Wednesday, October 8, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Lifeforce

Migraine brain is a random brain. Sorry for the particularly pointless rambling on this one.

Lifeforce is a weird movie. It's an exploitation film presented in Hammer sci-fi terms on a1980's blockbuster budget. The Vampire Lovers as imagined by Nigel Kneale. There are special effects by a Star Wars veteran, a bombastic score by the composer who created the Pink Panther theme, a script by the guy who wrote Alien, and it's directed by the man who gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

I'm not going to pretend that I first saw this movie for the special effects or because I liked the director. In 1986 the only reason to see this movie - which bombed at the box office in 1985 - was because of Mathilda May. Yeah, there was that awesome Fangoria cover featuring one of the desiccated zombies, but I'm sure it was the breathless assertion "she's naked for the whole movie!" that suckered me in.

I remember being a bit disappointed. Not in May, as she was exactly as advertised, but in the movie as a whole. There was something there, some bigger movie that seemed to be weirdly truncated. The effects weren't quite as realistic as Fangoria had made them seem and the story seemed disjointed and a little herky-jerky, as if the director couldn't quite decide on the pace. I wrote it off as a B picture that had somehow gotten an A budget and whose main claim to fame would forever be the breasts of its star.

Yes they're real - and they're spectacular.

Fast forward several years and I'm re-evaluating a bunch of horror movies I had written off in my youth. This had all been precipitated by a viewing of Halloween - a movie I had discarded as being all reputation with no real skill or scares. I'd watched it again and had been astonished at the difference between my memory and the actual film - how good it really was. So I was picking up other films that I'd dismissed and Lifeforce was one of them.

While not experiencing exactly the same level of revelation as with Halloween, it IS a much better film than I remembered it being. Ms. May is in no way diminished by this re-evaluation.

The Medium
I found a used copy of the Scream Factory Blu-ray release of Lifeforce. This is certainly the best the film has ever looked, with a clean and crisp presentation and, notably, much richer color. There are a fair amount of extras, including two audio tracks, a making of featurette, cast interviews and both the extended and theatrical release.

The Movie
Lifeforce is based on a book called Space Vampires by the prolific Colin Wilson. I recently saw a copy of that book at a local flea market and wish I'd known then, as I would have picked it up. The title was changed to try and appeal to a wider mainstream audience, but the original title really tells you all you need to know. There are vampires. They're from outer space.

An expedition to Halley's Comet finds an ancient spacecraft hidden within the corona. Upon investigation they find thousands of desiccated corpses of a bat-like creature - and three perfectly preserved humanoids encased in crystal. They decide to take the three humanoids back to Earth (as well as one of the bat things).

I'm sure anything on such a friendly looking ship must be fine!

Much of this sequence was cut in the US, and I'm not sure why. It's got some decent special effects and the alien ship is appropriately creepy. It helps set the mood and tone of the picture and I think having it removed did the film a disservice. It does make the film seem more like a sci-fi film at first, but I think having it restored improves the story immensely.

Thirty days later the Earth spaceship enters an Earth orbit, but ground control (the British Space Agency - which seems like a Quatermass reference) can't establish communications. A rescue mission finds the ship gutted by a fire - its crew all dead, except for the commander, Carlsen, who is missing. They also find the unharmed bodies of the three humanoid aliens.

The bodies are taken back to Earth where a team of scientists are put to work trying to figure out what they are, but one - the female of the group - awakens and sucks the life out of a hapless security guard. Despite being a facility full of security guards (and apparently also full of sequences of glass-walled rooms) the girl escapes.

These sequences are pretty effective. Yes, the woman is naked the whole time. Yes, this is pretty distracting. However this is actually part of the point - the security guards don't take a pretty naked woman seriously and get shocked into unconsciousness for their presumption. Though she's naked, there's little actually sexual about her behavior - even when she's kissing the guard or telling one of the scientist's to 'use' her body, she's slightly distant. And always predatory.

And sometimes very bloody.

In fact there's a lot of sexual situations that don't feel very sexual in this movie. Carlsen - having escaped the fire - turns out to have a connection with the female vampire and has several intimate encounters with her that all feel tentative and cold. There's more heat in a scene with a male victim coming to life and draining the doctor that was about to cut him open. I can't help but feel like this distance is due to a certain discomfort on the part of the director. I think this would have been a very different film if it had been directed by, say, David Cronenberg.

Do you feel a spark? Because I feel a spark.

Things unspool pretty quickly from the woman's escape on. She jumps bodies, sending Carlsen and a member of the SAS on a chase around England trying to find her before she drains/infects too many people. The male vampires awaken and spread the infection. One of the scientists discovers a way to kill them - stabbing them through the 'energy center' of their body with iron - but too late to do him much good. Patrick Stewart (in wheelchair, no less) makes an appearance as a man possessed by the female vampire (I'm fairly sure the kiss that he and Steve Raislback's Carlsen share is also restored. I don't remember it from the US release).

I never realized how beautiful your eyes are...

The final act of the film finds London under attack by the vampire plague with the ship - now free of the comet and hovering over London - sucking up the souls, the 'lifeforce' of the victims like some giant spooky Hoover vacuum of doom. Carlsen heads into the city for a final confrontation with the woman leading to a semi-spectacular conclusion featuring nakedness, glowing clouds and a huge sword. 

"I don't want to alarm you, but there's a blue hula hoop of fire over our heads."

Watching the movie this time around I can see why I was disappointed originally. I was expecting a completely different kind of movie. I'd seen Poltergeist and heard about Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so I went in thinking I would see something gory and horrifying with a Stephen Spielberg level of production quality. Needless to say, that's not quite what you get in Lifeforce. (For the reason why I hadn't yet SEEN Texas Chainsaw Massacre, see my recent review of the same here:

Instead you get a much... smaller feeling movie. More intimate, I guess. The setting and scale of production doesn't ever reach quite far enough for the epic story. Even the climactic, apocalyptic end sequences in a London full of zombie-like vampires feels like it was shot on a set - which it probably was. What it ends up feeling like is a Hammer production from an earlier time - like a lost Quatermass film. Its largely British cast and English locations enhance this impression.

The special effects are mostly decent, though they remind you that glowing blue clouds were the pinnacle of awesome in the 1980's. The zombies are a little too static and puppet-like for me now, but there's still some fun to be had in various sequences, particularly a scene in which a caged zombie runs at the bars of his cage only to explode into dust. The more sci-fi sequences are quite good and make a welcome addition.

This guy was kinda cool for the 30 seconds he's in the film.

The much ballyhooed nudity is still a distraction, but less of one than I remember. The film shies away from more complicated questions of sexuality and gender identity, despite plenty of opportunities to explore them in more depth. Again, I wonder how that would have been handled by a more daring director. Problematically, the naked males are treated very differently than the female - and are never presented completely naked. A scene in which the Carlson slaps and struggles with a woman who has been recently possessed by the female alien is also difficult to watch, and a throwaway line to the effect of the woman being a masochist does little to reduce the discomfort. (Though another line - "She wants me to hurt her!" has the possibility of more depth, as you're not sure whether he's referring to the actual woman or the vampire.)

The Bottom Line
Watching Lifeforce as if it was a Hammer picture really enhances the experience for me.  Not being fifteen anymore also lets me appreciate the acting on a different level, particularly the way Matilda May controls and overpowers every scene she's in, regardless of her supposed vulnerable state.

It's still a flawed movie, but it's much better than I remember it being, and is often quite fun and interesting in weird ways. There's a really good exploitation horror flick hiding in here. Or a fairly decent Hammer Quatermass film. They just don't quite gel together.

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