From the universe’s worst stomachache to the sad fate of a tri-breasted Martian hooker, Dan O’Bannon is easily one of the greatest names ever to be associated with cinematic sci-fi horror. The idea of combining his concepts and words with the occasionally brilliant (and lots of times not) Tobe Hooper certainly has its promise, but Lifeforce, their 1985 big bucks collaboration, is rarely considered a hidden gem.
The film opens with an intriguing voyage exploring Halley’s Comet. Led by Col. Carlsen (Steve Railsback) a team of astronauts takes a detour to a mysterious nerve end-looking spaceship that houses a few dried-out bat people and a trio of gloriously nude humanoids encased in Superman II-like crystal coffins. The ‘samples’ are brought back to earth, despite most of the crew members dying before landing. It doesn’t take long for the hot bodies to reveal their real motives, namely, sucking the energy out of horny men.
The two male specimens are eliminated fairly quickly, leaving the very beautiful, very naked Mathilda May to glide through a government research facility and hop into other passing bodies. Carlsen returns in an escape pod to share what he knows about the she-beast, including her powers to lure men into all sorts of self-destruction. He’s soon joined by Peter Firth’s Col. Caine on a hunt throughout England for the woman of his nightmares.
Forty-five minutes into the review (and movie) and I haven’t even reached the mental asylum, zombie riot, or Steve Railsback planting a wet one on the lips of Patrick Stewart. See, Lifeforce is an ambitious film, one that cost a whopping $25 million (remember, these are 1985 dollars), only to be buried by the feel-good old people sci-fi, Cocoon. The real shame is that had the film been thought out on a smaller scale, it would probably have been a whole lot stronger.
Tobe Hooper has one of the most frustrating careers of any director, let alone a “Master of Horror.” While he will forever remain the maestro responsible for what may very well be the scariest American horror film of all time, his work has never come a meat hook’s reach near his debut, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The idea of a wizard of grit handling a big budget space opera-meets-vampire zombie tale is certainly promising, but Lifeforce is such a scattered mix of set pieces that it never lets you feel its scale.
Early space scenes set a grand tone, and a narrated flashback makes us long for more. On earth, Lifeforce has some amusing ideas (dried out reanimated corpses that sound like dying dinosaurs are dated, but fun) but loses steam, something not helped by the blandness of the duo charged with saving the world. By the time England becomes a playground for infected cannibals, even the sight of a crusty faced nun and wayward headshot can’t really tip it over into fun territory.
At its core, Lifeforce is a simple story of a seductive alien vampyress kissing her way back into space. The concept sounds like a blast, but the film simply lacks any form of joyous spark. O’Bannon’s screenplays have worked when serious (Alien), worked when goofy (Return of the Living Dead), and soared when in between (Total Recall) but here, the material just sort of limps. Hooper seems to try so very hard to deliver a respectable Friday night hit that he abandons any hint of smile. That’s a problem when your main onscreen asset is a naked woman whose best moment comes when possessing Captain Picard.
I didn’t hate Lifeforce. I’m just disappointed that I didn’t enjoy it. There are some high points to admire (including a darn classy Henry Mancini score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra), but the film seems so intent on being smart, it forgoes anything scary or fun. This doesn’t work so well when virtually every special effect ages like soured milk and the basic story, though interesting, has been redone to death by the SyFy Channel and countless Species incarnations. Lifeforce remains something different and worthy of a watch, but sadly lacks almost any of the charms you know reside in the brains of its makers. Like Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, sometimes the best ingredients don’t always yield the most satisfying end result.