crew also find three alleged perfectly preserved, naked human cargo who are sealed in some kind of cryogenic, suspended animated clear pods, one female, two male. The decision to take these preserved lifeforms back to Churchill begins what can ultimately be viewed in hindsight as a very big mistake – “oh yes indeedy!”
It is 30 days on from last communication of any kind between The Churchill and mission control, who finally respond by sending the space shuttle Columbia to investigate what may have happened and to ascertain why there has been no communication by the missing crew. What the crew of Columbia find on finally docking with Churchill is a burnt out spacecraft with all crew allegedly dead. The only thing unaffected by the internal devastation are the pods/cases and those sealed within them?
Once returned to Earth all matters focus on the alien cargo. Leading the investigation is Dr Hans Fallada – Frank Finlay whose over the top performance is wonderful and in fitting with the films adventurous tongue in cheek vibe. It is his job to try and ascertain and make any logical and ethical predictions, possibilities, etc, regarding the find. The good doctor does not have long to wait however before the female presence who is now being constantly monitored suddenly awakens from her slumber and whose casket suddenly and freely opens. Rather than show us our largely male preconceived interpretation of her visual femininity and naked beauty which is on clear display.
What we get is a femme fatale alien life form that behaves to all intense and purpose like a vampire, though not in the normal sense of the word. There are no pointy teeth on show here, what we do have is a creature that literally sucks the very ‘Lifeforce’ from said victims. A touch of mesmerism and a kiss of death and that as they say is that. The visually stunning and naked throughout the first part of the movie role his admiringly played by French actress Mathilda May who is quite breathtaking, (get it? pun definitely and unequivocally intended Ed!). Anyway her presence is extraordinary and free flowing and yes her beauty is quite evident, a definite smokescreen folks and despite this we must understand that for May to perform her part with the constant of cast and crew members being present throughout her performance it seems never leaves us in doubt what exactly this alien is all about. Her portrayal is never at all affected and May is indeed quite majestic in her on-screen presence which is a fête of great achievement. In my personal opinion and mine alone I would strongly suggest; no Mathilda May, no wicked and mischievous space girl – vampire, it is that simple. May’s performance and her noticeable looks and features strongly remind me of Martine Beswick’s performance in Roy Ward Baker‘s masterful Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) though unlike Beswick in the Hammer gem, May has very little in the way of initial dialogue which is mutedly maintained until the dream sequences and the final showdown. What little dialogue she is finally given actually fits in perfectly with our preconceptions of her sensuality and obvious physical prowess and presence which May easily conveys in the hidden evilness that lies behind the outward beauty of our alien species.
Throughout the film her telekinetic connection soon manifests and comes in dreams and flashbacks of Colonel Tom Carlsen’s character. We eventually note her body snatching antics aligned with her vampiric apparitions which reveal to him both her changing form while he is still able to recognise her true identity and origin which May achieves with massive presence and great credit and yes I really do mean every word despite the obvious warm blooded male species that I am. (Again pun intended, note how I dropped ‘Species’ in there, ‘Brilliant’?) Yes I believe there are more than strong and justifiable comparisons to be made here with Roger Donaldson’s Species, (1995). Yes we like this movie also. Well what did you expect people? May Vs Henstridge, you decide. My allegiance is clear is it not!
The space vampire when awaken soon goes berserk in the secret government complex in which both she and her two male companions are being held. In this sudden Sci-Fi blitz we are offered some truly breathtaking set pieces and special effects galore, coming courtesy of Oscar winner John Dykstra who learned his early trade on little known movies like, George Lucas’s Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of some kind or another? (Enough now Ed! For goodness sake…) Anyway Dykstra’s effects team pull off some quite amazing, nay, spectacular horror set pieces.
The taking and transference of said life force and the after effects of the vampiric body draining/snatching are quite wondrous and still today 30 years on look fabulous and quite literally explosive at times. Soldiers, guards, and medical staff alike all receive the Space vampires wrath before she eventually makes good her escape into the big wide world beyond. Enter one SAS and government figure, yes another Colonel. One Colin Caine played by Peter Firth, later of the BBC’s successful and long running drama series Spooks ( 2002 – 2011), funnily enough in a role not to dissimilar to the one he plays in Lifeforce but maybe not nearly as stereotypical as his character in this film.
