Blu-ray Review: Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Video

BBFC Classification: 18

Director: Tobe Hooper

Starring: Steve Railsback, Mathilda May, Peter Firth, Patrick Stewart, Frank Finlay, Aubrey Morris, Christopher Jagger

Although he’ll forever be known as the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre over anything else he may have done before or since, Tobe Hooper has put his name to quite a few well-regarded genre films since that groundbreaking classic but has never quite managed to replicate the artistic and critical success of that film, with much of his output being fairly inconsistent when you compare it to the careers of many of his peers such as John Carpenter or Wes Craven. Lifeforce originally came out in 1985, three years after Hooper directed the relatively mainstream but very successful Poltergeist (or was at least credited with directing it, as some believe that producer Steven Spielberg was really the guiding force) and a year before he returned to Leatherface and family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and although it was something of a flop commercially it has gained something of a cult following in the years since its original release.

Whilst the crew of the spaceship Churchill are investigating Halley’s Comet they come across the perfectly preserved bodies of three humanoid alien beings, two men and one woman. The bodies are taken to the European Space Research Centre in London for examination but just before any procedures can take place the female (Mathilda May – The Jackal) wakes up and proceeds to drain the life force out of everyone she encounters whilst making her way across London. The trouble is those she attacks turn into zombie-like creatures who also have the ability to drain others of their life force and subsequently London turns into a war zone.

Based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, Lifeforce is a film that has all the elements that made so many other sci-fi films of the period successful but somewhere along the way it looks like somebody thought too much about the plot and made it a little too complicated to fully concentrate on, especially when you have an extremely beautiful and very naked Mathilda May parading around amongst the animatronic corpses for most of the film. Because despite the fact that Cannon Films threw a lot of money at the picture in the hope of having a huge blockbuster hit which, on the surface anyway, it certainly looks like as the visuals are pretty awesome, this is essentially a B-movie featuring all the things that a good B-movie should, like boobs, vampires, zombies, spaceships and the military going ape with scientists in tow. Great for those in the know but in the post-Return of the Jedi/The Wrath of Khan 1980s a sci-fi film that had more in common with Quatermass and the Pit than it did with E.T. didn’t really have much commercial appeal.

But small box office returns doesn’t mean that Lifeforce is a stinker because there is certainly a lot to enjoy. The special effects are excellent, the visuals when the crew are spacewalking being particularly worthy of note and as a whole they’re a step above a lot of films from the era. The zombie effects are also good and very reminiscent of The Return of the Living Dead, which also came out the same year and was written by Dan O’Bannon, who gets a writing credit here. The acting isn’t amazing overall but it fits the vibe of the film, especially Frank Finlay (The Key) as Dr. Fallada and Patrick Stewart (X-Men) as Dr. Armstrong, who both seem to know exactly what film they’re in and pitch it perfectly. However, Steve Railsback (The Devil’s Rejects), who plays Colonel Tom Carlsen, the soldier who finds the vampires in the comet, doesn’t seem to know what film he’s in and, probably like the execs at Cannon, thinks the film is destined to become a serious sci-fi epic in the vein of Alien or something like that.

The 2-disc set contains both the US Theatrical Cut of the film and the longer International Cut and comes with commentaries from Tobe Hooper and visual effects artist Douglas Smith, an excellent feature-length ‘making of’ documentary with contributions from Tobe Hooper, actors Aubrey Morris and Nicholas Ball and various crew members, separate interviews with Tobe Hooper and Mathilda May, a Steve Railsback featurette, trailers and collector’s booklet, and the transfer to Blu-ray has to rank as one of Arrow’s best as the film looks as vibrant and colourful as if it were made recently, and even the usually-dodgy 80’s optical effects look convincing.

Overall, Lifeforce is an odd film if you go into it expecting something highbrow like 2001: A Space Odyssey but if you go in armed with the knowledge that this was directed by the man who made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (See? He can’t get away from it), has a basic story lifted from nearly every low-rent vampire/zombie film made from the 1950s onwards and isn’t to be taken very seriously at all then you’ll probably have a riot with it. Like many Tobe Hooper films it is a slow-burner but once all the different plot strands come together for the final act the film goes into overdrive with zombies, guns and explosions galore, and add to that a hugely bombastic score by Henry Mancini (The Return of the Pink Panther) and Lifeforce does enough to justify its cult status, albeit in a slightly disjointed and unbalanced way.

Lifeforce

Special Features: Audio commentary with Tobe Hooper, audio commentary with Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Douglas Smith, audio commentary with make-up effects artist Nick Maley, Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce featurette, Space Vampires in London interview with Tobe Hooper, Dangerous Beauty interview with Mathilda May, Carlsen’s Curse interview with Steve Railsback, collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by science fiction expert Bill Warren, a new interview with Oscar-winning visual effects artist John Dykstra, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.

UK Release Date: 14th October 2013

Arrow Video – Website

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