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Lifeforce
Tonight's Feature Presentation

LIFEFORCE (1985)

Starring: Steve Railsback, Mathilda May, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Aubrey Morris, Michael Gothard

Written By: Dan O'Bannon, Don Jakoby, Colin Wilson (novel)

Directed By: Tobe Hooper

The Short Version

Also known as The Naked Space Vampire Movie!

Mathilda May is a very impressive Naked Space Vampire, I must say.

Lifeforce is absolutely over the top and preposterous and totally awesome.

Watch it with a sense of fun in mind, and you’ll have a blast; don’t take it seriously.

This is my personal favorite monster apocalypse movie ever; of course I’m going to say "get it"!


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR CHEESE POPCORN.

Tasty enough to snack on for days.


Pairs Well With...

LONDON DRY GIN.

“I say, old chap, is it true that space vampires are rampaging London?”

“So it is, my good son.  Worst disaster since the Blitz, it is.”

“Oh, dear.  Think it’ll hurt Arsenal’s chances for tomorrow?  And pour me a gin, would you?”

“I am a natural voyeur.”


If I were told that for all of next year, I’d only be allowed to watch ten movies, but I could watch any of the movies I picked as many times as I wanted, Lifeforce would undoubtedly be one of the first three I’d name.

Lifeforce is amazingly, preposterously, over the top awesome.

Though it’s got a budget behind it and you can definitely see where the money went, Lifeforce is not a movie that you watch with Academy Awards in mind.  This is a movie that you watch to be entertained by and to have fun with.  And really, isn’t that what movies are supposed to be all about in the first place?

Our story begins in outer space, circa 1986.  The ESA space shuttle Churchill – which looks suspiciously like it came out of Moonraker, with the addition of pop-out solar panels – is on its way to Halley’s Comet, taking advantage of the once-in-76-years opportunity to pay a call on the solar system’s most famous visitor from beyond.  However, as they approach, the crew, led by American Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback, Barb Wire), are shocked to find a visitor of a different sort in form of a gigantic alien spacecraft hidden behind the cover of the comet.  When they go inside to investigate, they are even more shocked to find that along the desiccated bodies of giant alien bats, the ship also contains three apparently perfectly healthy – and perfectly naked – humans in some sort of suspended animation units.  Good scientific types that they are, the astronauts decide to take the three naked humans back to Earth with them.

Flash forward thirty days.  The Churchill enters Earth orbit, but its radio is strangely silent.  When another shuttle is sent up to investigate, they discover that the interior of the Churchill has been gutted by fire, its one-man escape pod jettisoned, and its crew apparently killed.  All that remains intact are three casket-like containers with naked humans of unknown origin inside.  Good scientific types that they are, these new astronauts decide to take the three naked humans back to Earth with them.

Given that Lifeforce is also called The Naked Space Vampire movie, care to guess what happens to London once the three naked humans get there?  (Hint: They’re going to look over in the direction of Tokyo and call Godzilla an amateur.)

It is, I think, very safe to say that Lifeforce is not the movie that anyone involved first intended it to be.

It started out as a screen adaptation of Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel (or really, novella) “The Space Vampires.”  Needless to say, as time went on, the resemblance became passing at best.  Fans of the book, therefore, tend to be unhappy.

Then the screen adaptation was further adapted to take advantage of the media sensation that was the impending approach of Halley’s Comet in 1986.  You have to have been alive and coherent during the period from 1984-1986 to understand what a massive deal this was at the time.  The level of hype surrounding the comet’s approach was comparable to that surrounding an impending Super Bowl in America or Stanley Cup Final in Canada.  It was, they said, going to be the astronomical show of the century.  (When the comet failed to deliver on providing the major spectacle the media promised in 1986, everyone quickly moved on to the next topic.)  Why not, the producers thought, take advantage of the hype train and tack some comet stuff on to Lifeforce?  Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (of Alien fame) was not happy.

Though the budget was decent – indeed, enormous by Golan-Globus production standards – it proved to be inadequate and extensions were not forthcoming, so several key scenes were never filmed.  No one was happy.

Director Tobe Hooper’s original cut came at 128 minutes, with which he was reasonably happy.  Some idiot decided to hack it down to 101 minutes for theatrical release, which made no one involved happy. It also made several elements of the central plot all but incomprehensible, which made audiences and contemporary critics unhappy.  (Which in turn made the film lose money.)

Later video releases – the stuff currently available – brought the runtime back up to 116 minutes, returning some comprehensibility to the plot.  Tobe Hooper still wasn’t happy, but…

Finally, a large audience could be found that was and is happy.  Like so many movies that have failed at the box office, Lifeforce has found a new lease on life thanks to its extended cut on home video.  For while it may still not be the movie that anyone involved with making it intended, somewhere along the way, it transformed into something greater, achieving that unique level of entertaining awesomeness that simply cannot be arrived at on purpose.  It became an Unintentional Cult Classic, and it rocks.