The devastating after effects left behind and caused by the space vampires onslaught become overwhelming and start to reveal and unravel many issues including time-lines, what happens to the victims of this alien attack, dealing with the noted reanimation and ultimately the subsequent death of the alien victims. With the space vampire female at large and the two remaining alien lifeforms still in stasis and with word reaching the investigation of the re-entry of one of Churchill’s escape vessels which has finally returned to Earth. Once crash landed back on terra-firma, (Texas) see what has happened there, a bow perhaps to the director, some kind of in joke maybe? On board the escape capsule we discover that Colonel Tom Carlsen has survived the disaster on board the shuttle Churchill. Is it luck or is there something else that lies behind the colonels survival? We later find out what actually happened aboard the fateful Churchill during a moment of re-enacted analysis.
While Carlsen is under secondment and travels to the UK The two male space vampires are reanimated but over zealous and frightened soldiers machine gun them beyond brief reinvigoration. Again is this a red herring? The investigation and search now focuses specifically on the escaped space girl who has relentlessly left a trail of vital clues surrounding her recent unscrupulous activity in a London park. Her latest female victim has been left – sucked dry of her lifeforce. We shortly see the results of this attack when the ‘alleged’ dead victim reanimates under laboratory conditions, again with devastating effect.
The arrival of Colonel Carlsen comes not a moment to soon and it also becomes evident that during his space journey not only has his contact with these vampiric foes given him a communicative connection with space girl on a personal subliminal level but he has unceremoniously become the guide and possible saviour of the human race, (… yes people the human race!) Carlsen’s telekinetic connection gives him first hand information about how the space girl is travelling and disguising, hiding her real identity. This benefits the search team which now includes the very hands-on involvement of the countries Home Secretary, Sir Percy Heseltine, played by British stalwart actor Aubrey Morris – A Clockwork Orange (1971). Those in search of our alien have now been given official top priority as they go in pursuit of our alien vamp. During one of Carlsen’s visions the group are able to garnish clues to the aliens possible whereabouts. This breakthrough will take Carlsen, Caine and Heseltine to Thurlstone Hospital, an asylum run by Dr Armstrong – Patrick Stewart. As the Home Secretary debriefs the good doctor about their important visit both Carlsen and Caine visit the hospitals nurses quarters in order to make contact with nurse Ellen Donaldson, (Nancy Paul) who Carlsen believes was the woman noted in his earlier vision and has been identified as the body snatched version of space girl.
During a violent confrontation between Carlsen and nurse Donaldson we learn that Carlsen’s abilities now extend to touch as well as telekinetic connection. After he gets the information he needs to extend the search for the alien, it soon becomes clear that there has been a new transference from Donaldson to another potential host. The long and short of it is Dr Armstrong has probably and inadvertently become said vampire host. The ramifications and the after effects quickly become apparent and it is in these moments that the revelation is finally revealed and the first earthly connection between Carlsen and space girl has greater depth than originally imagined. A violent unravelling chain reaction has already been ignited and it seems space girl and her male colleagues have managed to do more damage than one possibly could envisage.
One mad helicopter ride of discovery and continuing ground reports being communicated back to those on board the helicopter regarding the fate of London soon makes clear that the people of the capital are now under marshal law because the streets are overwhelmed and full of, wait for it!… ‘ZOMBIES’. A plague has begun to sweep through the capitals inhabitants and all now seems lost as the human race seem to be on a precipice of possible destruction. In one scene even our Prime Minister becomes victim of the dreaded curse it seems. “Is no-one safe?”
There is much I have omitted in this review so has not to spoil the many mad and at times silly ingredients that make up this massively enjoyable and not at all (unique) Hooper like movie experience.
If you have not yet seen this glorious film then you are missing out on a film treat that contains some great scary fun. What Lifeforce also does show, is that despite his early masterpiece that we will not name in this review; here is a director having fun in offering its potential audience a guide of how to make a full-blown, classy and deliberate reminiscent Quatermass type vibe in the films influenced production values. We must also further recognise that if left to his own devises Tobe Hooper could commit to conceiving any big blockbuster cinematic experience with great vision and detailed effort and does so here with nothing other than massive achievement. Sadly this director never seemed to get the one true break a lot of people suggest he should have been afforded in latter mainstream cinema! Okay so Poltergeist should have been that monumental moment in the sun but it was not to be for numerous reasons of discord and it seemed because of matters beyond his personal control. Yes Lifeforce at the time was a big budget movie that failed in box office terms and yes in signing a three movie deal – in hindsight – this became an association with the wrong people at the wrong point in his career history to move Hooper further forward rather than backward because of this films subsequent financial failure, which proved in large to be part of Tobe Hooper’s downfall which is a very sad state of affairs indeed, simply because I still believe today that Lifeforce shows that obvious great potential of what ultimately could have been, (indeed was). His run with the Cannon Group, Golan-Globus would continue past this movie but the films box office takings would set up a fragile and let us be fair in regard of synopsis – a very tricky road of no real return. He followed up Lifeforce with a remake of 1950’s Sci-Fi adventure – Invaders From Mars (1986) and I may be wrong here but was this not his first PG (family) movie perhaps?
