Thursday, February 16, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Lifeforce (1985)


"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."

- Brooks Landon, The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1988, page 276.


Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985) is another one of those great horror films, like John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), that mainstream and genre critics seemed to venomously despise, and yet which I love and admire with something akin to enthusiastic passion.  For me, Lifeforce remains one of the essential titles in modern horror cinema history.

The Cannon film -- based on a novel by Colin Wilson called Space Vampires -- was a gigantic box office failure upon release, and yet a generation of admirers quickly found it on home video...and the film became legendary in some circles. 

I admire Lifeforce so deeply and so thoroughly because I feel that, like Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973), the film goes (far) out of its way to shock and transgress, leaving no taboo related to its subject matter -- sex -- untouched. 

Hooper is never one for Hollywood-styled movie decorum, and I've always found his subversive, bracing takes on horror tropes (vampires, ghosts, cannibals) authentically disturbing because of that very fact.  His movies, while speaking trenchantly in the language of film grammar, almost universally lack...tact.  You just don't know where this director is going to take you, or what he is going to show you.  As fellow horror maestro Wes Craven famously noted, a "filmmaker like Tobe Hooper can convince you you're really at risk in a theater." (Entertainment Weekly, October 23, 1992, page 41), and that is the essence of Hooper's ethos as far as I'm concerned.

I've written these words before, but a great horror film should: a.) deal cogently with some topic relevant to the culture of the movie's context and b.) deal with that subject matter in a fashion that genuinely troubles the psyche.   Lifeforce conforms to both points quite ably.

In short, Lifeforce is a big-budget, colossal-in-scope meditation on the consequences of sex in all sizes, shapes, forms, and perversions.  In part, the film is a straight-faced walking-tour of late 20th century sexual proclivities, from voyeurism to masochism, from homosexuality to fetishistic obsession.  Among other things, Lifeforce is about your deepest, most personal desires taking over, and that content is reflected in the film's dazzling, jaw-dropping form.

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.

Given the weird and controversial subject matter here and the blunt vetting of it by a confident, at-the-top-of-his-game Hooper, perhaps it is only natural that the film so divided critics.  Bruce Eder of Video Magazine called Lifeforce (possibly) "the last great science fiction film to come out of England," while film scholars Bill Warren and Bill Thomas (in American Film: "Great Balls of Fire, March 1986, page 70) felt the film got "the spectacle and weirdness right" but that the film lacked a "much-needed sense of humor." 

Others were less open to the Lifeforce experience.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times jokingly termed the film "sterile," while People Magazine's Ralph Novak found it "tiresome."  Cinefantastique even termed Lifeforce (in October 1985) "an object lesson in failure."   Space Vampires author Wilson called Lifeforce "the worst movie ever made."

I can't know this for certain, but I suspect that a great many of these critics actually found the Hooper film offensive.  Visually and narratively offensive.  They were responding to the decorum-shattering images and plot-line. 

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. 

I would suggest that's exactly Hooper's accomplishment in Lifeforce.  Here he corrals such controversial visual elements as rampant frontal nudity and extreme gore to craft the feeling of a world rapidly spiraling out of control, consumed by an unquenchable desire in our very blood. Replete with narrative blind alleys and daring, unconventional imagery, plus controversial subject matter, Lifeforce establishes again that Hooper is the genre's most underrated, underestimated genius, a legitimate provocateur extraordinaire.

"I'm fascinated by death itself. What happens as we die, when we die. What happens after we die..."

As the space shuttle Churchill -- a joint American/European space exploration venture -- nears Halley's Comet, something alien and colossal is detected inside.  It's a vessel 250 miles long and two miles high.

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."

The societal context bubbling beneath the surface of Lifeforce (1985)  is the rising of the "wasting disease" of the mid-1980s, soon-to-be identified as AIDS and recognized as an epidemic that impacts individuals of all sexual persuasions. 

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.

In particular, some film scholars have suggested that both The Thing and Lifeforce feature a substantial same-sex undercurrent. 

In The Thing, a deadly plague passes in the blood from person-to-person in an exclusively all-male setting: an Antarctic research outpost. 

In Lifeforce, the argument goes, there are also significant male-to-male couplings.  First, there is the jarring and impassioned kiss between Carlsen and Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), an embrace that is inarguably homosexual in form (even though May's Space Girl inhabits Armstrong's mind).

