Following the enormous success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist (with the enjoyable The Funhouse in between doing pretty well too), Tobe Hooper signed a three film deal with Cannon Films, the company famed for their flurry of crazy films through the 1980’s. Both parties had big ideas of adapting the subtly titled novel Space Vampires to shake their respective images as horror director and exploitation film studio, and this $25 million blockbuster was released… To near indifference, as it received mixed reviews and made back less than half it’s budget at the Box Office. What may have been forgotten about slowly became a cult hit, with a high-concept blend of sci-fi & horror, eventually prompting the dependable Arrow Video to release a special edition Blu-Ray. Does it deserve to remain forgotten or is it an under-appreciated gem?
Opening with blockbuster intent, the powerful score accompanies some spectacular scenes of asteroids and a space shuttle, as the British/American crew of the Churchill investigate Halley’s Comet. There’s a brilliantly handled mixture of suspense, mystery and a strong visual flair to the whole section of the film that takes place in space, as the investigation unearths alien activity in the form of a famously nude Mathilda May. The camera floats around dreamily, really helping to sell the zero-gravity effect, plus showing off the set designs with their vast & desolate, yet visually striking presence. The effects in deep space shots have inevitably dated, but rather than looking objectively bad, there’s an almost cel-shaded, unique quality to many of them that I felt enhanced the otherworldly feel of this section of the film. Returning to earth rather abruptly we’re left to discover the fate of the Churchill’s crew at the same time as the search party. I try to avoid spoilers but let’s be realistic; if the novels’ titular “Space Vampires” sat playing Monopoly with the humans there wouldn’t be much of a film. Their intent is slowly revealed throughout the film, in a surprisingly clever Rashomon-effect manner, relying on characters’ revelations. Though according to they’re being honest or true or being deceived the “truth” can change. With a film that already merges different genres together, adding this element of mystery really creates a unique experience. True to the horror element however, the means by which the Vampires acquire their sustenance has some horrendous results, with some genuinely shocking moments and fantastically unpleasant practical effects.
With the basic synopsis being; Tobe Hooper directs Cannon Films’ movie where space vampires are brought back to earth from Halley’s Comet, only to break free and cause chaos around London; it would be easy to assume that this is on some level a campy film, or at least has moments of humor. However, it is rare any of the uptight British characters or the tough-talking Americans crack a smile, let alone the film having any moments of comic relief. It’s an entirely straight-faced, sombre affair that would have so easily misfired into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory if it wasn’t so masterfully pulled off. For the most part, the cast are excellent, with some unexpectedly esteemed faces including (later Sir) Patrick Stewart. It’s a shame however, given everything that the first two acts work so hard to achieve, that the third veers into the territory of yet another _____ of the Dead clone. It may have been budgetary constraints, as I’m sure the near-apocalyptic sequences in London were intended to be more exciting and more unique than what we’re ultimately presented with, and the alternative would have been having the big events unseen which would be even worse. It manages to narrowly avoid descending into visual gags and the like, so while this is by far the weakest part of the film, it isn’t destroyed in these moments. Thankfully returning to point towards the end, the crescendo of the film is as unpredictable and exciting as much that precedes it.
I often see debate surrounding Tobe Hooper’s quality as a director, with some passing off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s most terrifying and difficult to watch moments as happy accidents; the result of the poor technical aspects of the film rather than masterful direction; and perhaps the same people perpetuating the belief that Poltergeist was practically directed by Steven Spielberg. Whatever truth lies in these stories, Lifeforce for me certainly adds another impressive entry to his early catalogue. Rather than reinvent Cannon’s label as exploitation masters, Hooper has managed something perhaps even harder; to make the signature excess and gratuity seem classy.