Again sadly it was a box office failure. Even in his third Cannon contractual obligation; going back to the source material that originally announced Tobe Hooper’s cult arrival was by this time so badly soured that even today Hooper’s dislike of the final cut and the added production interference of what should have been his old and comfortable stamping ground in directing the sequel to his ground-breaking masterpiece (you know the one?) seemingly left him bitter at the time, though time and tide seems to have healed his soul slightly! Surely Hooper must have been left wondering what he ever did wrong other than use his best visionary efforts to make what were in essence great movies no matter what many may suggest (wrongly) in my own opinion. Hooper has clearly managed with formidable vision and a unique signature to give us work that has certainly been different, on occasion, even ground-breaking and for me has nothing to prove to many genre fans around the world. We must add in conclusion then – that despite his spiky relationships throughout the middle period of his career and his rare and let’s be truthful lacklustre output since, he is still recognised today and rightly so as the director who made one of the most controversial world renowned horror films ever to see the light of day. Would I be wrong to even suggest that his most famous film is one of the greatest movies of all time. Not many genre fans would argue against that statement. I must also add this to Hooper’s important standing. Was he not the first director who changed the face of televisual entertainment indefinitely with his serial adaptation of Stephen King’s, Salem’s lot (1979).
I believe he single handedly created what we today except and take for granted in regard of genre mini-serialisations and how important a cultural development this has become for Horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy fans throughout the world. Okay so Lifeforce is not the immediate choice for showing off Hooper’s strength and importance to the genre but for me this film clearly points out the directors diversity and we at T.C.M.R. Make no apology for picking this crazy movie as our first foray into the mad world of Texas’s very own home grown famous son. Other Tobe Hooper major influences will undoubtedly appear on this site in time, we simply used Lifeforce not just to justify his talent but also to identify him as a firm favourite of T.C.M.R. Our mission was also an attempt to sell this very rewarding Sci-Fi Horror movie to the uninitiated. Nor should we simply try to seriously underplay this directors true greatness which is there for all to clearly evaluate even in this marvellous underrated classic.
We must conclude that Tobe Hooper is a genius, pure and simple and despite what in the long term has turned out to be a case of ‘famous for a time’ for this true great; no make that genius director.
The spectacular end to this movie makes a clear statement of intent and has to what could have been rather than what became? Where St. Paul’s cathedral still stands firm after the false reality of this film became a distant backdrop, Tobe Hooper sadly was not unscathed by the real fickle reality of a film world demanding immediate financial success rather than noting the films future market value in home entertainment. However the true reality is that the burden of finance is a reality and investors are in the business to make money not loose it. As much as cult status is all important to true fans of numerous genres – the truth is if we were ever to think logically and had Hooper created box office success with the likes of such big budget fair the like of Lifeforce then we would not be having this conversation about what could have been and therefore how good this particular film is as a production has no relevance in the real world of finance. Sadly this is the only real reason the movie was ever made in the first place and not for its aesthetic genre quality but simply to make financial return for those who invested their cash. The movie itself is not meant to be taken seriously and is nothing more than a Horror Sci-Fi adventure of pure thrills and hokum but for me that is the real appeal of this particular piece of movie madness. It is pure escapist entertainment and this production does the job wonderfully. The financial success of this film would have surely given Hooper carte blanche and perhaps the rightful status and reign on a par or close to that of the likes of Spielberg and in doing so may have put to bed the unsatisfactory demons of Poltergeist also. Lifeforce was an opportunity missed for Hooper’s standing which is genuinely sad and not-at-all his fault. For fans of the genre Hooper has left us with a crazy and fun way to make horror cinema and for that alone we thank Mr Hooper for this entertaining effort despite its box office failings. E.D. Leach.