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.