Cult Film Corner: Lifeforce

Tobe Hooper, eh? We’ll always love him for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, an exercise in sustained terror, implied violence, and pitch black comedy. He also directed Poltergeist, but it’s dogged with rumours that producer Steven Spielberg ghost-directed the flick (Heh, yes, I’m proud of that pun), so strong is the Spielbergian influence on the film. What you may not know is after the success of Poltergeist, Hooper went on to direct another big budget, effects-laden feature. You might think you can’t possibly follow up a film about a murderous family based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein, or the tale of vicious and vindictive spirits terrorising a home, but you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. You make a film about space vampires laying waste to London town… Wait. What? SPACE. VAMPIRES. IN. LONDON. Yup. This is Lifeforce.

A joint mission between the US and the UK sends a modified space shuttle, the HMS Churchill, to study and explore Haley’s Comet (This had me laughing from the outset at the ridiculousness of the UK being actively involved in space exploration. This was released in 1985, at the very height of Thatcher and her policies, she’d never see a penny spent on getting a British person into space. Still, this is a movie and we must let it weave its magic). As they near the comet, the crew discover a giant alien spacecraft hidden within the glowing tail. They board the ship, have a nose about, and discover three perfectly preserved (NAKED!) humans in hibernation behind a crystalline force field. The crew take the bodies – one girl, two guys – to the shuttle and head for home. Thirty Earth days pass and when we next we see the HMS Churchill we find it burned out, all the crew dead, with the only the force field folk protected. The bodies are transported to London to be examined, and that’s when all hell breaks loose…

You see, it turns the force field folk are space vampires (SPACE. VAMPIRES.) who drain the lifeforce from humans in order to survive. This doesn’t kill the victim, it merely turns them into a zombiefied husk that needs the lifeforce of another human to survive, and if doesn’t get it it explodes into a big pile of dust. So when the lady vampire escapes and starts draining people willy and, indeed, nilly, it kicks off an epidemic that threatens to consume the whole of London!

You don’t need me to tell you that this film is ludicrous. And that would be okay if it was at least played with a sly knowing British wink, but it isn’t. We get Grade A ham and everything treated with the seriousness of ‘play of the day’. It feels exactly like a movie-length episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, except with out the laughs. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film was a big influence on Matt Holness and Richard Ayoade. One unintentionally hilarious scene has the head of the British Space Agency, Dr Bukovsky (Michael Gothard), watching a CCTV screen. He spies the Space Girl (Mathilda May) awaking and attacking a guard. He rushes from his office and has to battle his way through five or six glass booth doors to get to her. You have to assume Tobe Hooper put it in there to create tension, but it comes across as very very silly. And the amazing thing is they repeat the scene again when Bukovsky himself falls under the thrall of Space Girl, this time with armed guards struggling their way through. It really needs to be seen to be believed.

The film mostly centres on the characters of SAS Officer Colonel Caine (Peter Firth) and USAF Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback). Firth’s Caine is pretty matter-of-fact about the situation and doggedly follows Carlsen, the sole survivor of the HMS Churchill, who has an inexplicable psychic link to Space Girl. Railsback comes from the angry/shouty school of performance. Anyway, Space Girl leads them on a merry chase over hill and dale, gaining the power to switch between bodies as she goes, which leads to some of the film’s weirder and more worrying scenes.

First up is a bit of rampant misogyny when Caine and Carlsen track down a nurse infected by Space Girl. Carlsen grabs ahold of her, slaps her, and reads her mind. He then, I shit you not, spouts this line of dialogue – “Despite appearances, this woman is a masochist. An extreme masochist. She wants me to force the name out of her. She wants me to hurt her. I can see the images in her mind.” – and then proceeds to throttle her, strip her, and kiss her until she gives in to him psychically and reveals the name. Wow. Way to condone woman-beating and justify serious sexual assault, film!

Hey, how about some homophobia too! The name leads to Dr Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), the head warden of a mental institute. In his brief time on screen, Stewart acts everyone off it. Proper Shakespearean acting. No, not really, but he does add a little bit of silliness and charm to proceedings. Carlsen and Caine drug Armstrong and try to communicate with the Space Girl who has taken over his mind. Carlsen sees only Space Girl and cannot escape her eerie attraction. He leans in and kisses her on the lips, but really it’s Armstrong! Yuck! He was tricked into kissing a MAN.

So, why watch this film? Well, you don’t have to. I’m not going to force you. But if there is one reason, it’s this – Mathilda May. Yes, I know I’m being sexist by saying this (and by posting this image. It’s only the second time I’ve had bare boobs on The Shootening) as she spends the majority of the film naked, but she really is otherworldly and stunningly beautiful. It’s the one bit of casting in this movie that actually works.

To be fair, the effects are pretty fricking cool too. John Dykstra does a fantastic job with the alien ship (though it doesn’t look it here from this pic), the Poltergeist-y/Ghostbuster-y glowing spirit/lifeforce effects, and his dehydrated zombie animatronic husks have a certain charm too, especially if you were a child of the eighties. They are let down later in the film with very dodgy looking model sets of London, and zombie hoards that become your traditional rotting bodies and flaying limbs you’ve seen a million times before, and make little sense in the the movie’s own logic, though the words Logic and Lifeforce really don’t belong together. I do somewhat adore Henry Mancini’s score, though. Brilliantly bombastic, but with a knowingness, it feels like a gentle mockery of John Williams. It’s an awareness that the rest of the film lacks.

You do have to wonder how the heck Lifeforce ever got greenlit. One of the biggest budget movies ever filmed in the UK at the time, about London being invaded by space vampires? The people with money must have been coked up out of their tiny little minds. The film is a laugh, but in entirely the wrong ways. Weighed down with a leaden script by Dan O’Bannon (yes, of Alien fame), a hammy cast, and rubbish, awkward pacing, you’d believe it deservedly belongs in the forgotten pile, but I say no! People need to know this madness existed. SPACE. VAMPIRES. IN. LONDON. What more do you want?

More Reviews:

The Dark Knight Rises

The Amazing Spider-Man


The Grey

Iron Sky

The Avengers (Marvel’s Avengers Assemble)

Ghost Rider – Spirit Of Vengeance

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy



Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol



Troll Hunter

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger


The Girl With Dragon Tattoo (2009)



Super 8

The Parallax View

Cowboys And Aliens

Swamp Thing

X-Men First Class

The Human Centipede

Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen

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