Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Lifeforce (1985)

Vampires are played out. Aside from zombies, I don't think there is a single monster that has been so done to, well, undeath. Vampires have been nightmarish, comedic, sexy, homoerotically sexy, heroic, and even "unerotically" sexy. They've been monsters, demons, Judas, and even mere victims of a mysterious plague.

And, naturally, they've also been aliens.

To point up how played out vampires are, they were already making them into aliens at least as early as the 1950s with the Roger Corman-produced Not of This Earth, and in the 1960s with Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires and the also Roger Corman-produced (or AIP-produced, at any rate) Queen of Blood. That's not even factoring in blood-sucking aliens like The Thing From Another World or It! The Terror From Beyond Space, who weren't precisely vampires but fed like them.

It's not at all surprising that the trend would continue into the 1980s and beyond. After all, every vampire movie is required to either follow or buck the established lore of vampires--are they vulnerable to crosses, garlic, and sunlight or do they laugh at crosses, eat garlic bread with gusto, and just, ugh, sparkle in the sunlight? With a space vampire, you've already freed yourself somewhat of these rules without having to go through the list of "this works, that doesn't" in quite so rigid a manner.

Plus, since we became convinced that flying saucers existed--and even before that--mankind has loved the idea of aliens. Vampires, played out as they may be, have still maintained a hold on the pop culture imagination. Why not put these two flavors together and see how they taste?

Of course, most of the space vampire movies tended to ground their vampires in some way. After all, it makes no sense that a vampire from a distant galaxy would recoil at a cross or cast no reflection. And it certainly wouldn't have come about because its soul was taken, right?

Oh, but you see, by the 1980s metaphysics and psychic phenomena were treated as if they were actual science in their own right. So making your vampires into aliens in no way meant that they had to be logical. And yet, mysticism and science fiction had not been mutually exclusive concepts for decades. Indeed, some of the best science fiction proceeded from a starting point of grounding the "supernatural" in scientific terms.

So, when Cannon Films hired Tobe Hooper to direct a Dan O'Bannon screenplay based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, it's almost not surprising at all that the final film would end up resembling an earlier science fiction film that also dealt with a supernatural concept--that both are largely set in London just makes the resemblance all the clearer.

We begin with a science fiction staple: the voice-over narrator (rumored to be John Larroquette, more or less reprising his same role in Tobe Hooper's earlier Texas Chainsaw Massacre), explaining what we are seeing. A joint US / British expedition has been launched, with the goal of sending an experimental space shuttle, the Churchill, to Halley's Comet. This experimental craft is equipped with a NERVA engine which enables the craft to have Earth-like gravity on an extended flight. In this case, that translates to "they have gravity in every scene where we didn't want to go to the trouble of faking zero gravity."

As the Challenger approaches Halley's Comet, their sensors detect something strange: a clearly unnatural object in the corona of the comet: an object 150-miles long, at that. American Commander Carlsen (Steve Railsback) goes for the option of "fuck whatever our actual mission was, let's check out that space doohickey." So the Challenger pulls up alongside the strange object--the effects here, aside from the strange decision to make Halley's comet green, still hold up pretty well since the visual effects supervisor was John Dykstra--and Carlsen leads an away team to investigate the craft.

Entering through an opening that looks like "a giant artery", the characters make their way into the enormous derelict and discover a huge chamber full of the ship's mummified occupants: enormous bat-like creatures. Carlsen, ever the boorish American, breaks a finger off of one of the dead creatures just to test that it's as desiccated as it looks. The rest of the crew throws a specimen bag over the creature--oddly not grabbing one their commander hasn't manhandled.

"Huh, the first alien specimen humanity has ever encountered. Let's poke it."
Then something strange happens: the spaceship deploys an enormous structure on its "stern' that looks like an umbrella made of bat wings. And then an until-then unnoticed door opens up behind Carlsen, accompanied by a blinding light. Carlsen decides they should investigate, despite the objections of some of his crew.

Once through the passageway, the team finds a chamber full of crystalline containers. All the containers seem to be full of more of those bat creatures--except for the three glowing ones at the center, which contain what appear to be three humans: a beautiful woman (Mathilda May, credited as "Space Girl") flanked by two males (Chris Jagger and Bill Malin). All three are stark naked and you'll notice immediately a flagrant exercise of the male gaze, as our Space Girl is completely exposed in her crystal tube while her male companions have their genitals conveniently obscured.

"These prizes get weirder every carnival."
Carlsen and crew decide to take the three humanoid specimens back with them, ignoring the fact that all the men in the away team have begun acting strangely around the Space Girl whilst the lone female team member rolls her eyes at them. At first it's just the expected leering and comments about having been "in space for six months", but then it's all thousand yard stares and incoherent mumbling. Still, the crew begins trying to dislodge the three tubes...

