Joe’s Blog

Archive for August, 2009

Lifeforce (1985)

August 21, 2009 1:56 am

Lifeforce poster


Need I say more?

Well, OK then. First a bit of history…

Cannon films, run by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (the “Go-Go Twins”) had by the early 80s found itself a niche in mid-range trash, normally starring Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris. They had also invested heavily by purchasing the ABC cinema chain, in a misguided attempt to circumvent traditional distribution. they would simply show their films in their cinemas.
By the mid-80s the Go-Go’s ego’s were far outweighing their talents, and despite owning the rights to several Marvel properties (including Spiderman), eventually adding Superman and He-Man to their slate, their big hope for 1985 was a huge, sprawling sci-fi epic, as the trailer proudl proclaimed “from the writer of Alien and the director of Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacare!”.

What emerged was a $25 million dollar car crash of a movie, which is only epic in terms of budget and shoddiness.

Let’s not forget $25 million in 1985 was a LOT of money. (In comparison, the year’s biggest hit, Back to the Future, cost a relatively respesctable $18 million, and that had to deal with special effects and, notoriously expensive, period trappings. Also, the greatest film of 1985, if not the whole decade, Fletch, cost about half of Lifeforce‘s budget.) $25 million for a BRITISH film was even more unbelievable. That kind of budget was reserved for box office certainties, usually directed by Dickie Attenborough. Even today, you could count on one hand the number of Brit movies in the past five years that have come close to costing that much.

The Go-Go’s had secured Tobe Hooper (the aforementioned director) to a three-film deal. This would result in two personal projects (a dreadful remake of Invaders From Mars, and an entertaining, but flawed, sequel to TCM), but would start with Lifeforce. Hooper was a fan of the novel on which the film was loosely based (Space Vampires by Colin Wilson), and wanted to keep the title. But the Go-Go’s envisioned this movie about ‘naked space vampires’ as being something special. Therefore having a film about ‘naked space vampires’ being called ‘Space vampires’ would give off completely the wrong message (they seemed to have no problem with the posters though, which depicted… oh, a naked space vampire.)

The Quatermass-riffing plot involves a joint US-GB space mission, in the shuttle Churchill, to investigate (the then topic du jour) Halley’s Comet. There they find an enormous space ship hiding in the comet’s tail. Inside they find several dessicated corpses huge of bat-like creatures, and three naked bodies (2 male, 1 female) encased in clear boxes. They decide, obviously, to take them back to their shuttle.

Fast forward three months, the shuttle returns having had a fire on board. the crew are all dead, but the clear boxes, and their naked inhabitants, have remained intact. They are taken to London.

Turns out these guys and gal are space vampires who need to ‘feed’ every two hours to survive. This they do by sucking the ‘lifeforce’ from another human. This is rendered surprisingly well, with some excellent animatronics standing in for the lifeforce-less victims.

After the first attack, SAS expert Colonel Caine (an absolutely dreadful Peter Firth) joins up with Dr Fallada (an embarassed-looking Frank Finlay) to try and figure things out. At this point the shuttle’s escape pod is discovered with the only survivor from the Churchill: hooray, it’s confused prank monkey Steve Railsback! (see review of Turkey Shoot for more on this titan of bad movies).
Colonel Carlsen (Railsback), is flown over from the States to mission control in London where things have gone a bit tits thanks to those pesky space vampires, in the space of what seems about three hours.

Things now take a very odd turn, and to try and explain everything that happens for the rest of the film would be both pointless and utterly confusing. But I’ll try.

The space vampires can jump bodies; the lady space vampire takes any opportunity to show her norks, whilst her male counterparts often find objects nestling, Austin-Powers-style just in front of their meat and two veg; Carlsen develops a telepathic link with lady vampire.

About an hour in, Carlsen, Caine and ‘the minister’ (perfectly played by Aubrey Morris) find themselves at an asylum run by a clearly demented Patrick Stewart, whilst tracking down the now body-swapping lady vampire. This sequence takes up about half an hour of screen time, but does set up the marvellously convoluted set up for the final act: London In Ruins!

Yes, our heroes return to town to find a badly rendered miniature London burning to the ground while vampires (who now seem to resemble zombies) run riot. Of particular interest to me was the wonderful reproduction of Chancery lane tube station: exact in every detail you could believe it was a real tube station. Unfortunately not Chancery lane, to which it bears no resemblance whatsoever.

The final twenty minutes is an absolute mess of incident, nothing makes any sense, but there’s some good gore, and what a surprise, that sword that Dr Fallada took delivery of earlier may just come in handy.

Sadly, Lifeforce has been all-but-forgotten in the annals of history. Which is a shame because I believe it was a genuine attempt to make a spectacular, Hollywood-style movie in Britain. I admire its balls, even if it’s sadly a bit of a mess. An entertaining mess, but a mess nontheless. Railsback and Firth are utterly dreadful. Peter Firth, particularly given his wonderful performance as MI5 boss Harry Pearce in Spooks, seems to think he’s in a silent movie: every action is exaggerated beyond belief, he reminded me of Eddie Izzard’s silent movie star in Shadow of the Vampire. The rest of cast is filled with reliable Brit stalwarts like Finlay, pre-Picard Stewart, Nicholas Ball and the excellent Michael Gothard, who disappears halfway through the film for some reason.

One high point is the fantastic score by, of all people, Henry Mancini. But this is no cool, jazz soundtack, this a bombastic symphony of thundering action themes. The main theme is amongst the best of John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith. Lifeforce was heavily cut for it’s US release (losing about 20 minutes), and sadly this theme, as well as some music within the film, was replaced by Alien-a-like music by Michael Kamen. It’s fine, but also seems to be an attempt to ‘class up’ the movie (as with replacing the opening narration with a text crawl).

This film does need reappraisal. It’s no classic in the traditional sense, but it is a classic of British Exploitation, a genre that lies dying and unloved in our post-post-post modern society. I bet Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday) loves it.


(Note: while the DVD is easily available at a budget price (expect to pay no more than a few quid)  some wonderful chap has put the whole bally thing up on Youtube…so try before you buy. But do buy.

Choice Peter Firth acting moments can be found here particularly 3 mins in)