Crash Analysis: Why I Love LIFEFORCE (UK/USA, 1985)

MovieRoom2I hadn’t planned on writing a review (of sorts) about a thirty-year-old horror that’s been much maligned, but Lawrence Roy Aiken compelled me to do so.

Like many horror fans, Lawrence thinks Lifeforce is “awful”, and I admitted that it’s a guilty pleasure of mine. Yes, that means I’m admitting that the movie isn’t necessarily spectacular, but for reasons I’ll share, I find the film compelling.

When I went to see Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce I almost walked out before the opening credits. As soon as I realized that it was a Cannon Films and Golan-Globus Productions movie, I knew I should bail. After all, both entities had developed and released a multitude of cheesy, B-movie bombs from Delta Force to Superman IV. (Both companies failed to survive the 1990s.)

Then I saw a couple of things that gave the movie merit: The film was co-written by Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon, with music from the respected Henry Mancini. Furthermore, the man who helped bring special effects to an entirely new level with the original Star Wars franchise, Jon Dykstra, was also the master of effects on this project. Finally, and originally the most important element to me at the time, the movie starred the under-appreciated character actor, Steve Railsback. Therefore, I stayed put and indulged.

Lifeforce is about a UK/USA crew on HMS Churchill, a shuttle following Haley’s Comet. As they approach, they see something gigantic in the comet – a space ship. Of course, they must investigate, and when they do, they unleash an alien presence that could consume the world, starting with the city of London. Based on “The Space Vampires” from Colin Wilson, O’Bannon and Don Jakoby adapted the work. However, Wilson’s book is a total bore. Other than the opening, the remainder of the novel is equivalent to a stage play of two talking heads discussing vampirism. The book had no bite, but at least Hooper and company were set to inject life into the narrative.

Although Lifeforce was a major expense for Cannon Films, and even though Railsback told me that this was the largest production he had ever worked on, the movie has a definite “B” feel. Unlike other movies of that type, John Graysmark was diligent with production design, along with the art department, in helping to create or enhance a multitude of settings: a British shuttle, an alien spacecraft, a church, several offices and other interiors, along with many outdoor shots. Bringing the visuals together is the late, great Alan Hume, who handled cinematography for The Legend of Hell House, The Legacy, and one-hundred more films. The movie also stars several renowned actors, from Frank Finlay and Colin Firth, to future Enterprise captain, Sir Patrick Stewart.

Why do so many people hate this thing? A couple of the visual effects could certainly be better, but for most who’ve discussed it with me, they didn’t care for much of the jumping around (there are many locations and an abundance of characters). Others think the story got out of hand and ultimately came off as silly.

No, I don’t like the film because Mathilda May is walking around naked almost the entire time (she had completely divorced herself from the movie, and from what I understand, you couldn’t even mention Lifeforce in her presence. However, she now seems to have a new appreciation for what became her introduction to feature film.) What I loved about the movie is that it was a fun horror full of action and intrigue. Yes, I immersed myself in the story and went along for the ride. I loved Dykstra’s emaciated vampires, Railsback and Firth made for a great buddy team, Finlay crushed it as Dr. Fallada, and I got to go on a whirlwind ride. Plus, I liked the story overall. Simply put, Lifeforce was an ol’ time matinee blast – a real popcorn movie.

Why should you see it? Because it’s fun, dammit. Plus, for Sir Patrick Stewart fans, you get to see him get his first on-screen kiss – at the lips of Steve Railsback. And if you love the vampire subgenre, the tale is certainly different from the typical fair, so feel free to engage in something far removed from the Transylvania legend.

About ten years ago, I purchased an original, mint condition movie poster of Lifeforce for a mere $15 (US). Sure, I felt like I had made out like a bandit, but then I realized that if the movie had been well received, the price might have been through the roof. Still, it hangs proudly in my dark purple living room in a custom frame that cost almost ten times as much…

4.5 out of 5 stars

(Photo from Billy Crash.)

  • Randy Brzoska

    Great discussion of an oft-maligned great B-movie. Another Crash classic!

    • crashpalace

      Thank you, my friend!

  • My problem with LIFEFORCE is I had a hard time following the story. I saw the naked alien vampire lady, and, after that, everything was a blur. It’s been thirty years, though, and this review makes me want to take another look. Aside from the director, who seemed out of his sandbox in the sci-fi milieu, I had no idea about the film’s pedigree. That Dan O’Bannon had something to do with the script alone demands a re-evaluation. And Henry Mancini writing the score? If this is indeed a trainwreck, then it had the most splendid conductor and company. But, then, it might be the popcorn movie we didn’t know we were looking for.

