I’ve never been a huge subscriber to the idea of ‘guilty pleasures’ and have only rarely come across anything that genuinely adheres to the ‘so bad it’s good’ convention, but I think that finally, with Lifeforce, I have found the dictionary definition and definitive proof of both terms.
This is a film in which three naked space vampires descend on Earth and trigger a zombie apocalypse in London. I’ll just pause while you go back and read that again so that you can believe your eyes. If it leaves you thinking that this is surely one step away from (and possibly below) Plan 9 From Outer Space, then you’ve got the right impression.
The film starts off with a sequence set on a spaceship, which plays out like one of those straight-to-video B-movie sci-fi movies that infested the 1980s after Star Wars made the genre hugely profitable if not yet entirely respectable or mainstream. Then the film takes a handbrake turn and becomes a 70s-style British porno movie, before finally dragging its way back up to the level of a late-era Hammer Horror sex-and-fangs shocker.
All of this is held together by the fairly overt repurposing of the Dracula story: the trip to the comet where the vampires live is analogous to the opening sequence of Bram Stoker’s novel where Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania; the space shuttle Churchill becomes the counterpart to the book’s doomed schooner Demeter in which one crew member after another dies horribly as a consequence of the cargo in the ship’s hold. The lone survivor Carlsen (Steve Railsback) is a Harker surrogate with a Mina-like telepathic connection to the lead vampire (Mathilda May) while Frank Finlay pops up as a Van Helsing-type figure, thereby reprising his turn in that role in a well-respected 1977 BBC production of Stoker’s story. There’s even a trip to a lunatic asylum, making Patrick Stewart’s Dr Armstrong a rough surrogate for Dr Seward.
And then suddenly the film veers off in a wildly different direction for its final act, in which suddenly London is overrun by rotting zombies. With the clock ticking down before the Army nukes the city (presumably they learned from Aliens that it’s the only way to be sure), Carlsen and SAS colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth) make one last bid to find the space vampire and slay her with a stake through the heart – or ancient iron sword in this case.
It’s utterly bonkers. Really it’s totally ludicrous – and it’s not surprising at all to find out from the audio commentary that the script was still being written as they were filming because that’s exactly the way it comes across, with awkward cuts, turgid exposition in one scene that is ignored or superseded and then flat-out contradicted the next. Characters appear, hang around, disappear, return, show up late and die off almost at random and are given some of the most stilted and leaden dialogue ever heard in a supposed major motion picture production. It’s probably just as well, since there are some seriously poor performances here as well with Railsback never once coming across as remotely natural or convincing during the entire two hour running time. Finlay looks as though he’s desperate to get out of there, while Patrick Stewart manages to come out of a frankly mortifying alien possession sequence (not to mention having to nearly snog Railsback) with enough dignity intact that it seems to have convinced the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation that he could actually conceivably anchor seven years of such silliness for them without dying of total embarrassment in the process.
I hadn’t seen Lifeforce before and admit that I watched the first hour or so with my jaw hanging open in disbelief wondering what on earth this disaster of a film was doing on my TV screen. And then at some point I broke down and started laughing, because the whole thing was so utterly insane and indeed inane that the only way to treat it was as one huge joke – the pinnacle of which is surely an absurdly black comic scene situated in the British Prime Minster’s underground war room. Once I started laughing I enjoyed it a whole lot more – and even started to not just like the remainder of the film, but actually grow rather impressed with it. That’s because a funny thing happens in that last act.
In the early part of the film, Lifeforce looks cheap and tacky; but in the later sequences of full-scale rioting in London it all takes on a genuinely nightmarish air of societal collapse. It’s as if the last reel of Quatermass and the Pit has had a love child with George A Romero’s greatest zombie movies, and the amazing thing is that it’s executed with some considerable panache. Of course the plot soon goes and ruins it by coming to a laughable and confused resolution, but the on-screen action is actually rather terrific for as long as it’s possible to bypass the script and rely on the skills of Tobe Hooper, the director who made the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist and the 1977 TV mini-series version of Salem’s Lot.