...cut to a few months later, as the Churchill drifts back to Earth. In mission control at the Space Research Centre in London, Dr. Bukovksy (Michael Gothard) smokes nervously as the radio operator informs him that the Churchill is not only not responding to radio but appears to be radio dead. Worse, it seems like they haven't corrected their course since shortly after leaving the comet. NASA dispatches the Columbia to investigate.

The astronauts who board the Churchill are in for a nasty surprise, as the inside of the craft is completely gutted by fire. The crew are all charred skeletons. However, inside the tug bay the astronauts discover the three crystal cases are completely untouched. The bodies are brought back down to the SRC. Dr. Bukovsky convenes a meeting with several of the SRC's top scientists, specifically Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay), whose specialty is Thanatology--the study of death. Fallada is hesitant to declare the aliens dead, but an autopsy is scheduled anyway--especially since the cases, which appear to be more like force fields than an actual physical structure, have opened of their own accord.

Later that evening, Bukovsky settles down to watch some BBC and drink some liquor as he watches the BBC prattle on about how comets used to be called "disaster", which is "Latin for 'evil star'." He clicks the telly off as the announcer gets to talking about the as-yet unreleased fate of the Churchill astronauts. But as Bukovsky dozes, the lone guard on the Space Girl finds himself drawn to her seemingly lifeless form on the autopsy table inside a sterile examination room--but when he reaches out to touch her, she awakens and gets off the table.

"Greetings. I am an eldritch abomination from the stars here to devour your world."
The guard, being confronted by a naked Mathilda May, does nothing to stop her when she pulls his breathing apparatus off and begins furiously kissing him. But then the lights begin to flicker in the room--and lightning streams from the hapless guard's eyes and mouth. Bukovsky woke up to see the lead-up to the kiss on the security monitor in his office and, at first, seemed to be writing it off as a hallucination brought on by sleep and alcohol, but he realizes the truth just in time to be too late. He arrives and the guard collapses into Bukovsky's arms, little more than a smoking skeleton with a thin stretching of skin over it.

The Space Girl walks out of the shadows, looking satisfied with herself, and tells Bukovsky in a heavily reverbed voice to, "Use my body." Right about then, Fallada wanders into Bukovksy's office in time to see the Space Girl leaning in for a kiss--and Fallada wisely grabs some reinforcements before rushing to the room. The Space Girl has gone, but Bukovsky is still alive even though he's extremely weak. Fallada grabs a phone to order the guards to seal the building, assuring Bukovsky, "A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex."

Famous last words, naturally. When confronted by a cadre of Cockney guards, she force-chokes one guard, terrifies one into inaction, and uses her telekinetic powers to chuck the other across the room. She then uses her powers to completely obliterate the front window of the complex and wander naked into what seems a very cold night.

Enter Colonel Caine of the SAS (Peter Firth), curly-haired man of action. He arrives at the SRC to take over the case of the murderous space nudist, waving away the press and proceeding to get the back story from Bukovsky and Fallada. Here Caine (and the audience) learns that not only were the Churchill's memory tapes erased, but that the escape pod was missing. It couldn't have been launched by the fire, so someone must have survived but the condition of the crew's corpses make determining who it was impossible.

Caine and Fallada almost instantly strike up a camaraderie as Caine questions Fallada about his interest in death. Fallada explains that not only does he believe that there is life after death, but in fact what happened at the SRC was that the Space Girl completely draining the life force from the guard and partially from Bukovsky. "A vampire," Caine intones, and he's not wrong. And what about those two male vampires, you may now be asking? Well, they're being watched by two soldiers, who are both a bit wigged out by being assigned to watch two space stiffs. As one soldier comments that they don't look dead--the vampires prove him right by blasting apart the doors to their examination room and advancing menacingly on the guards. In a manner that keeps their privates from being visible, of course.

Well, the soldiers know the score and open fire with automatic weapons, which blasts holes in the vamps but doesn't slow them down. But the grenades do the trick. Caine and Fallada somehow didn't hear any of the prior ruckus, but the grenades bring them running to find that their specimens have been reduced to meaty chunks. But it's never a dull moment at the SRC, for just as Caine and Fallada--who totally should have been a duo that returned in a sequel to investigate other paranormal threats--are trying to make sense of the mess, the autopsy on the guard has begun. Only the guard doesn't want to stay dead for the pathologist.
George Hamilton finally hits the tanning bed one time too many.

The guard compels the pathologist to come close for a kiss and the lightning transference happens again, this time resulting in the pathologist being reduced to an emaciated corpse and the guard being returned to his healthy, naked, and extremely confused self. Fallada orders the guard and the late pathologist to each be put into "an isolation cell" (translation: supply closet). Then word comes in that the corpse of a naked woman has been found in Hyde Park in "an indescribable condition." Caine is hopeful it might be the Space Girl, but those hopes are quickly dashed--this girl isn't even a brunette. So now their quarry has clothes and they have another vampire to deal with.