We’ll get the most obvious thing out of the way first: everyone who remembers this movie, either fondly or for ill, remembers Mathilda May as the nameless lead vampire (credited simply as “Space Girl”), primarily for the fact that she spends the majority of her screen time completely naked (and, it must be said, looking damn good while doing it).  And when it comes to enjoying Lifeforce in “just kick back and enjoy the party” mode, that’s certainly a major draw in and of itself; frat boys, enjoy your freeze frames.

But if one cares to look, there’s more to it than that.  Since vampires went the way of seductive aristocrats back in the 19th century, the notion of vampirism has carried with it major sexual overtones, and in Lifeforce, those overtones are highly magnified, to the point where vampiric attacks are no longer bites to the throat, but instead are an electrified version of deep kissing.  (The vampires draw the life force of the victim out through the mouth, with that life force being represented by a bright blue light.  A character actually explains this transfer of life force as something akin to a physicist’s take on the Conservation of Energy.)  Her nudity aside, Mathilda May exudes the inherent sexuality here wonderfully.  Her facial expressions are always sexually charged, and when she attacks, the combination of hunger and ecstasy is truly intense (and, yes, hot).  Add to that the sensual quality of her voice (even before enhanced by the effects department), and you end up with one irresistible vampire.

Believe it or not, though, there’s much more to Lifeforce than the naked lady vampire.  Indeed, there’s so much more that it could easily be considered barely contained chaos.  Lifeforce has enough story behind it for three screenplays, and frankly, one of the easiest complaints to make about the movie is that it stretches itself too thin trying to work them all through, and ends up abandoning several characters and subplots in the process.  I certainly can’t disagree with these complaints, but strangely, I find that this only adds to the chaotic atmosphere of the story once the shit hits fan.  Normally, these random drops and omissions would drive me nuts, but here, it just ends up working.  As noted above, this isn’t the kind of thing that a filmmaker can plan for on purpose; it just happens.

It also helps that this film is very, very British (to the point where I’m convinced that having a cast full of Americans would have killed it).  The only thing that keeps Lifeforce from turning into Lifefarce is the fact that everyone involved takes the action seriously.  The infamous British “stiff upper lip” pays massive dividends in this regard, and in ways that surely no one could have been counting on from the beginning.  Particularly superb in this regard in Peter Firth (The Hunt For Red October) as the extremely understated SAS man sent in to try and sort out the mess when our favorite naked space vampire escapes from her confinement (in a sequence which is itself absolutely priceless).  No matter what happens, the man is unflappable, and his performance simply never skips a beat.  See your colleague start randomly slapping a witness?  Just have a seat and watch.  Discover that the Prime Minister has gone vamp?  Just turn around and leave as though nothing happened.  See London turn into a complete, chaotic mess of undeath?  Drive right into it.  It would have been so easy to play the scenes as written either for laughs or at the very least with incredulousness, but no; Peter Firth is always arrow straight, and you will love him for it, along with all of his fellow Brits who fall in line right behind him.

On the other side of the fence, we have the token American member of the cast, Steve Railsback, who would been horribly miscast were it not for the fact that Lifeforce exists in some strangely alternate twilight zone of awesomeness where the standard rules don’t apply.  Railsback has his own way of playing things straight, which is to say that he treats all things equally as though they were the single worst crisis imaginable.  His acting style can best be described as “man in desperate need of a urinal because he’s had to pee for the past thirty minutes and he doesn’t know how much longer his bladder will hold out.”  I’d say that this guy needs to switch to decaf or maybe even have a toke to settle down, but in the odd world that is Lifeforce, his performance is perfect.  Does it make any sense for the hot vampire lady to be lusting after he of the out-of-place accent and pasty beer gut?  Of course not, but that’s part of the fun, and it even leads to a brief kissing scene between Railsback and Patrick Stewart.  As if that weren’t enough to get your attention,  your jaw will be on the floor listening to Railsback try to describe a “psychic vision” his character has of the lady vampire seducing another man, and you’ll love every minute of it because it’s such an absolute scream.  Just don’t ask for too many details about that psychic link; it’s not really explained for most of the film, and when someone finally tries, it only makes less and less sense.

But again, Lifeforce doesn’t need to make sense to be fun; indeed, it would probably be awful if it did.  When someone says “you’ve just got to see it to believe it,” this is the movie they’re talking about.  Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle while zombie-like vampires trash London and the BBC radio announcer compares it to the Blitz.  Shake your head in wonderment as someone figures out how to insert a sex scene set atop a crypt into a part of the film ostensibly taking place inside a government research building.  Applaud in genuine admiration at the talented cast, including Aubrey Morris, Patrick Stewart, and Frank Finlay.  Smile at the pretty blue lights as they fly across the screen.  Marvel at how much fun chaos can be if you let it.

Bottom line, Lifeforce may be a mess on many levels, but somehow, beyond any initial intention of anyone responsible for making this film, the movie has transcended its own preposterousness and entered the realm of Cult Movie Awesomeness.  A movie doesn’t need to be an Oscar winner to be fun; indeed, it’s probably better off if it’s not.  At the end of the day, Lifeforce is simply one of the most fun movies that I’ve ever seen, and one of my all-time favorites in any category.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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