"Lifeforce may come to be considered a noteworthy science-fiction film precisely because it is so relentlessly unsentimental and edgy. This film displays a sensibility so odd, so unfamiliar, that it may prove one of the most subtly original sf films of the 1980s...[T]he film has something to offend almost everyone but offers much for serious analysis."
Even in the development of this core idea about sex, Hooper chooses incredibly unconventional pathways for his epic horror film. In Lifeforce, the film's sexually-transmitted space vampire disease becomes a zombie epidemic that transforms London into something half-way between a George Romero Living Dead film and the weirdest orgy in cinematic history.
Some reviewers viewed this ending as a mistake, an out-of-character u-turn for the film and a lapse in serious tone. Yet if you're a longstanding Hooper aficionado you may realize that the strange climax of Lifeforce boasts clear antecedents in films such as Poltergeist as a kind of post-narrative, almost anti-narrative detour. Remember, L.M. Kit Carson called Tobe Hooper the "no deal" kid, and that's the go-for-broke, breathless quality of Lifeforce that keeps me watching it more than a quarter century later.
But of course, being offensive is kind of the point in the horror genre, isn't it? Horror can show us things that mainstream movies can't, or won't. A truly strong horror film will rock the audience back on its heels so it is unprepared for what comes next. And in that state, a talented director can mold audience expectations and emotions like putty.
Mission commander, Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback), leads a small team on a mission inside the derelict. There, he finds a crew of dead bat-creatures, and more mysteriously, three perfect and naked humanoids: two men and a gorgeous woman (Mathilda May).
Sometime later, on Earth, a European Space Agency discovers the Churchill limping home from its rendezvous with the comet, unresponsive to communication attempts. A rescue team finds all crew aboard dead, save for the three nude aliens. These creatures are promptly brought back to Earth for study, and the Space Girl soon awakes. She drains the "lifeforce" from a guard, and then escapes from the facility.
Soon, soul survivor Carlsen's escape pod makes a landing on Earth, and he teams with England's stoic Colonel Caine (Peter Firth) and Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) to locate the Space Girl before she can pass her vampiric disease on to more unsuspecting humans.
While Carlsen and Caine track the Space Girl to a home for the criminally-insane outside of London, Dr. Fallada determines that the Girl and her brethren from the stars may be the source of Earth legends of vampires. Meanwhile, the Space Girl has been leading Carlsen and Caine on a very lengthy goose chase as the vampire "infection" multiplies and sweeps London.
Now Carlsen must confront the "feminine in his mind," as the Space Girl begins to deliver disembodied human souls or life-force to her orbiting starship...
"In a sense we're all vampires. We drain energy from other life forms. The difference is one of degree."
A comparison to Carpenter's The Thing is illustrative here. Both horror films of the 1980s involve a shape-shifting evil passed from person-to-person, very much like a sexually transmitted disease.
In the case of Lifeforce, the metaphor is more overt, since sexual hypnosis/coupling -- with an alien vampire -- is actually the primary mode of disease transmission. Invisible to conventional medical and visual detection, the alien infection in both of these films subverts people, unbeknownst to their neighbors. Affected individuals appear normal to all outward appearances, healthy even, but in fact they are carriers of a secret, dreadful death.
In terms of context, "disease" was one of the biggest bugaboos of the 1980s horror cinema, featured in films like Prince of Darkness (1987) as well as The Thing. The point was, largely, that in the superficial world of Olivia Newton John's Physical, Jane Fonda's Aerobic Workout, or Jamie Lee Curtis's Perfect (1983), the worst thing that could happen to a person would be to discover that his or her beautiful, athletic lover was actually carrying a hidden disease, one that could sabotage the flesh, and also an individual's carefully cultivated physical beauty.
Rather, it's just one dish on the smorgasbord.
I submit that Lifeforce is actually a more general morality play and warning against succumbing to all manners of wanton sexual urges. Early in the film, Carlsen faces this weakness: "She killed all my friends and I still didn't want to leave. Leaving her was the hardest thing I ever did," he declares. What he fears is being unable to control himself, unable to assert his rational mind over his body's sexual desires.
Taken in its entirety, the film plays no favorites, targets no one lifestyle, and homosexuality is merely one aspect of the universal human sexual equation. As I wrote above, the film is a tour through sexual proclivities of all types.
In charting this trajectory Lifeforce is actually as bold -- perhaps brazen -- about depicting sexual issues as The Texas Chainsaw Masssacre is about recording horrid, graphic violence. Throughout the film, Hooper deploys one powerful symbol to represent "lust" in the human animal: the Space Girl. Hooper parades this character about naked throughout the film in an absolutely immodest sense. The film breaks ground and shatters decorum in this key approach. And the content, a so-called tour of human sexual issues, reflects the chosen form. We are constantly reminded, in the nude persona of May, that Lifeforce concerns sex.
When the astronauts reach the hidden chamber, they discover May's Space Girl there, and their instant lust "births" her in some sense When she is returned to Earth, she returns, importantly, as a creature of lust herself; a child of the astronauts' overwhelming desire. She is "the feminine" of Carlsen's mind and begins her exploration of human sexuality, according -- it seems at times -- to his subconscious desires.
She encounters sex as casual infidelity (with a married man in a parked car).
She experiences male-to-male contact in the body of Armstrong in his homosexual kiss with Carlsen. If she is part of Carlsen's mind, she must believe that some part of him desires this "form" of sexual encounter.
For a time, the Space Girl's consciousness also enters the body of a nurse who is described in the dialogue as a "devoted masochist." This woman takes great joy in the fact that Carlsen must beat information out of her. She showcases no modesty about this desire, and again, Carlsen showcases no trepidation about engaging in sadistic behavior to get the information he needs, and also provide her pleasure.
Finally, even sex as grounds for political scandal is briefly touched upon here when the film's prime minister spreads the sexual infection to his unsuspecting secretary. Beyond this Alice in Wonderland tour of human sexuality, there is also all the fiery, heterosexual coupling between Railsback and May, a devastating relationship that ends, incidentally, in a climactic double penetration (by sexual organs and by a fatal stab in the "energy center" from a sword blade.)
What is at stake when you let go so fully? When you shed all control and give in to your most base desire? Is your soul at stake? Or just your life?
There in the church, the infected bodies of the sexually depleted await their judgment...spent and sick. Their souls are carried away on a ray of light which focuses itself on the altar: the very fulcrum of all sermons and messages about chastity and abstinence.
Consider the symbolism. These souls have been dispatched to a nether realm, the alien spaceship, and it is surely an allegory for Hell. In terms of visuals, this is a moral conclusion, a literalization of Christian puritanism. Indulge in indiscriminate sex, and if it doesn't make you sick, it's still going to cost you your soul, and you'll dwell forevermore in Hell. It's a harsh comment, perhaps, but given what some might view as the rise of casual sex in the culture (following the era of Looking for Mr. Goodbar ) and the dawning of AIDS awareness and paranoia in the early 1980s -- which proved so strong it turned even James Bond into a one-woman-kind of guy -- it's an accurate reflection of what people seemed to fear at the time. Carlsen's triumph at the end of the film is that he controls his desire again, and kills the Space Girl. His victory asserts that human kind is not out of control, in thrall to subconscious appetites and desires.
Lifeforce is about a "destroyer of worlds," but if you read the film closely, it suggests that our desires -- and our inability to resist them -- is the very thing that could destroy humanity. It's a point that's easy to lose sight of when you're watching Mathilda May cavort about with no clothes on.
But in terms of May, Hooper's directorial acumen, and the sexually-charged plot line, I find Lifeforce absolutely impossible to resist.