Hooper himself says on the Blu-ray audio commentary that he was drawn to make the film because of its deep insight into male-female relationships, a comment that had me howling with laughter – until I realised that he was actually being completely serious. It’s hard to believe that anyone else looked at Lifeforce and saw it as anything other than a quick genre mash-up exploitation cash-in by Golan-Globus Productions’ Cannon Group, which also brought us such notorious high-quality 80s delights as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. I guess that shows that sometimes suspension of disbelief works two ways and is as important for the creative team working on a film to maintain for themselves as it is for the audience watching the end result.
And yet strewn among the general wreckage of the film’s implosion (unsurprisingly, it lost a lot of money at the box office and was generally ridiculed by critics) there are some genuine gems, starting with some lovely special effects work by Academy Award-winning Star Wars legend John Dykstra. The make-up and prosthetics for the zombies are also top-notch, although early on the film relies rather too heavily on some not-entirely-convincing life-size model puppets for the space vampire’s early desiccated victims. And on the acting side, Peter Firth makes a strong impression as Caine, scene-stealingly quietly intense in the first half of the film before emerging as the heroic leading man of action in the second – and somehow making the crunching gear change less of a disaster than it might otherwise have been.
And okay, we wouldn’t be true to the spirit of the film or be honest about the real reason for this film’s longevity in the hearts and minds of those young boys who originally saw it as teenagers in the 1980s if we didn’t dwell for a minute on the contribution of Mathilda May as the leading space vampire. She’s not called upon to do much – the part requires her to be a preternaturally calm, still and inexpressive character for the most part. But it’s the fact that she spends the vast majority of the film wearing nothing except a set of ‘wacky’ spiral-effect contact lenses that will have won her a legion of teenage male fans. Her nudity is so forcefully presented in the film that the line “the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I have ever encountered” actually isn’t as totally far-fetched and cringe-worthy as it would otherwise have been; let’s just say, of all the special effects in the film, Ms May’s unadorned appearance pretty much tops the lot and steals the film from them all.
Her sustained nudity in the international release version caused consternation when it came to a US domestic release and so there’s a pared-down version which loses 15 minutes of footage, making the film even more jerky and incoherent as well as losing a key component of the ‘guilty pleasure’ that makes the film worth watching in the first place. Even Henry Mancini’s music (which is pretty decent with a particularly effective main theme and not a hint of Pink Panther to be found) ended up getting hacked around with additional new cues being supplied by Michael Kamen that only added to the chopped-up Frankenstein patchwork effect, likely explaining why it was such a damp squib at the box office. Arguably the film was remade more effectively and sucessfully ten years later as Species which did a far more coherent and professional job of much the same story (but without the zombies) and did sufficient business to spawn three sequels, but which was without the same degree of outrageous and stupid fun.
Both versions of Lifeforce – international and US domestic – are on the new Blu-ray release issued in the UK by Arrows Films, although it’s clear that the former is by far the favoured child. It boasts not just an audio commentary from Hooper but also a full high definition restoration with the colour supervised on a scene-by-scene basis by the director himself. Although I haven’t seen them myself, the general view on the previous home releases of Lifeforce on VHS and DVD is that they were of pretty dire quality, which makes this wonderful transfer even more miraculous. Although the night sequences show plenty of grain, it’s all so beautifully detailed, saturated and contrasty that it’s hard to find any genuine significant fault with any part of it. It’s certainly a far, far better transfer than the source material itself could ever hope to deserve on its merits, and suggests that someone has been engaged in a seriously extended labour of love to get it to this state.
So we have here a film that in itself could only aspire to a one-star ranking in its dreams, yet is combined with a five-star new transfer. In between there’s enough absurdity to make you wonder if humans should ever again be allowed to play with a film camera. And yet for all that it’s impossible not to start to give in a little to the film’s suspect charms and just relish it as an utterly bonkers one-of-a-kind that you will hate and even love to hate; and then hate to love as you cackle derisively at the silliness, all of which will take you back to a different era of films and of your life – if you’re very lucky. If nothing else, it proves that a film doesn’t have to be remotely good to be surprisingly enjoyable.
By coincidence, Lifeforce gets a much more in-depth and erudite review over at Cathode Ray Tube today which is highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the film.
Lifeforce is out on Blu-ray from October 14 and can also be purchased in special limited-edition steelbook packaging. As well as audio commentaries, there’s also a making-of and further additional short featurettes. If you don’t have Blu-ray, then the 2002-edition DVD is really not worth it even at bargain-basement prices.