Arguably, the illustrious Tobe Hooper is best known for directing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), an undisputed classic of horror cinema. Indeed, it’s impossible to ignore, obviate or diminish the importance of this groundbreaking film. A truly enduring piece of popular culture, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains as scary and shocking as it was nearly 40 years ago. And after six sequels, the most recent released earlier this year, the buzz of the saw continues to appeal younger generations of horror cinemagoers.
That being said, even though The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the most accomplished and successful film in Hooper’s uneven career, it patently fails to be a sophisticated or imaginative horror flick. On the other hand, even though Lifeforce (1985) is not as celebrated as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it offers a strikingly original combination of horror and science fiction elements. On a personal note, even though I fully appreciate and enjoy the creepiness and morbid elegance of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I firmly believe that Lifeforce is a more complex, stylish, and electrifying film.
Lifeforce is loosely based on The Space Vampires, a cultured horror novel written by Colin Wilson in 1976. At its heart, The Space Vampires is a dense gothic horror story that explores the idea of psychic vampires, in contrast to the stereotypical hematophagic bloodsuckers from traditional vampire narratives. These creatures are found in a dormant state inside a derelict alien spacecraft that is discovered by a crew of intrepid human astronauts.
Even though The Space Vampires has obvious horror and science fiction elements, the narrative is rich in convoluted philosophical arguments and existential subtexts. By all means, The Space Vampires is not an easy read. But nonetheless, this novel is an outstanding piece of horror fiction.
Right before production commenced in the early 1980s, the film was announced as Space Vampires. However, in a rather ironic twist of events, the producers decided to change the title to Lifeforce. As the legend goes, the producers considered Space Vampires as a very cheesy name. But then, they went on to replace most of the intellectualism of Wilson’s book with scenes of horror, carnage and destruction. In a self-descriptive world, the erudite book should have been titled Lifeforce, while the extravagant film adaptation should have taken the title Space Vampires.
In spite of jettisoning the complex philosophical baggage of the source material, Lifeforce offers a rather unusual apocalyptic tale of truly epic proportions. Inspired by the book, the film begins with an international crew of intrepid astronauts traveling towards Halley’s comet. Commanded by Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback), the explorers discover a relict alien ship hidden in the tail of the comet.
To make the connection with the apparition of the legendary comet across Earth’s night sky during the early months of 1986, the movie is set in that specific period of time. While the novel takes place in the late XXI century, Lifeforce immediately became a dated cultural product. Most probably, the producers solely made the change based on economics and the added expense of building a futuristic vision of London. But then again, in spite of being archaic by taking place almost 30 years ago, Lifeforce succeeds in exploring the primordial conception of comets as harbingers of destruction, disease, famine, and other maladies.
Inside the alien ship, the astronauts find two naked men and one naked woman in suspended animation inside transparent coffins. As it is revealed later on, these three humanoids are terrifying vampires that feed on the “life force” that resides inside every living organism. Needless to say, once these creatures are taken to London, all hell breaks loose.
The rest of the film challenges a fair description and categorization. You have to see it to believe it. Indeed, Hooper stylishly spent every cent of his $25 million budget to portray an apocalyptic scenario involving aliens, vampires, zombies, psychos, and blobs. From the scenes of the naked women wreaking havoc inside a government lab to the scorching collapse of London, Lifeforce feels like a wild rollercoaster ride. If anything, Lifeforce looks like what we would get if we collect the bizarre worlds created by George Romero, David Cronenberg, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Michael Bay, along with a fair dose of the Doctor Who, Quatermass, and Alien franchises, and we mixed them inside a high-speed blender.
In spite of its many blatant influences and inspirations, Lifeforce feels refreshingly original and satisfying in its desire to convey so much in a two-hour film. There is so much going on here that Lifeforce easily has enough intriguing ideas, action set pieces, and subplots to guarantee an exhilarating six hour miniseries. But truth be told, the dense storyline of Lifeforce not only is its major asset, but also its greatest liability. Indeed, it feels like Hooper placed everything but the kitchen sink on the screen. But as a side effect, Hooper clearly ended up stretching himself too thin and some loose ends can be found here and there.
Making things worse, the producers decided to slash nearly 15 minutes of its running time when it opened in American theaters. The resulting flick was an unmitigated mess that did not make much sense. And so Lifeforce got the stigma of a being a rather incomprehensible horror film that completely failed to engage audiences. As a consequence, Lifeforce became a major box office bomb and subsequently it was pretty much forgotten except for dedicated fans.
Thanks to our friends from Shout! Factory, Lifeforce finally can be appreciated as one of the most majestic horror extravaganzas in the history of the genre. The Blu-ray release includes both versions, the slashed American theatrical cut and the longer, director approved cut. Typical of this high definition format, the audio-visual quality is truly top-notch. The vibrant score composed by the legendary Henry Mancini explodes through the new DTS HD Master audio (by all means, Mancini’s music is one of the best movie soundtracks ever). An engaging audio commentary with Hooper, new interviews with cast and crew, and a vintage making-of featurette roundup a really nice Blu-ray package. By all means, this Blu-ray is highly recommended to eclectic horror and science fiction fans.