Tobe Hooper’s sprawling alien invasion/erotic vampire film Lifeforce, originally titled Space Vampires, has long sat on the fence dividing ‘underrated cult classic’ and ‘daft camp fun’. Now given the loving Arrow Films restoration, we can judge the film’s charms and flaws in all their high definition glory.
A team of American and British astronauts chasing Halley’s Comet find an enormous, suspiciously organic structure, which they decide to investigate. They find two naked human males and one naked female (Mathilda May) in stasis, the latter of which makes quite the impression on Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), and the crew decides to bring them aboard. Some time later, the ship crash-lands near London with the crew missing. But the naked humans have made it back, and quickly awaken and threaten humanity.
Lifeforce is certainly ambitious. The production design is often stunning, with the sets of the first 15 minutes almost measuring up to Alien. There’s a significant influence from Nigel Kneale on the film’s plot, which veers between homage and outright rip-off. The cast is mostly strong, and there’s even a small turn from Patrick Stewart as the head of an asylum. The first half hour of the film is particularly strong, as the vampires’ dramatic method of killing contrasts nicely with the very British scientists in the facility.
While the film’s ambition might be one of its most charming aspects, it too often veers into self-indulgence. There’s absolutely no reason for Lifeforce to be two hours long. The middle section of the film seems to forgo momentum entirely as the returned Carlsen and SAS Colonel Colin Caine (Spooks’ Peter Firth) traipse around the place hunting for a (surprisingly difficult to find) murderous, naked vampiric stunner.
The excellent documentary ‘Cannon Fodder’ sheds some light on the film’s chaotic production, from the constantly going over budget to the crew’s bad habits. Perhaps what’s most surprising is how massive an undertaking Lifeforce was at the time. For a film that is now best remembered as a cult movie, it was obviously made with the intention being a blockbuster, and the frank reminscences of the crew and some of the cast make for fascinating watching.
Best of all is make-up artist Sandra Exelby recalling being asked to shave Mathilda May’s nether regions for Hooper’s inspections and coating the floor with trimmed wig hair to get back at him. Among the many other extras, it’s definitely worth watching the interview with May as she remembers her acting debut.
Lifeforce doesn’t bear too much scrutiny and it’s still much too long, but it’s not without its moments. Hooper clearly has fun tearing London to pieces at the film’s finale, and there’s something very watchable about the combination of the straight-faced tone and totally ridiculous subject matter. It’s the halfway point between Nigel Kneale and Species, a straight-faced sci-fi disaster movie that is very much preoccupied with gore and nudity. It’s all over the place and quite loveable for it and, as ever, the Arrow treatment of the film is exemplary.