June 18, 2013
The summer of 1985 was a chilly one for Hollywood executives, with box office grosses declining 160 million dollars from 1984′s take. In his Los Angeles Times moratorium, Jack Mathews blamed the lack of an all-ages “sequel to a blockbuster” for the downturn, with the adult arterial sprays of Rambo: First Blood Part II sitting atop the charts. Franchise hopefuls Explorers and Return to Oz tanked, while even the successes (The Goonies, Cocoon) didn’t crack $100 million. The family dollar was being kept in-pocket. It was inauspicious timing for exploitation operation Cannon Films to release one of their few big-budget items, the eroto-horror whatzit Lifeforce. They signed Tobe Hooper, fresh off of Poltergeist, to direct, Henry Mancini to write the score, and John Dykstra (Star Wars) to head the effects team. Instead of a Spielberg theme park ride, they delivered an obsessive head trip in 70mm, one which details the ways in which quivering men fail to satisfy a voracious (alien) woman’s sexual desire. Ravaged by critics, Janet Maslin memorably described it as “hysterical vampire porn”, and it made only $11.5 million on a $25 million budget. It comes out in a loaded Blu-ray today from Scream Factory.
Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were Cannon Films, and they signed Tobe Hooper to a three-picture deal following the success of Poltergeist. To sign the contract Hooper dropped out of Return of the Living Dead (1985), for which screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien) took over as director. In their first meeting Golan and Globus handed Hooper the novel The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. The production began a few days later, with Hooper fondly remembering how they “bypassed all the usual development things you have to go through.” One of those “development things” they went without was having a completed script. Hooper hired O’Bannon and Don Jakoby to write it, but it was far from finished by the time the compressed shooting schedule began.The tight schedule also frustrated the effects team led by Dykstra, who later complained that a rushed film processing job introduced flaws into the delicate optical printing work (read more about his analog techniques in the film here).
If Golan and Globus expected the Spielbergized Hooper of Poltergeist, they were to be disappointed. What they got instead was the uncompromising horror nerd who made Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper recalled his own attitude as, “I’ll go back to my roots, and I’ll make a 70mm Hammer film.” Recognizing Colin Wilson’s novel as a variant on The Quatermass Xperiment, he made Lifeforce with ripe colors and riper melodramatics, his actors adopting the postures and tones of his favorite Hammer icons. Frank Finlay, for example, in his character of Dr. Hans Fallada, takes on the epicene inquisitiveness of Peter Cushing. The title was changed to Lifeforce and the producers cut down the film for US release by 15 minutes and replaced Mancini’s score, but it didn’t help at the box office. Hooper believes that changing the title was a mistake, that everyone then, “expected it to be more serious, rather than satirical. It isn’t quite camp, but we intended it to be funny in places.”
The film starts as exploratory sci-fi, with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) leading a British-U.S. space mission to investigate Halley’s Comet. As they float on wires through matte-painted backgrounds worthy of Forbidden Planet, they discover the corpses of hollowed out devil bats. Then they enter a crystalline chamber modeled on the diamond-shaped alien pod from Quatermass and the Pit (1967), where they find three perfectly preserved human bodies, one a well-proportioned woman (only known as “Space Girl”, Mathilda May) who exerts a hold on Carlsen, even in stasis. Here the horror begins, as this female is, yes, a space vampire, sucking the life force out of anyone in her path. Once she and her two male companions (including Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris) reach Earth, they leave piles shriveled up human husks in their wake, which realistically twitch in the animatronics by Nick Maley.
Space Girl embodies female desire without socialized restraint, ignorant of Madonna/Whore complexes or slut shaming. She knows what she wants and she gets it. After she escapes a government facility, one of the doctors is asked how she overpowered him. He responds: “She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I’ve ever encountered.” If this were a male character, he would be a raffish romantic lead (Gerard Butler maybe?), but as a woman she could only be a (nude) world-devouring hell beast. It’s a thankless role for Mathilda May, who is tasked with striding naked with a zombified gaze for two hours, but she does get to cow the men and their toys.
The male characters are either insular pedants or macho creeps, playing with their spaceships or microscopes but utterly befuddled at the presence of an unprepossessing nude woman. Railsback is in a perpetual cower, prematurely embarrassed at his inability to fully please the Space Girl. By the end he’s sweating and flinching so much he becomes Renfield to her Dracula. The only time he can gain some measure of control is by injecting her with gallons of sleep serum, and that’s only when she’s taken over the body of Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard). She speaks through Stewart’s mouth, ““I am the feminine in your mind, Carlson”. Railsback then kisses Stewart, in one of the more radical moments in 1980s Hollywood cinema. Railsback is, very literally, embracing his feminine side.