Secondly, a male victim of the Space Girl awakens on the operating table early in the film and mesmerizes a male pathologist. He quickly converts the poor physician into one of the disease's transmitters.  As Edward Guerrero described the scene in "AIDS as Monster in Science Fiction and Horror Cinema:"

"The film foregrounds homosexual transmission by focusing on the ravished bodies of male victims and by depicting in a key, horrific autopsy scene, an emaciated young male corpse who -- with outstretched arms -- hypnotically draws one of the male pathologists into a fatal energy draining, homoerotic embrace and kiss...the camera moves through...close-ups of the faces of the doctors trapped in the surgery as they register various reactions to the act and its gay proclamations, ranging from frozen panic and disavowal to an ambivalent fascination."

Guerrero also writes that Lifeforce's grisly corpses -- which receive considerable on-screen attention -- are depicted as young and starkly emaciated, resonant with the media's description in the 1980s of the "wasting" effects of the AIDs virus.

I agree with Guerrero's supposition that there is a homosexual component to be excavated in  Lifeforce, but I don't agree that it is foregrounded in the film proper. 

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.

To wit: when Carlsen first boards the alien spaceship early in Lifeforce, he discovers that the interior chamber of the spaceship is something akin to a massive birth canal.  The similarity is so telling, in fact, that Carlsen states unequivocally, "I feel like I've been here before."  The tiny astronauts probing deep into the long tunnel to the hidden chamber beyond  this organic-looking tube may as well be tiny sperm navigating a woman's uterus. 

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.

Consider, for a moment, the specific events portrayed in the Space Girl's walkabout outside of London.

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.

Even the staid Colonel Caine acknowledges his own sexual side when he notes that he is a natural voyeur, and quite willing to watch Carlsen rough-up the masochist nurse.  

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.)

Considering the wide breadth of indiscriminate, unloosed sexual behavior that Lifeforce visualizes, it is no surprise that the film relies upon the vampire as a  villain.  Traditionally, vampires are alluring, magnetic and filled with strange, unsated appetites.  They thrive on blood and can transmit their own illness to unaware victims.  Their kiss brings only death.  But the space vampires of the film steal souls, not merely blood, and that's an important distinction in Hooper's allegory about the perils of promiscuous, wanton desire let loose in the Age of AIDS. 

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?

Given such questions, the film ends appropriately in a grand British cathedral, a sanctuary for the pious, one would assume.

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 [1977]) 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.

If Lifeforce is an examination and perhaps even condemnation of promiscuous, rampant sexuality, it is also a supreme, unsettling entertainment.  It surprises constantly, and features a number of nice homages to classic horror cinema. I  mentioned George Romero's Dead cycle, but Lifeforce also harks back to an older, British tradition: the Quartermass and Nigel Kneale's legacy.  There, aliens from space were the source of our mythology.  They came to Earth and were reckoned with in terms of scientific and military solutions.  Lifeforce is very much the same animal...plus huge heaping helpings of sex and visual effects.  I also happen to believe the film does possess a sense of humor, but that it makes those jokes straight faced, in a staccato rat-a-tat-tat of overlapping dialogue.

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.

10 comments:

  1. Ha, excellent write up, John!

    I absolutely adore this film! I'm so grateful to have seen it at the drive-in when I was a youngster (with Silverado, I believe). At the time, the metaphor was lost on me. As an adult, I've grown to appreciate the film's themes as well as the stunning effects and massive scope of the whole thing.

    Visually, this film holds up so well after all these years. It's also one of the few films that can still get under the skin of some of my more hardcore horror friends.

    Funny timing as I've recently been looking for the Wilson book. Lifeforce is also my entry in one of our local theater's perennial "what movie would you like us to screen" contest. I never win, haha.

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  2. George10:20 AM

    Hi John and thanks for the show of love for Lifeforce. I saw it in the theatre and loved it and never understood all the hate for it. Even if you thought it was a bad movie(which I don't) it was still a fast moving fun movie. I also thought it had a very Quatermass feel to it. I remember this and day of the Dead being pilloried when they came out just like the Thing in 1982. All the other movies are now recognized as classics but Lifeforce is ignored. I bought the dvd a few years ago but haven't watched it yet. Maybe I'll throw it in now. I heard there was a much longer cut of the movie, is this true. The ending of the movie still makes me go HUH?

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  3. Nice piece on Lifeforce John. I haven't seen it in quite a few years, but now definitely have to screen it again. As a matter of fact, after reading this and your recent look back at Poltergeist, I may need to have a Tobe Hooper mini-marathon this weekend!

    Chad

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  4. Great write-up on one of the true cult movies of the 80s, John. The sub-text of it, I admit, didn't register when I first saw it in theaters first-run. But, balls-to-the-wall remains an apt description of it, don't you think? The amount of nudity on display, if shown today, would garner almost as much talk as McQueen/Fassbinder's SHAME, I think. It's an odd, layered mash-up of a sci-fi/horror/sexploitation film if there ever was one. No wonder it's considered a cult classic by many. Well done, my friend.