Sir Percy Heseltine (Aubrey Morris) is sent to the SRC by the Prime Minister to find out what the devil is going on. He arrives just in time to witness a prediction Fallada made come true--the vampires created by the Space Girl need to be fed every two hours or they turn to dust. Explosively.
"The cleaning staff just all committed suicide, sir."
Some answers to exactly what the hell they're dealing with may be forthcoming, as the escape pod has just landed in Texas--and Carlsen is inside. He is rushed to the SRC to meet with Fallada, Bukovsky, and Caine. Caine quickly briefs him on what has happened since the return of the Churchill and implores him to explain what happened on the expedition. Basically, as Carlsen tells it, it was the space going equivalent of the Demeter in Bram Stoker's Dracula. One by one, Carlsen's crew sickened and died after leaving the comet with the bodies--completely drained of life. When Carlsen saw the Earth from the window of the shuttle, he knew he had to stop the creatures from reaching Earth. So he purged the ship's oxygen tanks, lit a fire, and then climbed into the escape pod just ahead of the resulting fireball. However, Carlsen admits he was reluctant to leave behind the Space Girl because he was so drawn to her.

Carlsen's story really didn't give them any more answers, but when Carlsen sleeps he has a dream about the Space Girl making love to him in a crypt right out of a haunted house attraction, before draining him of life. He wakes, screaming, and Fallada recognizes that it was actually a psychic visitation and reasons that if she's in touch with Carlsen's mind, perhaps he is in touch with hers. At Fallada's suggestion, Carlsen agrees to be hypnotized--and now the film starts to get truly weird.

You see, the Space Girl has left her body--though hidden in a safe place, she's no fool--and is currently inhabiting a nurse named Ellen (Nancy Paul). Using this body jumping the Space Girl has been draining victims of just enough life energy to sustain herself but not enough to leave a corpse. From the information collected from Carlsen's hypnosis, Sir Percy helps Caine track the nurse to Thurlston Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Sir Percy, Caine, and Carlsen go to visit Thurlston and its manager Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart!). Armstrong leads them to Ellen's apartment and Caine and Carlsen go to question her.

Carlsen suddenly gets violent with Ellen, but he explains to Caine that he is able to see into her mind somehow (!) and knows that A) the Space Girl has moved to another body and B) the nurse knows who it is but she's actually a masochist who wants to have the information forced out of her. Carlsen advises Caine he may want to leave, but Caine responds with the immortal, "Not at all: I am a natural voyeur." One weird erotic interrogation later, Carlsen has a physical description of the patient now hosting the alien.

Giving the description to Armstrong gives them a name and Carlsen advises they want to hypnotize him using a dosage of pentothal and morphine, but when Armstrong touches Carlsen the jig is up. See the Space Girl is actually inside Armstrong. Caine and Carlsen overpower and drug Armstrong, thereby trapping her in his body so they can interrogate her.
It...doesn't go well. Sure, they find out that the aliens used their telepathy to learn about humans and assume forms that would be pleasing to their prey, but even under the effect of the drug the Space Girl is able to control Carlsen and compel him to kiss Armstrong (giving Patrick Stewart his first-ever onscreen kiss with...Steve Railsback). This allows her enough energy to almost break free in a blast of energy and telekinesis, but Caine quickly injects Armstrong with a double dose of the hypnotic drug. Sir Percy was killed in the commotion however, and Carlsen momentarily can't stop babbling about how, "It's too late, you didn't stop it." Carlsen can't recall what it means when he regains his composure, but Caine has figured it out all too well.

The Space Girl has been leading them further and further away form London. And if there were other bodies that they didn't find, well, it's been many, many hours since she first escaped--more than enough time for her vampirism to spread like a plague. In fact, as they rush back to London by helicopter they discover that the city is a burning chaos as the vampires run wild through the streets and one of the male space vampires flies about as a ball of energy, siphoning souls to be sent up to the spaceship that has just parked itself in orbit above London to collect all the stolen souls. To make matters worse, the Space Girl has had enough of this "drugged into a stupor" bullshit and uses her powers to cause Armstrong and Sir Percy to hemorrhage blood from every orifice, which then takes on her form before collapsing into a mess on the helicopter floor.
"You''re seeing this, too, right?"
Well, they completely failed to stop the space vampires and lost their queen, but maybe all hope isn't lost. See, there's a reason there's only one male vampire flying around London. After their bodies were destroyed, they jumped to the bodies of the soldiers who killed them. One male vampire made the mistake of going after Fallada, who had just acquired a leaded iron sword and proceeded to impale his assailant through the "energy center" directly below the heart. Turns out, that's how you kill a space vampire. So all Caine and Carlsen have to do is get to the SRC and take that sword to finish off the other two vampires. The SRC, which is in the heart of vampire-infested London.