    As always, I appreciate the contrarian view, without condescension and other insults to my intelligence. You and Bleeding Critic aren’t simply revolutionizing horror film criticism. You’re showing that one can write for the Web and do it better than the big houses with the smirking too-cool-for-school kids and their tedious faux-hip Gawker/Tumblr tweenspeak, e.g., blah-blah-blah BECAUSE REASONS, I CAN’T EVEN, wow, just wow, etc. It’s nice to hear from the grown-ups for a change.

    The poster is striking. I remember it featured prominently in the subway stations of Manhattan, along with posters for GODZILLA 1985. I had to smile at your other two choices. STARSHIP TROOPERS is, in my estimation, one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, and definitely the most underappreciated. Naomi Watts was never more beautiful than she was in MUHOLLAND DRIVE and…I better stop here. Thanks for writing this. Given your passion for LIFEFORCE, I’m surprised you didn’t write this earlier. Stop holding back! No matter what you’re on about, the bug up your ass is what delivers the goods every time.

    • crashpalace

      I cannot thank you enough for your comments. I am truly grateful. And I greatly appreciate you taking the time to read my work. And I’m certainly honored to be placed in the same group with the Clown Prince of Horror, Bleeding Critic.

      I got caught up in LIFEFORCE from the beginning and had no trouble following the tale. Who knows? It may have simply caught me at the right time. Regardless, if you watch it again, I’d love to know if it left a new impression – positive or otherwise.

      I could not agree more about your STARSHIP TROOPERS and MULHOLLAND DRIVE comments.

      And thanks to you, I may revisit other guilty pleasures and write about them as well. So many to choose from…

  • Jen Crews

    Hey Crash! I loved this movie! I watched it when I was a preteen and thought it was amazing. I know the story was a little all over the place, but I thought the visuals more than made up for the meandering narrative. It didn’t hurt that I’ve always been a fan of any tale about vampires! Until I watched this film, all of the vampire movies I’d been exposed to were the traditional blood sucking kind. I thought how the ‘Lifeforce’ vampires drained their victims of EVERYTHING, turning them into mummified husks, was super cool.
    I think this film definitely deserves a better shake. From what I understand, it ran over schedule and they ran out of money before all of the scenes were shot. It would be interesting to see if the story would have come together with those missing scenes.
    Ah, well. We’ll never know.
    Thanks for the great review!

    • crashpalace

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, Jen! I’m glad you liked the film – and the review.

      Like you said, we’ll never know what would have happened if they had more funding, but I still like the end result. Be well!

  • Alfonso Alvarado

    Late to the party, I know. Nevertheless, the bit about Mathilda May refusing to speak about the movie caught my attention. After watching her interview included in the Shout Factory Blu Ray, something certainty doesn’t add up regarding that statement.

    • crashpalace

      Hi, Alfonso:

      The party’s never over at Crash Palace! I truly appreciate your comment.

      Initially, May distanced herself from LIFEFORCE, and I will make an edit to reflect that.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for reminding me of this.

      Take care and enjoy,

      Bill

      • Alfonso Alvarado

        Thank you. I did not expect getting a reply so soon.

        As for the interview, the gist of it is that while Mrs May does ponder how she accepted
        the role in the first place and states that today she wouldn’t take it at all, she claims to be both proud of her work and the guts that took to film the scenes and embarrassed at the sheer amount of nudity it involved and how people can’t stop talking about it, even decades after the film premiered.

        She’s got a point here. As much as I like Lifeforce, I must admit that if it wasn’t for Mrs May’s naked space vampire character, the movie would have been forgotten like pretty much every other Cannon film from the late 80s.

        • crashpalace

          Hi, Alfonso:

          You raised an interesting point: Is LIFEFORCE remembered because of May’s nudity? I certainly hope not. As a Cannon feature, I had expected the absolute worst, but it may have been the only time where they had a film based on a decent screenplay.

          As an aside, when I see cheesy movies from SyFy, I often think of them as rock bottom budget Cannon fair.

          Thanks so much for your comments, and for the update on May’s take on the film that launched her career.

          Be well!

          Bill

          • Alfonso Alvarado

            Hi here.

            As for you inquiry… Well there’s a reason of why Lifeforce is also known as the “naked space vampire movie”. Heck, just googling “naked space vampire” gives us Lifeforce’s Wikipedia page as the first hit. What can be said? Mrs May’s character left an everlasting impression on everybody who saw the film. It can be a bit annoying for us who appreciate the movie not only for Mrs May’s, shall we say, assets (albeit it is a welcome bonus) but sadly that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

            I agree that SyFy’s original movies are where the spirit of Cannon Films lives on, more so than The Asylum, anyway. Sure, that film studio is the closest thing we have to Cannon Film nowadays but CF never relied solely in ripping off whatever is setting the box office on fire like The Asylum does.