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  5. I haven’t much to say with this one, other than I love this movie to DEATH! Just yesterday I was watching It Came From Outer Space and, having read your review, it got me thinking that Lifeforce is kinda like an untethered, R-rated 50s sci-fi movie. It’s just so shamelessly spaced-out with the wildest angles of science fiction and horror. In fact, Lifeforce is one of those movies where calling it a sci-fi horror is rather redundant. It simply is pure, unadulterated science fiction--at its most horrific. I just wish the movie was given a proper Blu-ray treatment.

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  6. Still don't get the total hate for this movie. Flawed? Maybe. But far better than than it's undeserved reputation. Alaways felt it was a nice little updating of the Quatermass style of British science horror.

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  7. I love seeing all the Lifeforce love here, in the comment section. I absolutely adore this film, and it's nice to know that others feel the exact same way.

    Chris: I read Space Vampires and liked it a lot. Oddly enough, I don't feel that Lifeforce is a bad or unfaithful adaptation of it. A lot of the dialogue, if I recall, is actually identical. I read it last in 2002 when I wrote my Tobe Hooper book, so that was ten years ago. But this is my memory of it. I hope you find a copy of the book, and also win that contest to get Lifeforce screened at that theater!

    George: I've never understood the Lifeforce hate, either. I do believe that some critics were afraid of the movie; taken back by the ambitious, decorum-shattering visuals. I've learned that a lot of critics are really gate-keepers. They can only compare to what came before, and if something new doesn't line up, it gets bounced or rejected. I feel this happened to both The Thing and Lifeforce. Time has not been kind to the critics who took this stance, I would argue...

    I have heard there is a director's cut, but I don't think that is out on DVD. We definitely need a director's cut blu-ray!

    Chadillac: Can I come over for the Tobe Hooper marathon?! Just kidding, but man, that sounds like a great idea. I've had thoughts running in the same direction...

    Le0pard13: I love your formulation of Lifeforce as "balls-to-the-wall." Quite literally, right? This movie has huge cajones, that's for sure. Brass balls. It's why I love Hooper so much as a director. He's really fearless, it seems to me...

    Cannon: You're right about the core, 1950s hear of Lifeforce, and how it is given a cutting edge, 1980s visual sheen by Hooper. The movie is amazing, and yes, blu ray needed. Now!

    Great comments.

    best,
    John

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  8. So glad to see a writeup of this film that's actually glowing, as opposed to condescending. I LOVE THIS FILM SO MUCH, and have seen it literally around a hundred times, I'd say. Influenced by Dracula first and foremost, with liberal helpings of 2001, ALIEN, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, and DAWN OF THE DEAD, among others, this woefully underappreciated classic contains all my fave genre elements. My only tiny quibbles are that Railsback is miscast, and there are a few story holes remaining even in the international cut. I'm DYING to see that fabled 128-minute Director's Cut; hopefully it will plug a couple of those story holes. But even as is, what a dream for classic horror/sci-fi fans, even though they may not realize it. At this point, I'll settle for a nice Blu-ray of the 116-minute international cut. It would be much better than the old non-anamorphic laserdisc transfer that's on the current DVD.

    "I'm Colonel Caine."

    "From the SAS?"

    "Gentlemen, that last remark is NOT for publication; this is a D-Notice situation."

    LOVE IT!!!

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  9. Anonymous12:17 PM

    I was fascinated to read the review (above), of Lifeforce-I saw it way back in the eighties and was disappointed/fascinated with it. I have seen the movie on tv and video and a couple of times on dvd.
    I still have the older non-anamorphic dvd (and dont intend to buy a bluray any time soon).
    As to Lifeforce-I feel now (after recently re-watching), that it is one of a kind (Much like Roeg's Man Who Fell to Earth-with a equal amount of female nudity oddly), quite fast mouthing and many of the actors having unsayable lines-Peter Firth, being the biggest victim of this. As is stated it is a forthright examination of AIDS(which was a very real and terrible phenomenan (hope i spelt that right), as Carpenters The Thing was a fear of blood/transfusion/contamination, and Copploa's Dracula dealt with blood contamination.
    Lifeforce though is brazen --as Mathilda May's willing nudity shows'-no shadows or vagueness, no hiding. Lifeforce is a very direct assault on the audience senses(I think I was about 15 when i saw it) so that had a real jolt ==much like Paul Verhoeven's Flesh+Blood of the same year...

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  10. As luck would have it, our beloved LIFEFORCE will be released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory in June, with both the International and Theatrical versions included, along with theatrical trailers and TONS of extra goodies. Unfortunately, the missing footage from Hooper's initial rough cut no longer exists.

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