Yeah, that should be a cinch.
"Visine. It gets the curlicues out."
It's most in its climax that Lifeforce reminds me of Hammer's Quatermass And The Pit. Both films involve an ancient supernatural evil of an actually extraterrestrial origin devastating London by turning its population into monsters, and both films have their avatars of evil convert themselves into energy to further control their victims. But the whole film is delightfully imbued with that British sensibility that made the Quatermass films so enjoyable--quite surprising, given how many Yanks were involved in its production.

Another part of its charm is just simply the fact that, like Willliam Girdler's even more batshit-insane The Manitou before it, the film throws all this surreal crap at the screen and the characters just accept it and attempt to deal with it any way that they can. By the end the characters have encountered such insanity that Caine is fighting a space bat monster without flinching--in what is easily my favorite scene of the film.
Hey, NECA: make an action figure of this thing!
The film's effects are rarely anything but amazing. Some of the optical effects and matte paintings are obvious, but they still look incredible. The make-up and creature effects are honestly where it fumbles the most--particularly as the needs of the climax force the Space Girl's victims to change from living skeletons to generic zombies--but even there we are delivered such great sights as the true form of the space vampires and the likeness of the Space Girl forming out of blood.

The film also benefits from an amazing score by Henry Mancini, who had previously given the world the ubiquitous theme to Creature From The Black Lagoon, which is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It's a sweeping, epic score that elevates the film far more than a more generic soundtrack of the period might have.

The acting ranges from stiff and unconvincing--most of the astronauts and Steve Railsback--to full-out scenery chewing--Steve Railsback--but most of the actors hit the right notes. At any rate, this isn't Antigone, it's a movie about a naked alien bombshell who sucks people's souls out of their faces, so it's less important for the actors to portray the depths of the human condition as it is that they not annoy the audience. And thankfully, none of them do.

Mathilda May deserves a lot of credit. Not only is she completely naked for 95% of her screentime--including several scenes that appear to be freezing cold, and then there's that blood avatar sequence that looks to have been quite uncomfortable--but she truly imbues the Space Girl with a sense of overwhelming sensuality, menace, and a supernatural otherness. Not bad, considering that she barely has any lines. Yet you can't deny she imbues the Space Girl with a distinct character. And you'd certainly be hard-pressed to find a more naked vampiress in film, outside of Lina Romay in Jesus Franco's Female Vampire, if that's what you're looking for.
Yeah, sorry, I'd doom the world for her.
Watching the film as many times as I have, I've begun to feel that it has a very strange idea about weaponized femininity. The only major female character being a soul-sucking space vampire should tip you off to that quickly enough, but the interactions between the male characters suggest something else entirely. It suggests a group of homosexual men confronted by overpowering female sexuality. Witness Bukovsky's horror at having been seduced by a woman, all the male characters seem to touch each other in oddly inappropriate ways, there's the Railsback / Stewart kiss, and the fact that Caine gives Carlsen a longing look whilst trying to plead with him to resist the wiles of the female vampire that suggests he is less trying to save his friend's soul and more that he is begging his lover not to get back with an ex.

I rather doubt that that was on purpose, but it's amusing to interpret it that way nonetheless.

The film is definitely not for everyone, but I love its mix of British sci-fi, psychic nonsense, exploitation, and vampire tropes. It rarely makes any actual sense, particularly as it goes on, but it's an amusing enough ride that it doesn't matter.

It's interesting to note that, like Blade Runner, this film is better known in its extended cut than the theatrical cut. Indeed, the only cut on VHS and DVD for many years was the extended cut. When Scream Factory released it in 2013, I finally got to watch the theatrical cut and...oof. It's not just that it's shorter. It also cuts out most of Henry Mancini's score, removes most of the space vampires' dialogue (ruining my favorite part of Caine's confrontation with the male vampire), and inserts scenes from the climax throughout the film. By doing so, they've completely undercut the effectiveness of the realization that the Space Girl has been luring them away from London by showing that it's too late well before the characters realize it. I much prefer the longer cut.

At any rate, a shorter cut still didn't bring in audiences and the film was a bit of a flop. Calling it Lifeforce instead of Space Vampires was probably part of that as well, but Cannon Films wanted to sell the film as a high-budget spectacle instead of their usual low-budget fare. It didn't work, clearly. However, like much of Cannon's output, it's since gained a cult following. As it damn well should.
This has been my contribution to the "Cannon Fodder" roundtable, dedicated to the memory of the late Menahem Golan of the Cannon dream team, Golan and Globus. The others got theirs done well before i did so why haven't you read them already?

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