On June 21, 1985, a film about an alien race coming to earth in search of a life force was unleashed into cinemas. You’re absolutely right, this does describe Ron Howard’s massively successful, geriatric crowd pleaser Cocoon. But it also describes Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper’s financially disappointing follow up to Poltergeist. While Cocoon’s timeless gimmick is its generous bestowal of youth on a group of elderly folk and all the humorous implications this entails, Lifeforce’s logline is expressed best by the two-word title of the book it emanates from: SPACE VAMPIRES.
Now tell me you don’t already like this movie more than Cocoon.
Lifeforce’s decent into relative obscurity (it isn’t found on my Grandmother’s VHS shelf, but it does have a fantastic release from Scream Factory) comes primarily from it’s strangeness, silliness, and occasional sloppiness. It has enough bold ideas and impressive effects to earn your two hours, but it doesn’t pack the emotional or visceral punch of other Tobe Hooper films (Poltergeist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre respectively).
First of all, Space Vampires. Vampires, but from space. In this case (as though there are more to be confused with), our space vampires travel the universe in a large, phallic shaped vessel that uses Hailey’s Comet as a celestial escort. We get a few glimpses of them as grotesque, humanoid bat creatures, but they spend most of their time as a trio of astoundingly beautiful, perpetually naked humans: two men, one woman. Lifeforce is clearly a product of the 80s, but the slow, pensive gait of the naked “Space Woman” and the group’s angelic appearance manage to be timeless and effective.
Otherworldly beings come to earth for a reason, whether it be the sadistic annihilation of humanity or the exploitation of a particular resource. In Lifeforce, the vampires are here not for blood but for – you guessed it – life force. In order to survive, they suck the energy from those they come in contact with, leaving only a shriveled corpse in its place.
This brings up one of the most interesting developments of the film – when a space vampire sucks the life force from a human, they become what is essentially a zombie. They remain a decrepit shell of a human, but after two hours they reanimate, perpetuating the cycle by feeding off of others. This blending of horror and sci-fi tropes requires more than few shoulder shrugs to fully accept, but it fits within this fantastical world.
Mirroring the uncanny monsters that drive the narrative forward, the film itself is a gallimaufry of three generically inconsistent pieces of Space Vampire pie: The first slice is the space, the second the vampire, the third a completely unhinged and unforeseen zombie apocalypse. Each is done fairly well, but splicing them together creates a silly, entertaining mess that can’t quite be saved by impressive practical effects. Our pie is certainly palatable, if only for its audacity.
The early scenes in space are beautifully photographed, dark and moody with blasts of color and a thumping gothic score. Tobe Hooper successfully built suspense and dread in Poltergeist (assuming we’re giving him the credit), and is able to do it once again here on the nuclear space shuttle Churchill.
When the vampires leave the celestial for the terrestrial’s all-you-can-eat buffet of life-forced humans, the dread and wonder is replaced by mystery. These Space Vampires have the ability to possess others and shape shift, making their capture and defeat a little harder to accomplish.
And then the world ends. Our vampire-induced zombies awaken from their state of catatonia, hell-bent on devouring as much life force as they can get their hands (mouths) on. The sheer scale of this third act is startling in its abruptness, but also in its deftness. The practical zombies are gross, fun, and effective, which is basically everything you want from zombies.
If this unusual jumbling of tropes and conventions was all this film had to offer it would be a middling success at best. But Lifeforce is elevated by a progressive sexual outlook, primarily sexuality and the female form.
The aforementioned Space Woman is the leader of the space vampires and is not unlike Scarlet Johansen’s character in this year’s Under the Skin, arriving on earth to use her body as a harvesting tool. She has absolute power over the otherwise masculine men of the film, driving them to near-insanity, drawing them into a spell of love that’s “on a level you’d never know…it was spiritual.” Her pheromones, her aura is a biological weapon that we have no antidote for and this slow descent into madness makes Scarlet Johansen’s immediate disposal of her prey seem almost humane.
There’s ultimately a reason for this sexual hypnosis, especially in regards to Carlson, the main character. Space Girl claims that she’s a manifestation of the feminine within him, which makes his (and men in general’s) inability to combat her spell particularly interesting. It’s not often we get to spend time inside the minds of men who are completely crippled by their attraction to a female, especially when they’re actually attracted to something that sprouts from their own psyche. There’s something wonderfully Freudian about this.
Unfortunately, this thematic thread is ultimately unraveled by the film’s occasional treatment of other female characters. It’s almost suggesting that men fall in love so hard and so fast that we’ve earned the right to oppress women in return.
But maybe that’s just me.
At any rate, Lifeforce represents an otherworldly planet that is ripe for reappraisal. So when you’re tearing through the Horror Universe, pull over and give planet Lifeforce a spin. While its local mannerisms may not rejuvenate you entirely, it has enough life and force to keep you smiling, even if you’re occasionally rolling your eyes as it barrels along.