It’s become something of a cliché to say that Science-Fiction movies have difficult production histories, with reshoots, re-edits and studio editions being commonplace, but the Tobe Hooper helmed film ‘Lifeforce’ is an exemplary form of that cliché in full effect. Loosely based on the 1976 novel ‘The Space Vampires’ by prolific author and occult-writer Colin Wilson this 1985 release was troubled from inception. Wilson’s book was an original story featuring a future encounter between a space-exploring civilization based on Earth and an ancient race of alien vampire-like beings who survived on the ‘life-force’ of their prey – a form of psychic energy, which left the hosts dead upon being drained (think ‘Stargate Atlantis’ and you get the idea – as indeed did they!). It mixed Sci-Fi, Horror and liberal doses of erotica in a then unusual mix and was a moderate success, echoed in later works like Brian Lumley’s ‘Necroscope Saga’ (1986-2010) or Peter F. Hamilton’s ‘The Night’s Dawn Trilogy’ (1996–1999).
The movie version on the other hand took several major liberties with settings and characters under the hands of Don Jakoby and veteran SF screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, the name behind everything from ‘Alien’ (1979) to ‘Total Recall’ (1990). Set in the ‘present’ the movie focuses on a space shuttle mission to Hailey’s Comet where a giant alien spacecraft is discovered with the bodies of three human-like beings onboard – two male and one female – each in a form of suspended animation. The shuttle brings the cases containing the bodies back to Earth but contact is lost midway and the craft lands automatically, with the three cases being brought to the European Space Research Centre in London (God knows why but there you go). Here, after several attempts to examine and revive the bodies, the female being wakes up and breaks out from the centre, but not before sucking the lifeforce from one of the guards. This alien ‘vampire’ is played by the French actress Mathilda May, and she spends the rest of the movie pretty much bare-ass naked in scene after scene of quasi-erotic encounters (though ‘Species’, thank God, this isn’t).
Eventually the ‘plague’ of the alien vampire virus spreads amongst the population of southern Britain, leading to riots and evacuations, as a team led by a British military officer (actor Peter Firth giving it his all) desperately tries to track down what they eventually realise is the source of the mysterious and terrifying outbreak – the female vampire. An explosive (literary) denouement to the story is reached in a church, with the female vampire seeming to escape (perhaps), against the background of a burning London.
Apparently going over budget and schedule the movie had numerous problems from the beginning with different directors and actors being offered roles later fulfilled by others, creating a somewhat unsettled feel to the whole thing. Heavily re-edited for its US release with the original music partially re-scored and much of the nudity and erotica toned down for mid-Western sensibilities, it failed to recoup its fairly hefty budget at the box office, which was a pity. With special effects ranging from ok to good, though ruined by the occasional cheap-looking set or design, and some good performances (Firth, and Patrick Stewart who pops up as a soon to be possessed doctor) that overshadow some awfully stilted ones (American actor Steve Railsback being the chief offender) there are many things to recommend in it. Some of the crowd scenes are reminiscent of ‘28 Days Later’ (2002) and much of the direction is exemplary if somewhat uninspired: Hooper was after all the director of Horror classic ‘Poltergeist’ (1982), even if this big follow up to that legendary hit pales in comparison (where is Spielberg when you need him?). Perhaps it is the rather dour British settings that somehow seem incongruous with the American style movie zeitgeist, big music and fast cutting scenes, when surface differences between Britain and the United States were far greater in that era than they are now? Or perhaps it is the fundamental weaknesses in the script and production, as different concepts and visions compete? Whatever the case, while not entirely failing, the movie never entirely succeeds.
‘Lifeforce’ is worth a look, if only to see what was then an unusual Sci-Fi, Horror mix (though not so unusual now, of course), and what can happen to even the best of intentions, or talents (step forward Hooper and O’Bannon). The film comes in a basic DVD edition, with little in the way of extras, and as usual with these things, that probably says more about the standing of the movie than anything else. Though, still, there is always Mathilda May in all her vampiric glory.