The problem with using absolutely top drawer sci-fi/horror talent is that sometimes the vision can outstrip the practicality. Lifeforce is a great example of this. Written by Dan O’Bannon (the man you can thank for creating Alien) and directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the film comes with a lot of pedigree and at first it can leave you thinking ‘what the fuck is this shit?’
At least that’s what we thought as we live-tweeted our way through our first ever viewing of the film.
It starts out in space with the crew of a space shuttle Churchill discovering a 150-mile spaceship hidden in Halley’s Comet. Deciding to have a look, they send in their batch of John Hurts to go and prod around the obviously dangerous ship.
The landing party find a giant chamber filled with dessicated bat things and three naked humans (well, presumably humans) in perspex casings, two males and one female. Rather unwisely, they take them back to their ship for the trip back to Earth.
At this point the film is a mess of mid-80s green screen. Coming six years after Alien, it looks about six times worse. The cast playing the mixed crew of English and Americans act rather less convincingly than Hillary Clinton getting deposed and when the film cuts to thirty days later, it feels like they ran out of budget for the space bits and things begin to look bad for Lifeforce.
However, the film is FAR from being done. Now back at the European Space Research Centre in London (I must have missed that place growing up in London), contact has been lost with the Churchill and so then send up another shuttle (surely these launches have to be planned for weeks?). They find the Churchill empty and burned out. Well, empty apart from those three naked humans.
They are take the humans back to their labs and conduct an exam on the presumably dead female. At night. With just one examiner in the room and a guy who looks like Tony Blair watching on CCTV. Because in Lifeforce, space people aren’t a big deal or something.
The female wakes up, all pouty stares and giant boobs, and seduces the medical examiner before sucking his face in a shower of electricity. Fake Tony Blair runs to the examination room, only to fall her charms as well. Luckily for him, she’s interrupted during her electro-sucky face action and decides to bolt. She escapes the facility with basically no effort at all because it is guarded by shit pensioners before leaving via a window. She’s hard as nails though as you hear the broken glass crack under her bare feet.
While the army dudes are wondering what the fuck happened, the two other naked bodies wake up too. This time no one is taking any chances and the guards start unloading their rifles into the two guys. It doesn’t do a whole lot. You see, the three naked people are actually shapeshifting space vampires who suck on your lifeforce (!) instead of blood, leaving their victims looking like unbandaged mummies.
So, while you and everyone in the film is dealing with that, the original medical examiner – now looking like Mary Berry’s fucking grandfather – wakes up, mostly crying. In a shocking display of stupidity, only equalled by everyone in Prometheus thirty years later, one of the government guys gives him a hug and promptly gets sucked clean off. And not in a good way. Sick of everyone fucking up everything, SAS Colonel Colin Caine starts leading the investigation.
The film takes an odd direction at this point. The original vampire woman has left a drained body at the park and while they track her, the escape pod from the Churchill lands in Texas. One of the original crew (Colonel Tom Carlsen) is there and gives his side of the story in flashback, which is great as it makes you realise that thirty day jump forward wasn’t them cheaping out on the good stuff. He explains how the space vampire basically fucked up the crew of the Churchill and so they bring him back to London to try and track her down. Which is made possible by the fact that he has some odd psychic link to the vampy alien murderess.
Leaving London for a while, they track her down to a psychiatric facility which is being run by Patrick Stewart (yes, that one). Even in 1985, the dude was old but he’s the film’s one and only top class actor and he puts on a good turn as the suspicious hospital manager Dr Armstrong. Carlsen and Caine get access to one of the patients under Armstrong’s care but as they are about to truth drug the patient, they pull the old switcheroo and jab Armstrong with the syringe instead. The subsequent interrogation being basically the weirdest thing you’ll ever see Sir Pat ever be a part of.
Now up until this point you can’t help shake the feeling that they’ve been doing everything on the cheap. The space stuff looked very unrealistic and the London setting feels a little bit quaint for, you know, a fake NASA. That’s probably because in the second half of the film, everything goes batshit crazy. The victims of the space vampire are now energy-obsessed vampire zombies (kind of like the mutant vampires in Blade 2, which is BRILLIANT by the way) and they’ve been attacking London and have turned the whole place into a no-go zone. Also, as they kill people the alien spaceship hovers in orbit absorbing a steady stream of HUMAN SOULS!
From this point on, the film is chaos. Brilliant, beautiful chaos. We won’t be spoiling it here and the film is on Netflix but the entire ending kind of makes the whole film worthwhile. Although at almost two hours long, it doesn’t really ever feel like a slog. There’s plenty of intrigue and suspense to keep you going and while the scares aren’t really there, there is some nice practical effects work (and some sketchy puppetry) to marvel over.
Watching the film on its own merits probably isn’t the way to do it. It is dated and it may not have ever been all that good but looking at it through these ’80s movie blog writing eyes, Lifeforce really is a great example of what happens when you let creative types have their way in the mid-’80s, kind of like The Keep but better. Will we be watching it again in a hurry? Not likely. But does Lifeforce need to be experienced at least once? For sure it does. This may be the most confused film of the ’80s but it was certainly unique.