Reviews

'Lifeforce' Is a Rollercoaster Ride with Aliens, Vampires, Zombies and More

Although 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

Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth
Distributor: Shout! Factory
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-06-18

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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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