|release date||June 21 1985|
|writer||Dan O'Bannon, Don Jakoby|
|starring||Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Nicolas Ball, Frank, Finlay, Mathilda May|
The Film: Tobe Hooper’s career has been head-scratching to say the least. His filmography contains everything from masterworks (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1& 2, Poltergeist) to the most half-hearted of efforts (Mortuary and Night Terrors). I often fail to grasp something resembling his signature style since every film is radically different in approach to the other. I have to admit, this has endeared me to Hooper all the more. If there is a movie that best embodies his highly erratic body of work, it has to be his most audacious; the sci-fi madhouse known as Lifeforce.
A space shuttle crew discover a mysterious spacecraft within Halley’s Comet. The astronauts find up three humanoids in suspended animation and decide to bring them back to earth for further study. They end up being space vampires who feed off of our lifeforce and cause a zombie-like plague. Lifeforce is Cannon Films and Hooper at their biggest and boldest. No expense was spared in what essentially is a B movie with an A budget. The craftsmanship on display including the visual effects supervised by the legendary John Dykstra (Star Wars) is of the highest level. You can’t keep your eyes off of the film…and for that matter, it’s lead antagonist played by the almost always nude and aesthetically perfect Mathilda May. She is the perfect embodiment of men’s desires. May somehow never sexualizes or sleazes up the role. Coming from a dance background, she gives the character an elegant, otherworldly presence. May perfectly conveys the antagonist’s dominance with stunning command. She was born to play this role. The cast is round out by a top notch British-lead ensemble which includes the likes of Peter Firth, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart. The sole American presence is The Stunt Man’s Steve Railsback whose performance is perfectly in sync with Hooper’s deranged, unpredictable tale.
It’s all rather silly and doesn’t make much in the way of sense. That may turn off some viewers…not for me. I adore every crazy direction the filmmakers unflinchingly head towards. I’m still in awe how the film goes from Alien-like territory only to end up concluding in what has to be the most ultimate batshit crazy zombie apocalypse to ever smash onto the big screen. I can’t think of many big budget productions that take as many risks as Lifeforce does. It’s uneven for sure yet I wouldn’t want it any other way. Lifeforce is all the more charming and irresistible for it.
Video/Audio: You will be pleased to know that UK’s Arrow Video delivers the definitive MPEG-4 AVC video of the International Versions. I didn’t realize the dirty state of the U.S.’s Shout Factory transfer (which I very much enjoyed) until marveling upon the pristine quality of this UK Blu-ray. They are both very close in appearance but it looks like Arrow took it one step further and made sure their transfer was as clean as possible. Like in the Shout Factory release, we get two audio options; DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0. I didn’t notice much in the way of difference.
On Shout Factory’s Blu-ray, the Theatrical Version is regulated to the special features section on the same disc. Its MPEG-2 transfer was better than expected but still offered lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Arrow rectifies this by putting the Theatrical release on its own separate Blu-ray. It features a first-rate MPEG-4 AVC presentation that matches the one seen in the International Version. Again, we are given two audio options DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0. They’re both stellar and big improvement over Scream Factory’s.
Supplements: Like in the U.S. release, you get the option of seeing either the above mentioned International or Theatrical Versions. The Theatrical cut was what I grew up on so I enjoy it for nostalgic reasons. Plot and logic (okay, not much logic) has been abandoned for the sake of an exciting breakneck pace. There is zero breathing room here. A great deal of Mancini’s score has been replaced with new cues by Composer Michael Kamen. It does give this version a feel of its own. While the Theatrical is a fun watch, there’s no question; the 15-minute longer International Version (insert incorrectly states 106 minutes when in fact it runs for 116) is king. Lifeforce is allowed to unravel at its natural pace. Story is much clearer this time around without sacrificing pace. The gorgeous space segments, not to mention Mancini’s immense score are restored to its full glory. It’s still not without its flaws but Hooper’s wild vision is better served with the International Cut.
Everything from the Scream Factory release minus the “Vintage Making of Lifeforce Featurette” and the’ Still Gallery” has been carried over. The theatrical trailers are in much finer shape in this UK Blu-ray. On top of the two pre-existing commentaries, Arrow takes it up another notch by adding one more track featuring Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Douglas Smith, moderated by filmmaker and scholar Howard S. Berger. Like Nick Maley’s, they not only discuss the creation of the film’s cool visual effects but as well as the present state of the visual effects field. The centerpiece extra is the exclusive 70-minute doc “Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce” that gives an incredibly-detailed look of the film’s challenging production featuring interviews with a slew of members from the cast and crew. These fresh perspectives offer even more insight for fans. This is hands down my favorite supplement.
