Thursday, October 6, 2022

#2,829. Lifeforce (1985)


1985’s sci-fi / horror mash-up Lifeforce has two distinct personalities, blending the complex, near indecipherable tale of an apocalypse (one anchored in ancient mythos) with a straight-up exploitation flick filled to its breaking point with violence, nudity, and sexual deviancy. How else can one describe a film about a spaceship harboring the vampires of legend that also contains a scene in which Steve Railsback makes out with Patrick Stewart?

Lifeforce is simultaneously clever and ridiculous, frightening and goofy, and right out of the gate, as we watch the opening credits, we are given an inkling of what’s to come. Along with being directed by Hooper, the mastermind behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Salem’s Lot, and Poltergeist, Lifeforce also features music by Henry Mancini, whose subtle work for such classic motion pictures as The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s here give way to a bombastic, over-the-top score performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, we learn that Lifeforce was co-written by Dan O’Bannon, who penned Alien and directed Return of the Living Dead.

All of these revelations are trumped, however, the moment we realize Lifeforce was released by Cannon Films and produced by Golan and Globus, the very men who unleashed Jean-Claude Van Damme, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Superman IV: Quest for Peace on an unsuspecting public.

Is it any wonder that Lifeforce is such a muddled yet glorious marriage of good and bad?

The story opens in the dark recesses of space. Colonel Tom Carlsen (Railsback), commander of the shuttle Churchill, and his crew discover, quite by accident, an enormous alien vessel that is hiding in Halley’s Comet. Carlson and a few others set out to explore this strange ship, and find it is harboring three naked humanoid life forms in suspended animation. Strangely drawn to the female humanoid (played by Mathilda May), Carlsen decides to bring the three back to the Churchill for further examination.

At some point during their return voyage, mission control in London loses contact with the Churchill, which has mysteriously drifted into earth’s orbit. A team is sent to investigate, and are horrified to discover that a fire has ravaged the Churchill, killing everyone on board with the exception of the three humanoid specimens.

Brought down to earth to be studied, the female subject eventually wakes up and sucks the life energy from one of the guards, reducing him to an emaciated corpse in a matter of seconds. The humanoids, it turns out, are actually vampires, and within two hours all who fall victim to these alien creatures will themselves awaken, and search frantically for another’s life force to sustain them.

The female vampire eventually escapes from the research facility, and it falls to Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay), police detective Colin Caine (Peter Firth), and Col. Carlsen (who survived the destruction of the Churchill by launching an escape pod) to track her down before she can turn anyone else into a vampire.

It’s a complex storyline, no doubt, but that’s actually just scratching the surface; there’s a lot more going on here than what I’ve described above, and it wasn’t long before I was scratching my head, trying in vain to keep up with the story’s many twists and turns, all leading to a final act in which the British military, operating under martial law, is sent in to quell the escalating apocalypse.

Yet as confusing as it all could be, never once did I lose interest in Lifeforce; Hooper and company have somehow managed to make the chaos so engrossing that I was poised on the edge of my seat throughout.

The cast does a decent job, with Mathilda May making the biggest impression, in part because she spends 90% of the movie completely nude. In addition to Miss May’s vampiric alien, Lifeforce explores themes of sexuality, occasionally crossing into dark territory. One scene in particular, where Carlsen and Caine are interrogating a nurse (played by Nancy Paul) who had a run-in with the vampire, features elements of masochism and voyeurism that make it especially tough to watch. Still, as exploitative as the nudity and sex can be at times, it gels perfectly with the story at hand.

The film’s effects are also a mixed bag. The sci-fi special effects, from the spaceship to the bursts of light that represent escaping energy forces, range from cheesy as hell to cheesy as all hell, but the make-up and creature design that brings the vampire’s victims to life (they essentially look like walking corpses) is damn impressive.

Even the opening scene in space combines the amazing (the discovery of the ship) with the dreadful (the dialogue and effects), and gives one the impression right out of the gate that Lifeforce is somehow going to be an odd mixture of Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Yet during this most recent viewing, I enjoyed the movie more than I ever had before. In fact, I fell head-over-heels in love with Lifeforce! I loved its strengths as well as its weaknesses, its grand ambitions and its dismal failures. It is a mess, but it is a wonderfully entertaining mess, and I adored every single minute of it!

It may raise a few eyebrows, and convince some of you that I am in dire need of psychiatric help, but I give Lifeforce an enthusiastic rating of 9.75 out of 10!

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