Forgotten Films is a semi-regular feature where we explore interesting movies that have fallen off the radar or slipped through the cracks over the years.
Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was always a pretty limited selection of VHS tapes in the sci-fi and horror section at my local video store. If you were a fan of either genre, you got to know most of these movies pretty well, and while they weren’t always the best flicks, you forced yourself to like them anyway.
When I think back to the rental shelves in those days, one of the movies that always seemed to be staring back at me was the 1985 film Lifeforce. From what I remember, the cover was a little misleading because it looked like the whole movie took place in outer space, when in fact, that’s not quite the case. However, since the movie was written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien), it was marketed as another space horror flick.
What’s surprising is that Lifeforce was also directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who had just come off working on Poltergeist a few years previous. You’d think a movie of this pedigree would be a little bit better known, but nowadays it has all but faded away into obscurity. It’s kind of a shame, because after revisiting it, I have to say that it contains more than enough fun moments to satisfy both horror and sci-fi fiends alike.
Based on the book The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, the story was tweaked for the big screen to tie in with the coming of the Halley’s Comet in 1986. A space shuttle crew detects a ship hidden in the head of the comet with some weird bat-like creatures and three humanoids in suspended animation. Eventually the shuttle loses contact with Earth, and when a second team is sent to investigate they find all but one member of the original crew dead, and the aliens once again hibernating. The beings are brought to earth where it is revealed that they are actually vampires that suck the lifeforce out of humans. They wreak havoc on London, turning most of the population into zombie-esque hosts, while the only surviving crew member (Steve Railsback) and Major Caine of the British SAS (Peter Firth) try to find a way to stop them.
The early scenes are tense and claustrophobic, and capture everything that is eerie about being in space including slow movement, silence, isolation, confinement, lack of oxygen, etc. I kind of wish more of the movie could have been spent here as it might have ended up as something in the vein of Alien, Event Horizon or Sunshine, but before long the setting shifts to Earth.
Here the movie starts playing very similar to Species, mainly because you’ve got a voluptuous female alien who is completely nude for a large chunk of the movie. Played by French actress Mathilda May, she rarely speaks, but she manages to be both creepy and attractive at the same time. It’s funny because I remember this movie freaking me out as a kid, but I’m not sure what was scarier at the time: the fact that the she was a vampire, or the fact that she was naked.
Before long, the movie morphs into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers / The Thing type of thriller, as the vampires can transfer themselves from body to body. By the end, however, the genre mash-up is completed with an apocalyptic scenario where the people who are infected by the vampires have basically become zombies, leading to a viral outbreak.
Perhaps one of the main reasons why Lifeforce was somewhat forgotten is that there aren’t many big name actors involved and the characters themselves are totally forgettable. It’s interesting to note, however, that the movie does star a pre-Star Trek:TNG Patrick Stewart, who gets possessed by the vampire and has to undergo an “exorcist” of sorts (complete with over-the-top moaning and screaming). This was amusing in and of itself, and I have to say, it was also a little surreal seeing him in a wheelchair like 15 years before the X-Men movie!
The special effects are kind of hit and miss, but some of the stuff is still pretty mind-blowing, including a scene where Patrick Stewart’s body disintegrates into a glob of blood that then morphs into a face. There’s a lot of blue lightning used for the actual life drain (reminiscent of Poltergeist, I suppose), and some very grotesque (albeit dated) animatronics which alternate between horrific and hilarious.
The movie also has a great score composed by Henry Mancini, although Michael Kamen apparently added some additional music when the studio decided to recut the film. The DVD release of Lifeforce is (I believe) the extended, international version of the film with all of Mancini’s music intact, but I could be wrong on that. The frustrating thing is that the sole DVD release of this movie is, unfortunately, not enhanced for widescreen TVs. Come on people, it’s time for a special edition re-release!
In general, Lifeforce is one of those movies that bombed at the box office and later found an cult following on home video. While it’s certainly a bit muddled and lacking in strong performances, the atmosphere and imagery left an impression on a lot of people who saw it back in the day, and it’s unique and strange enough to warrant a viewing even today. Certainly fans of Dan O’Bannon and Tobe Hooper should check it out, and if you’re in the mood for a wacky mix of horror and sci-fi, I don’t think Lifeforce will disappoint.