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Following the success of Poltergeist (1982), director Tobe Hooper had a chance to punch his own ticket. But instead of another Steven Spielberg theme park ride, Hooper delivered Lifeforce (1985), an obsessive head trip in 70mm, one that details the ways in which quivering men fail to satisfy a voracious (alien) woman's sexual desire. Ravaged by critics, Janet Maslin memorably described it as "hysterical vampire porn", and it made only $11.5 million on a $25 million budget.
Cannon Films, led by producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, signed Hooper to a three-picture deal following the success of Poltergeist. To sign the contract, Hooper dropped out of The Return of the Living Dead (1985), for which screenwriter Dan O'Bannon (Alien) took over as director. In their first meeting, Golan and Globus handed Hooper the novel The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. The production began a few days later, with Hooper fondly remembering how they "bypassed all the usual development things you have to go through." One of those "development things" they went without was having a completed script. Hooper hired O'Bannon and Don Jakoby to write it, but it was far from finished by the time the compressed shooting schedule began. The tight schedule also frustrated the effects team led by John Dykstra (Star Wars), who later complained that a rushed film processing job introduced flaws into the delicate optical printing work.
If Golan and Globus expected the same Spielberg effect of Hooper from Poltergeist, they were to be disappointed. What they got instead was the uncompromising horror nerd who made the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Hooper recalled his own attitude as, "I'll go back to my roots, and I'll make a 70mm Hammer film." Recognizing Colin Wilson's novel as a variant on The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), he made Lifeforce with ripe colors and riper melodramatics, along with his actors adopting the postures and tones of his favorite Hammer icons. For example, Frank Finlay in his character of Dr. Hans Fallada, takes on the epicene inquisitiveness of Peter Cushing.
Cannon, realizing the strangeness of Hooper's film, started to impose changes. They replaced Henry Mancini's score, cut down the U.S. release version by 15 minutes and changed the title from The Space Vampires to Lifeforce. But it didn't help at the box office. Hooper believes that changing the title was a mistake and that everyone then, "expected it to be more serious, rather than satirical. It isn't quite camp, but we intended it to be funny in places."
The film starts as exploratory sci-fi, with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) leading a British-U.S. space mission to investigate Halley's Comet. As they float on wires through matte-painted backgrounds reminiscent of Forbidden Planet (1956), they discover the corpses of hollowed out devil bats. Then they enter a crystalline chamber modeled on the diamond-shaped alien pod from Quatermass and the Pit (1967), where they find three perfectly preserved human bodies, one a well-proportioned woman (only known as "Space Girl", Mathilda May) who exerts a hold on Carlsen, even in stasis. Here the horror begins, as this female is, yes, a space vampire, sucking the life force out of anyone in her path. Once she and her two male companions (including Mick Jagger's brother, Chris) reach Earth, they leave piles of shriveled up human husks in their wake, which realistically twitch in the animatronics by Nick Maley.
Space Girl embodies female desire without socialized restraint: she knows what she wants and she gets it. After she escapes a government facility, one of the doctors is asked how she overpowered him. He responds, "She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I've ever encountered." Tasked with acting for the majority of the movie in the nude, May uses her ballet training to move with grace in an often graceless role. She moves with such control that she seems to float, like Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning's Dracula, her blood-sucking ancestor.
The male characters are either insular pedants or macho creeps, playing with their spaceships or microscopes but utterly befuddled at the presence of a prepossessing nude woman. Railsback is in a perpetual cower, prematurely embarrassed at his inability to fully please the Space Girl. By the end, he's sweating and flinching so much that he becomes Renfield to her Dracula. The only time he can gain some measure of control is by injecting her with gallons of sleep serum, and that's only when she's taken over the body of Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard). She speaks through Stewart's mouth, "I am the feminine in your mind, Carlsen". Railsback then kisses Stewart, in one of the more radical moments in 1980s Hollywood cinema.
To fulfill his contract with Cannon, Hooper went on to make Invaders from Mars (1986), a remake of the 1953 science-fiction film, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), neither of which were the hits they were hoping for, but they received an indelible body of work.
By R. Emmet Sweeney