Tue
Jul 3 2012 11:00am

“Was It Sexual?” “Yes, Overwhelmingly So”: Lifeforce

“Was It Sexual?” “Yes, Overwhelmingly So”: A rewatch and appreciation of Lifeforce

If there is a human being alive who can summarize Lifeforce’s plot—all the nude space vampires, exploding zombies, insane asylums, and wildly inappropriate behavior—with a straight face, it is likely that person has never smiled. Lifeforce is a wildly entertaining bit of insanity that bears less resemblance to typical genre films in terms of structure than it does Indian masala, a form in which as many wildly disparate elements are thrown together in one movie to the end of appealing to all possible audiences. The primary difference, of course, being that in Lifeforce instead of songs, there are nude scenes. That essential distinction aside, Lifeforce is still at least four different movies co-existing, with varying degrees of ease, as one. It is crazy, it is unique, and it is awesome.

Recently screened as part of Lincoln Center’s Midnight Movies series—running each Friday at midnight through the end of August; info on all the awesome movies they’re going to be showing hereLifeforce is a slight rarity among the cult fare one generally associates with the “midnight movie” label, in that a considerable degree of its insanity seems to be on purpose. The authorial imprint of co-writer Dan O’Bannon can be felt throughout, with echoes of Dark Star and Alien, with the cracked humor of the former predominating over the genuine horror of the latter. And while director Tobe Hooper had some horrendous luck over the course of his career, he was nonetheless a skilled filmmaker with an inspired feel for genre. Lifeforce manages to at once visually reflect the handsomeness of its available resources ($25 million) and yet retain the charm of the micro-budget special effects movies of the 50s and early 60s that inspired it. It looks just as slick and just as trashy as it needs to to fulfill its needs as both a piece of cult insanity, and that thing on purpose.

The story (which I will try to relate through my giggling) begins with the discovery, within Halley’s Comet, of an apparently derelict alien spacecraft. A joint U.S./British space mission goes to explore, and finds a number of weird-looking desiccated corpses, and three nude humanoids (two male, one female), either asleep or dead, enclosed in space Lucite or something. Jump forward to a month later, and the spaceship is burnt to a crisp with no survivors other than the sleeping nude humanoids. The female (Mathilda May), proceeds to wreak absolute havoc—reducing people to just the kind of desiccated husks as populated the alien ship, with all manner of attendant blue light—all without the slightest bit of clothing on. This is important because she looks very good without clothes, and because all the men in the movie turn into absolute gibbering morons when they lay eyes on her; this is only natural, but it’s a good joke on the way bare breasts lobotomize the (straight) male brain.

While that covers the first two movies Lifeforce contains, the abandoned spacecraft SF movie and the sexy vampire run amok movie, it proceeds from that point through several more radically different movies, none of which are anything but delightfully insane (including one extended bit with a marvelously hammy pre-Jean-Luc Picard Patrick Stewart), all of which featuring the dynamic duo of elite SAS colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth) and deeply troubled—and, conveniently for the amount of exposition it takes care of, newly psychic—American astronaut Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), who is inexorably drawn to the nude space vampire. As inevitably episodic as the movie ends up feeling, with its “and then this and then that and then the other thing” structure, Hooper keeps things moving at a crisp pace, with the deadpan humor never flagging. And at the end, it’s immensely satisfying: it’s almost impossible not to applaud Henry Mancini’s wildly dramatic score over the closing titles.

It would be a bit misleading, in strictly cinematic terms, to call Lifeforce “good.” But it would be just as misleading to call it anything but awesome. It’s one of the most gloriously apeshit pieces of cinema on record. And, in the midnight hour, when sanity is but a memory and sleep is somewhere past the horizon, it is one of the best traveling companions imaginable. 


Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.

11 comments
John Zeleznik
2. John_Zeleznik
I have vaguely fond memories of this movie on late night HBO. Hell, they had me at naked space vampires.
Ross E. Lockhart
3. Ross E. Lockhart
I love this flick, and all its sf/vampire/zombie/apocalypse madness. But while Dan O'Bannon's script is a ton of fun, the novel on which the movie is based, Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires, is even more nuts than the movie, transcending the film's genre tropes into weird cosmic horror.
Noneo Yourbusiness
4. Longtimefan
Amazingly the sexy female space vampire never can find the convenitently placed objects to block her nudity in the same way the two male (and much less effective at creating havoc) space vampires can. It is almost like they have space modesty and she does not. :)

The Patrick Stewart scenes are the best. He just chews on that role with gusto.

I remember when this movie came out. The poster was so interesting to me as a kid. The giant eye looking at Earth. The mysterious potential for the moive to be about anything marvelous or strange or unusual. And it was.
TW Grace
5. TWGrace
The female (Mathilda May), proceeds to wreak absolute havoc—...—all without the slightest bit of clothing on. This is important because she looks very good without clothes...
Yes she does.
Ross E. Lockhart
6. Comicsonthebrain.com
This has been on my Netflix queue forever. Gotta move it up! I always keep an eye out for it when I'm at flea markets and yard sales. I wish I had thought to steal it when I worked at a video store 20 years ago.
Eli Bishop
7. EliBishop
I second Ross's appreciation for the book. Wilson, who writes mostly nonfiction about mysticism and crime, is a really unusual novelist; The Space Vampires and The Mind Parasites read less like modern SF/horror, more like a philosophically obsessive time-travelling Victorian writer who read a lot of 1950s pulp and watched a lot of '70s movies. O'Bannon's screenplay is a lot more Hollywoodish than that, but still does a fair job of suggesting the crazy scope of it, where one minute it's all cosmic horror with unimaginably old giant haunted spaceships and the next minute it's kinky sex interrogations and Patrick Stewart speaking with Mathilda May's voice. And both the book and the movie borrow pretty effectively from the weirder parts of Dracula: crazed sole survivors, death ships, a half physical and half spiritual monster that you have to chase psychically around the country and only catch up with at the end...

(And I maintain that everything in that screenplay makes sense. If Danny thinks the Steve Railsback character was "conveniently... newly psychic", then I think he may have missed some of the dialogue in his last scene.)
Ross E. Lockhart
8. a1ay
It's on the list. You had me at "instead of songs, there are nude scenes".
Ross E. Lockhart
9. Improbable Joe
It is very British stiff-upper-lip too... this would not have worked with an American cast and setting. There's a seriousness with which the cast approaches the material that keeps the whole ridiculous thing somehow grounded. I watch it periodically, and agree that it is awesome if not strictly good.

Also, Mathilda May doesn't even look like a real human being. She looks like she was sculpted and magically animated. In a good way.
Michael Grosberg
10. Michael_GR
the only necessary summary for this movie is "Naked Mathilda May".

The one thing that always struck me as odd about this movie is that, with all the space vampires and zombies and whatnot, someone took the time to get the physics and space hardware right. The Churchill has a NERVA drive (a historical nuclear rocket drive whose development was cancelled in the 60's) and the drive is located at the *bottom* of the shuttle, poointing downward (so that the ship's "down" axis point toward the shuttle's floor) and not installed in the rear, where the shuttle's main engines are now (which would look cooler but would be terribly uncomfortable for the astronauts on a long burn).
Danny Bowes
11. DannyBowes
@EliBishop---That's entirely possible. By the end of the movie the smoke coming out of my ears may have slightly impeded my hearing ;)

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