WARNING: some images below are NSFW
(Said in dramatic, hushed tones.)
“Now she has clothes.”
Unfortunately none of this movie’s good parts come with clothes. NSFW images within.
I really liked Return of the Living Dead. It was definitely a broad strokes kind of movie, one that called for another draft with more finesse, but the strokes were awesome. It was written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, who’s also credited on Lifeforce. Not only that but Lifeforce was directed by Tobe Hooper, the director behind Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He’s also credited as having directing Poltergeist, but it is all but accepted now that Spielberg was running that particular show. Still though, good individual components at play in this film.
The resulting project really asks who the real cannibals are. Er, wait, that was the ending of Cannibal Holocaust. Lifeforce is every bit as confused as the thematics of Cannibal Holocaust however. It’s an absolute mess of a movie, with only a few redeeming flecks of campy potential and cool content.
I really wanted to like this movie. Return of the Living Dead was awesome; Tobe Hooper is no lightweight, and space vampires. Space vampires should be awesome. The movie is about a seductive space vampire. Tobe Hooper described it as his 70mm Hammer film. Basically it was a schlocky low-budget type script called The Space Vampires that got a blockbuster treatment. It lost the studio a ton of money in the end. There’s a lot of misspent potential all over this movie. It opens with a Rendezvous With Rama meets Alien discovery of a spaceship nuzzled inside Halley’s Comet. Inside the massive ship, the Comet hunting astronauts find a swarm of desiccated bat creatures and three naked humanoids trapped in crystalline coffins. One female, two males.
They take the humans back to earth. Except the spaceship lands and it’s burnt out and the crew is dead. The government covers up the details and takes the three crystal coffins in for tests. Just as they’re about to cut open the female she sits upright. She kisses her foe, draining his lifeforce and leaving him a dried out husk. She then wanders around stark naked killing people. Some of this is pretty spooky. Some of this is goofy, especially when we get a collection of leering security guards admiring Mathilda May’s admittedly notable figure. The movie never seems to want to let on that it’s goofy. Here’s the thing, when your monster is a ridiculously nude women kissing people to death, you’re officially in campy territory. No matter how many blockbuster stylings you port over, your script needs to have done a load of heavy lifting to make up for the ludicrousness of sexy naked space vampires.
The script for this movie is a complete mess of a situation. By the time Dan O’Bannon and Dan Jakoby were brought in to do their draft, there had already been eight previous attempts. Eight. That is a seriously bad sign right off the bat. Dan O’Bannon may be a semi-significant name, but Dan Jakoby has had a career that doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia page. It’s also been hinted at that Michael Armstrong and Olaf Pooley did substantial uncredited rewrites after O’Bannon and Jakoby had handed in their script. The result is a mess of a script with a few hints of good ideas and a few good moments, but no structure or thematics to speak of.
The only thing you could even hope to take away from this movie is hands down a thematic exploration of the evil and manipulative nature of womankind. Maybe if you were being super charitable you could ascribe it some theme about losing control or something. Basically I don’t think any of these themes are intended. Even though the themes in Return of the Living Dead don’t go anywhere there are clearly attempts being made. Alien has similar broad themes later finessed. Lifeforce has no such attempts, which leads me to suspect whatever Dan O’Bannon contributed might have been altered substantially. Not that I think he’s a maestro of meaning or anything, but the evidence suggests he might have attempted to make parts of the film about something.
I think part of the problem is blockbuster syndrome. It’s easy to imagine a version of this movie that leaned into the theme of obsession more. That presented a simplified cat and mouse game between the Mathilda May vampire and her prey instead of a ridiculous manhunt leading into a disaster movie, which is what the movie starts to do after the halfway point. Instead of just focusing on that, the movie brings us explosions and a weird saggy foray into a mental institution that ends with Patrick Stewart making out with a dude. Actually that part is funny, but the complete lack of tension post the halfway point of the film completely kills any of the horror movie tone it was attempting.
Really the redeeming qualities are the hilarious vampire ideas and the first half or so of the movie. The stuff in space is eerie. The initial hunting and investigation of the vampire is almost as creepy and sexual as it’s trying to be. Mathilda May, apparently selected out of a thousand or so auditions (very few of those wanted to be nude though which I guess was the main problem) legitimately exudes an unsettling presence that extends past her measurements. She has dramatic Hammer horror film vampire eyes and just a spooky sense of power. It’s better than it should be.
A lot of the effects are good too; the budget Cannon poured into this movie, ultimately without reward, shows. The spaceship and the lifeforce draining stuff, and the vampire-zombie things. A completely formless script just undoes any of this potential good. There’s no tension, no meaning, no pacing. One or two good stretches and then just vast quantities of nothing flecked with like two good moments. Even the finale is a complete letdown, despite really pushing into the realm of ridiculous. It’s absolutely horrible blockbuster group-grope as applied to a non-blockbuster concept. There’s something good hidden in there, but it’s completely obfuscated.
Up next: some herbs and their kin.