Lifeforce is available in standard and Limited Edition SteelBook editions. Both feature different artwork. The SteelBook has the U.S. theatrical poster design and the rear has the UK artwork. The standard edition features a gorgeous, newly-commissioned piece of art by the very talented Gary Pullin. Arrow’s trademark reversible sleeves also contain another UK poster design (which Scream Factory thankfully does as well). As with all Arrow titles, you get a cool Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by science fiction expert, Bill Warren and a new interview with Dykstra by Calum Waddell. He doesn’t show up in any of the other features so it’s great to read his thoughts on the making of Lifeforce. It also contains handsome archival stills and posters.
Conclusion: Arrow has once again proven why they’re the finest home video company around especially for genre titles. In a time where folks are unfortunately downloading more and more, it’s great to see someone hasn’t given up the good fight. Special editions like the ones Arrow consistently spits out, give collectors and fans all the more reason to pick up physical copies. The care given to not only the transfers and special features but as well as the packaging is simply a wonder to behold. As in the case of Lifeforce, this 2-disc Blu-ray set is hands down, the definitive, last word on Hooper’s bonkers yet totally compelling slice of sci-fi epicness. To date, there is nothing quite like it and I’m consistently taken aback by the film’s go-for-broke spirit. I can’t recommend the film and its Blu-ray any higher. One of the finest home video titles of the year.
Note: This is a region 2-locked disc so you’ll need a region-free Blu-ray player to watch it. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re generally very affordable and well-worth the investment. Arrow’s catalogue to date is jam-packed with must-own titles.
I’ve always summed up Lifeforce for someone who hasn’t seen it simply as “space vampires”. The first time I saw Tobe Hopper’s 1985 film was in Austin, Texas, in 2001. It was August and I was sitting one row in front of Quentin Tarantino at his film fest at the Alamo Drafthouse. It was very late and I had been drinking. Needless to say, the movie fully disturbed me.
The screenplay written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, is based off the Colin Wilson novel, The Space Vampires. As ridiculous as that title may sound, it completely explains the story. Take the basis of the novel and add Tobe Hooper’s own touch of having a space mission exploring Halley’s Comet, and Lifeforce is what you get.
The crew of the space shuttle, Churchill, find a craft hidden within Halley’s comet. Inside the craft there are desiccated bat creatures and what appear to be three naked humans housed in glass chambers. The crew of the Churchill take these human like entities and start back towards earth. Of course, nothing goes right. And it ends up that these supposed humans are really aliens – and vampire ones at that. The beauty of Lifeforce lies in that they are by no means vampires in the classic sense. Instead of draining blood elegantly from a victim’s neck, these guys suck the lifeforce from people in an epic, lightning filled sci-fi spectacle until they become shriveled corpses.
Lifeforce, for me, is great because it is simply visually stunning. From the alien craft to the space vampires themselves to their victims, every element within the film is crafted with dedication and love. The alien craft is reminiscent of the Giger style from Alien, yet unique in its own way with the glass chambers. All of it was built out and no green screen was used. This is what is missing from many modern films – most everything in Lifeforce is real. The disintegration of the vampires and victims may look a bit hokey by today’s special effects standards, but the fact that everything was handmade makes it that much more admirable. Even the effects that are all hand drawn on film, frame by frame, make Lifeforce a more authentic movie for me than something made these days by being pushed through a computer.
The blu-ray contains both the theatrical release and a longer, “director approved” cut that includes 15 minutes of additional footage. The transfers are beautiful. The colors are brilliantly present and the effects are stunning. The sets look powerful and the puppets look lifelike the majority of the time. The disc is also full of special features that are all worth watching. Two commentary tracks – one with director Tobe Hopper and one with makeup effects designer Nick Maley (Academy Award winner John Dykstra Academy was the head of the special effects) – are both incredible with bountiful insight. Tobe Hooper, while not sounding overly animated, adds details and depth to what is already a great picture. His understanding of what a great film he made from start to end has not diminished in the 28 years since release.
There are also multiple retrospective features. Mathilda May’s feature, Dangerous Beauty, gives her introduction into film from her previous career as a baller dancer. She comments on Tobe Hooper’s demeanor on set, and how “classy” he was. Very interesting to watch and hear her thoughts. Hooper’s feature, Space Vampires in London, has the director giving the story of how he was introduced to Colin Wilson’s novel and was told to simply make the film. The film actually went into production at the same time the screenplay was being written. There is also a feature, Carlsen’s Curse, with actor Steve Railsback. Railsback apparently became friends with Tobe Hooper on the set of Helter Skelter, noting that Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) was in the film with him. Also, there is a vintage ‘making of’ featurette which shows some of the magic behind the puppetry and sets.
While Lifeforce was not a box office hit, it has grown to be a cult classic. For any fan of the film, the blu-ray is a must have.