We’re here to praise Tobe Hooper, not bury him. But to get there, we have to go through some rough periods.
By 1985, Hooper’s career was in limbo. Sure, he’d tasted box office success with 1982’s Poltergeist, but he’d also be dogged with rumors — or truths — that he’d not really directed the film. Toss in a bad experience on 1981’s Venom, a film that he was replaced on ten days into shooting (Klaus Kinski claimed that the cast and crew ganged up on Hooper in an effort to have him replaced), as well as being replaced as the director of The Dark and a rumored nervous breakdown.
A three-picture deal with Cannon Films and the promise of no interference would be the panacea that would soothe Hooper’s pain. Or so he thought.
The first film in the three picture deal was Lifeforce. Based on Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel The Space Vampires and scripted by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead) and Don Jakoby, the film was originally going to use the original title. After spending $25 million to make it, Cannon decided that they wanted a blockbuster instead of their normal exploitation films, hence the change to Lifeforce.
Once Hooper had his money and freedom, he was beyond excited, seeing the film as his chance to remake Quatermass and the Pit. In fact, he said, “I thought I’d go back to my roots and make a 70 mm Hammer film.”
Hopper turned in an initial film that was 128 minutes long, starting with 12 minutes of near silence in space aboard a space shuttle. This is 12 minutes longer than the final version which had several scenes cut, most of them taking place on the space shuttle Churchill. Three actors — John Woodnutt, John Forbes-Robertson and Russell Sommers — ended up completely cut from the final film, as was some of Henry Mancini’s score.
Even worse — the film went way over schedule and cost so much that the film was shut down when the studio ran out of money, leaving some of the most important scenes unshot.
Look — it could have been worse. Michael Winner was the original choice to direct.
So what’s it all about? Good question.
The crew of the Churchill discovers a massive spaceship — nearly 150 miles long and shaped like an artichoke (no, really) — inside Halley’s Comey. Hundreds of dead bat creatures surround the ship and inside, two perfect males and one perfect female sleep in suspended animation. They take the aliens and come back to Earth, because there are no protocols or rules about that kind of thing. I mean, I can’t even fly back from Japan with fruit and these dudes take aliens directly to London.
Tragedy strikes — a fire consumes the ship, destroying everything and everyone except for the aliens. The aliens turn out to be vampires that can shapeshift and suck out the life force of everyone they meet.
In Texas, a survivor is found — Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback, Manson from Helter Skelter!). He explains how the crew’s life force was taken and why he set the shuttle on fire. He also has a psychic link to the female alien (the constantly naked Mathilda May). Patrick Stewart also shows up as Dr. Armstrong here — who has the female vampire inside him. They take her/him back to London, but the plan backfires when she/he escapes.
London is now filled with zombies, as the two male vampires have turned the entire population and everyone feeds on one another. All of these life forces are sent by the males to the female and then to their spaceship. The lighting looks like Poltergeist by way of Mario Bava. Still with me?
Turns out that leaded iron can kill the vampires. And oh yeah, Carlsen is in love with the female vampire. She keeps calling to him. “CARLSEN. CARLSEN. CARLSEN.”
She’s naked on the altar of St. Paul’s, sending energy to the ship, as she reveals that they are bonded through their psychic link. Carlsen responds by killing the other male (one of the two is Mick Jagger’s brother Chris) and then impaling himself and the female at the same time.
The damage to Carlsen is mortal, but the female is unfazed. She creates a column of energy to her ship and rides it back, taking Carlsen with her. This looks completely sexual, which has to be no accident, as he connected bodies look coital.
The end? The end.
Does this mean that Earth is now a planet of vampires? Did she save him to make a new group of vampires? When did this become a zombie movie?
I don’t have the answers. And now that Tobe is gone, I can’t ask him.
Plain and simple, Lifeforce is a mess. It seems inconceivable that this film and Chainsaw came from the same director. It seems more of a British film. There’s some inventive gore, such as when the female vampire (her name is only listed as Space Girl) comes out of Patrick Stewart’s body as blood.
It has moments of gorgeous shots, like the scene where we flashback to when Space Girl reaches out to Carlsen. And the battle of London is a huge effects piece. But the story is — I don’t even know where to begin. It feels more like Meteor than what you expect from Hooper. Which is, I guess, the point of so much of his Cannon films. They are all unique, all strange and all end up being completely different from the movie you expect them to be.