Saturday, October 6, 2012

Overlooked Gems #43: Lifeforce

Grade: 66 (B)

Tobe Hooper never got the career he wanted, much less the one he deserved. Hooper always wanted to explore more than just the horror genre, but he never managed to follow up his 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre satisfactorily. His 1977 cannibal movie Eaten Alive was a disappointment, his strong TV film of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot didn’t open doors the way he wanted, and his self-aware slasher film The Funhouse was too weird and grisly to be a big hit. Even when it seemed Hooper got a break directing Poltergeist, most critics gave the credit to producer Steven Spielberg, whose fingerprints are far more evident on the film. Hooper’s next step was to direct three films for schlockmeisters Yoran Globus and Menahem Golum’s Cannon Films, including a poorly received remake of Invaders from Mars and a twisted black comedy sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Perhaps most notable of Hooper’s three Cannon Films productions is the flawed but well-directed and amusingly bizarre Lifeforce, a film that might have been a bigger hit had Cannon not recut the film. Oh, also if it had been released under its original title: The Space Vampires.

The shuttle Churchill discovers a spaceship inside Halley’s Comet, inside which they discover dead bat-like creatures and three naked, seemingly human bodies in suspended animation. Thirty days later, mission control discovers the crew of the Churchill dead and bring the three bodies back to earth. There, the bodies reanimate and suck the life force of several men and women out of their bodies, which then turn into vampiric zombies that require feeding every two hours. Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) and lone Churchill survivor Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) set out to stop the space vampires from spreading all over the earth while Carlsen discovers he has a psychic connection to the lead vampire (Mathilda May).

Simply put, Lifeforce is nuts. Its premise is crazy, and it features May in a performance that “requires” her to be completely nude for most of the movie. The film’s story is a bit all over the place, as Hooper and screenwriters Don Jakoby and Dan O’Bannon (the writer of Alien) are mixing and matching various horror/sci-fi styles: religious horror movie, effects spectacular, Romero zombie movie, and classic vampire tale, with horror-buff Hooper blending elements of Alien, Poltergeist, Dracula, and Night of the Living Dead into a crazy concoction that couldn’t possibly be anything other than a mess.

But the film is a glorious mess, somehow both cheesy and scary, ridiculous and serious, excessive and classical. The excellent cast (Firth, Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart) give the film much-needed gravitas, while Hooper mixes his Hitchcock/Universal Horror influences with the special effects tricks he learned on Poltergeist, for which he perhaps deserved more credit in its subversion and mix between Spielbergian wonder and classic horror. Lifeforce maintains a nutty charm and energy throughout even when its plot flags. There’s nothing quite like it, and it’s a sign that Hooper should have had a chance to be more than just “that guy who did Texas Chainsaw”.

EDIT: This film is on Netflix Instant, so for the love of God please watch it.

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