A space shuttle mission investigating Halley’s Comet discovers an alien spacecraft with three dead humans inside. Are they dead and are they human?
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Tobe Hooper is considered one of the masters of horror films, having made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Salem’s Lot (1979) and Poltergeist (1982). Hooper, who was born in Austin, Texas, was a college professor and documentary cameraman in the 60’s. Hooper had shot many documentaries, commercials and short films before he made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which landed Hopper in Hollywood.
In the 80’s Cannon Films (now defunct) offered Hopper a contract to direct three films. The first was a sci-fi thriller called Lifeforce (1985). Based on a long and complex novel Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, Lifeforce was produced for $25 million, which was a huge budget. The original title for the film was Space Vampires, but the producers changed the fun title to a more serious sounding Lifeforce to the dismay of Hopper. Lifeforce didn’t make much money in the US, but was quite popular overseas. The film has now developed a cult status in the US and is being rediscovered, which it should be.
Lifeforce is a fun space vampire movie. A space mission aboard the space shuttle Churchill (an American and English team) is investigating Halley’s Comet and finds an alien spacecraft in the hood of the comet. While investigating the spacecraft they discover three human bodies, two men and one woman (Mathilda May), in suspended animation. They take the three back to the shuttle and make their return to earth. On Earth, mission control loses communication with the shuttle. As the shuttle nears Earth a rescue mission goes to the shuttle and finds the Churchill gutted by fire, but the three bodies in suspended animation are unharmed and are taken back to Earth.
Now the fun begins. The female is taken out to be examined. While waiting a guard is curious and goes in by her. She opens her eyes and drains the guard of his life-force. This is horrifying and amusing as the woman makes her escape and wrecks havoc. It’s amusing because she is naked through most of the movie. Mathilda May has a fabulous body and I’m not surprised the film was more popular overseas, since many countries are less puritanical regarding nudity than the US is. After she makes her escape, Col. Caine (Peter Firth) arrives from SAS and confers with Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) and Dr. Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) about how she drained the guard. An autopsy is started on the guard and while the doctor is performing the procedure, the dried body sits up and drains him. Now the guard is fully alive again. Dr. Fallada realizes that the woman and males are some kind of vampire. Once transformed, the victims become living-dead and must feed or they explode into dust. All will be lost if she continues to contaminate everyone she meets.
The team is informed that the escape pod from the Churchill has been found and there is a sole survivor, Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback). Carlsen and Caine set out to find and destroy the seductive woman. I love the deadpan delivery from the great British actors. Peter Firth started acting as a child. His big break came when he was cast as Alan Strang in Peter Saffers play Equus. He reprised the role in the film version in 1977 with Richard Burton and was nominated for an academy award . He is great as the unflappable Col. Caine and some of his line readings are wonderfully funny. Frank Finlay is equally entertaining as Dr. Fallada. Finlay another stage trained actor, has been in over 100 films, but for me my favorite performance is as Porthos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973). His Dr. Fallada is a dandy dresser and tells us all the important details regarding these space vampires. His character is engaging and interested in experimenting to the end. Patrick Stewart also turns up as Dr. Armstrong, a doctor at a mental institution.
The excellent underrated Steve Railsback is perfect at Col. Carlsen. He is attracted and repulsed by the beautiful space woman. Railsback’s specialty is portraying tortured characters and he doesn’t disappoint. Railsback gave a frightening performance as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter (1976) and starred in The Stunt Man (1980) with Peter O’Toole. He has always been a solid performer. His sad eyes and the cadence in his voice work well for this character. He is compelled and psychically connected to the space woman. All the acting is well done in this film.
What can I say about Mathilda May? The space woman needed to be alluring and seductive. Check! She has a great body and we see it throughout the movie. It is totally believable that Carlsen and anyone else would be sexually compelled to this woman. May’s body could be listed as a special effect. She wears clothes in only one brief scene. I love this! It is so brazen. Yet I don’t find it exploitive. The nudity disarms her prey. It has an original spin on the vampire myth. Even with all the nudity and some violence, the movie is pretty tame for its R rating.
All the production values are first rate. Henry Mancini wrote the score. Alan Hume was the Director of Photography. Hume’s credits include Return of the Jedi (1983), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Runaway Train (1985) A Fish Named Wanda (1988) and many more. The special visual effects by Star Wars John Dykstra are great. I really love the practical creature effects. No CG in this movie. The bat creatures are beautifully done and the people having their lifeforce sucked out are great practical effects. The screenplay was written by Dan O’Bannon who wrote Alien, Return of the Living Dead, Heavy Metal, and Total Recall knows how to write a fun movie with chills and laughs.
Have fun discovering Lifeforce (1985). Lifeforce is one of my favorite Steve Railsback and Tobe Hopper films. It has action, space vampires, a fun plot and a smoking naked woman. What else do you need in a sci-fi horror film?