Retro Review: Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985)
Lately, I've been getting a kick out of The Strain TV series. I haven't read the novels, but I enjoy how Strain's creators Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan have reimagined vampires into hosts of wormy, body-mutating parasites while being true to the key details that make vampires what they are (e.g., blood-sucking, fear of sunlight, preference for sleeping in coffins, etc.). It's also cool that The Strain depicts vampires as a disease-like epidemic; in fact, long before George Romero started the first zombie plague in his 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead, Richard Matheson depicted a vampire plague in his 1954 novel I Am Legend.
If you're impressed as I am with what The Strain has done with vampires, then you might want to take a look at another unique depiction of the notorious night creepers: Lifeforce, the 1985 sci-fi thriller that was directed by Tobe Hooper. Read on for my review of this odd, spectacle-driven vampire tale.
Lifeforce begins with the crew of the space shuttle Churchill on a mission to Halley's Comet. As they get closer to the comet, they find a derelict alien space craft that is massive in size and organic in shape. Inside the ship, the crew finds the dead bodies of bat-like aliens and three humans who appear to be in hibernation. The crew brings the humans back to the shuttle, and then the shuttle stops communicating with Earth for over a month. When the Churchill finally arrives in Earth's orbit, another shuttle is sent up to investigate and only finds the hibernating humans--the crew members are nowhere to be found. The humans are brought back for study, and it turns out they are not human at all; they are mind-controlling, shape-shifting aliens who feed on the lifeforce of people, and they set a terrifying plan in motion to make Earth their next all-you-can-eat buffet.
Bats from beyond: the true form of the space vampires in Lifeforce.
Essentially, Lifeforce is a movie about space vampires, putting forth the idea that the legend of vampires came from space aliens that visited Earth a long time ago and had attributes similar to vampires. In fact, the novel that Lifeforce is based upon actually has the title Space Vampires, but the movie's producers did not want to use that name because they thought it sounded too much like a B-movie. (Fun trivia fact: Space Vampires is also an alternate title for The Astro-Zombies, a Z-grade horror cheapie from 1968.)
The idea of vampires from space is not an original one, even back in 1985. The subject had already been explored in movies such as Planet of the Vampires and Queen of Blood, as well as in sci-fi TV shows such as Star Trek. Much of Lifeforce's plot mechanics and atmosphere also owes a great detail to Hammer Film's Quatermass movies, especially Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth).
Yet what Lifeforce lacks in originality it mostly makes up for in gonzo spectacle. The company that produced the movie, Cannon Films, saw this movie as a high-concept project that could launch Cannon into higher-profile film projects. Thus, the film was given a substantial special effects budget and practical effects guru John Dykstra was brought in for the space scenes and the finale where London collapses into explosive chaos.
Dykstra's effects deliver and they still look fantastic even today, but what really makes Lifeforce stand out against other vampire movies is how it depicts its monsters' feeding process. Early in the film, one of the space vampires feeds on a guard; instead of typical fanged vampire bite, an amazing sphere of blue electrical light emerges from the vampire and victim and the victim shrivels into a shrunken, desiccated corpse. Soon afterwards, the corpse reanimates and feeds on a doctor, temporarily restoring the guard to his original state while draining the doctor into another corpse.
Above: Two mummified victims of the space vampires.
Below: A space vampire victim feeds on a new victim of his own.
Unlike zombie films where the rotting cannibals are usually played by actors wearing gore makeup, the corpses in Lifeforce were animatronic puppets. They were designed by makeup artist Nick Maley and the most elaborate puppet was controlled by a team of over 20 operators. (Director Hooper jokingly referred to the puppets as "the shriveled dead".) The feeding scenes, between vampire and victim and victim and victim, are unnerving to watch and (in my opinion) are the creepiest scenes in the film. It's a shame that the space vampire victims devolve into more traditional zombies towards the end of the movie, because I think that Lifeforce could have gotten much more body horror mileage out of the withered, undead corpses.
Unfortunately, once the space vampire awake on Earth, Lifeforce becomes an unfocused, jumbled mess. Most people who have commented on this movie over the years largely remember it as "that film with the naked vampire chick"; Mathilda May, the actress who played the lead space vampire, spends most of her screen time nude. (That's right: The producers didn't like the Space Vampire title because it sounded like a B-movie but were OK with Lifeforce having gory special effects and excessive nudity, two of the hallmarks of low-budget exploitation filmmaking. Go figure.) Nevertheless, if you're a vampire fan who's looking for something different in your blood-sucking entertainment outside of the standard garlic-and-holy-water routine, you'll want to give Lifeforce a look.