Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
By William D. Carl
This week’s feature presentation:
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.
It’s summertime, and my series on the Golan-Globus years of Cannon Films continues with a movie that arrived with an enormously high pedigree. Based on a brilliant science fiction novel by Colin Wilson, directed by Tobe Hooper, one of the hottest horror directors on the planet, written by Dan O’Bannon, the man who penned ALIEN (1979), musical score by Henry Mancini (who won four Oscars and wrote scores for BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, 1961, THE PINK PANTHER, 1963 and VICTOR/VICTORIA, 1982), photographed by Alan Hume (EYE OF THE NEEDLE, 1981 and RUNAWAY TRAIN, 1985), and with special effects by John Dykstra (STAR WARS, 1977, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, 1979 and DJANGO UNCHAINED, 2012). A budget of $25,000,000 was awarded to Hooper, and the largest sound stages in London were rented to accommodate the gigantic and elaborate sets. What was the story these incredible filmmakers were set to create, using such a distinguished group of creators?
Naked space vampires attack London.
Yep, LIFEFORCE (1985) is a big budget B-movie that pulls out everything except the kitchen sink to entertain you. Hell, there may actually be a kitchen sink in the middle of this glorious mess.
When Halley’s Comet makes its side-swipe of Earth, a spaceship is sent to scientifically analyze the rock, but the crew instead discovers an ancient ship hidden in the tail of the comet. Steve Railsback (HELTER SKELTER, 1976 and THE STUNTMAN, 1980) plays Col. Tom Carlsen, and he makes the decision to lead an exploratory crew into the ship to investigate it, since it will be seventy-six years until the comet returns. The group invades the ship, which seems very organic and looks a lot like the pictures my doctor gave me of my colostomy! Near the spaceship’s “rectum,” they find desiccated corpses that resemble giant bats. Outside, the ship starts to unfurl a huge device that looks a lot like an umbrella, while inside, Col. Tom discovers three nude corpses, two men and one full frontal in your face female (Mathilda May, who bravely remains unclothed through pretty much the whole film, causing fifteen year old boys everywhere to instantly fall in love). The three space nudists are sealed in glass cases, perfectly preserved, so they are brought back to the ship for further examination.
Thirty days later, the same ship enters the Earth’s atmosphere. A fire has destroyed the interior, and it appears as if the entire crew has perished, but the three naked people are still in their coffins. So, the humans do what they always do in these movies—they bring the aliens back to Earth, to the European Space Research Center in London, to be precise. Did you know that an early word for ‘comet’ is ‘disaster’ which means ‘evil star?’ That’s what the news is saying about Haley’s Comet as it gets closer and closer to its flyby of Earth. Fun factoids like that abound in LIFEFORCE!
The casing around the bodies pops open, and Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay of MURDER BY DECREE, 1979 and CROMWELL, 1970) and Col. Colin Crane (Peter Firth of EQUUS, 1977, TESS, 1979 and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, 1990) intend to dissect the bodies. Before they can, one of the guards is compelled to touch the female, which makes her wake up and clutch him in an embrace of death. Green lights shoot around them as she sucks the lifeforce out of the man, leaving him a shriveled husk. It’s a terrific scene, scary and cool, and it allows for her escape. This is witnessed by Dr. Fallada and another man, Dr. Bukovsky, who is approached by the girl, who tells him to “Use my body.” And, yes, a naked girl walks right out of the space center, stunning several guards in the process with a lightshow of blasting electricity.
The Army is called in and informed that the escape pod was missing from the retrieved spaceship. The doctors decide to autopsy the weird husk of the guard, but Bukovsky is ill (uh-oh!) while Dr. Fallada believes that the girl (“The most overwhelmingly feminine creature I have ever encountered.”) is dangerous (duh) and loose in London. Meanwhile, those two naked guys blow up their crystal coffins and try to walk out of the building, even after being shot several times. The two male models, er, space vampire minions, are fed a grenade, which leaves nothing but little bits behind.
As the autopsy on the guard is about to begin, the husk sits up, moaning like a zombie, and it motions the surgeon towards it. Compelled, the man steps into its arms, and those wild blue lights start again as the surgeon’s life is sucked from his body and the husk grows back its skin to become the guard, all healed and confused now. It’s another terrific scene, with the guard looking incredibly happy and satisfied once he has returned, then he goes into shock as he sees what he has done. So, the abilities can be passed on, within two hours!
A naked girl is discovered in Hyde Park, little more than a husk, but it’s not the vampire. So now she has clothes and looks like anyone else. The guard who was revived goes crazy two hours later in his cell, and then, in agony, he withers into a husk and dies. Dr. Fallada says, “As I suspected, once the victims are transformed, they need regular infusions, otherwise…” And the huskish guard dies while the pathologist he attacked explodes into dust.
The desiccated girl they discovered in Hyde Park is hooked up to electrodes and strapped down in a lab. In a horrific scene, the scientists watch as she awakens and struggles with the bonds before exploding. At the same time, the spaceship’s escape pod re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere in Texas, and Col. Tom Carlsen is rescued and immediately flown to London. Tom relates what happened on the ship.
When the three specimens were transported aboard the ship, everyone starts feeling drained with the exception of Col. Tom Carlsen. On the trip back to Earth, the astronauts begin acting strangely, destroying the radio and controls, and then they start dying one by one, their very lives sucked out of them. Finally, Carlsen was the only one left, and he knew somehow that the girl was causing the deaths, so he torched the ship and launched himself in the escape pod. But, he also felt attached to the girl, almost as if he was leaving a lover.
Col. Crane is informed that a needle-like shape has emerged from the tail of Haley’s Comet and is headed toward Earth! Meanwhile, Col. Carlsen is having weird, erotic dreams in which the female vampire exchanges her lifeforce for his, giving and taking, making him into a creature like herself.
Dr. Fallada hypnotizes Carlsen, and he discovers the girl is in contact with Carlsen’s mind and vice versa, so Carlsen can see where she is. She now inhabits a different body, and she is searching for a man to draw energy from, but only enough to feed, not to kill. When she picks out a victim, Carlsen spots the license plate number so they can track her.
Meanwhile, that alien needle thing in space is getting closer. And it looks like a big space-asparagus.
Dr, Fallada starts discovering several parallels between the space vampires and the vampires of European folklore. Plus, the girl the vampire inhabits is a nurse at a hospital for the criminally insane, where Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and X-MEN, 2000) is the head doctor. Together, they visit the possessed nurse, and Carlsen discovers the vampire girl has stepped into another body. Carlsen roughs her up to find out where the creature has gone, and he discovers she is now inside Patrick Stewart! They dose him up with sodium pentothal before hypnotizing him to track the original vampire girl’s location. Of course, during the sessions, Carlsen is again struck with that same overwhelming sexual urge he gets whenever he is around the girl’s presence, as if she is the feminine in his mind, and this leads to a male/male kiss complete with crazy blue lights and poltergeist activity. Carlsen and the Army learn the infection is spreading through London. The two males didn’t die; they jumped into the two guards who shot them. Luckily, Dr. Fallada knows the true way to kill a vampire – by shoving a steel sword through the center of life, two inches below the heart, and he manages to kill one of them. The other male escapes into the city.
While transporting Dr. Arnold back to London, he loses all the blood in his body, and it escapes to form a figure of the girl, a great scene, gruesome and uber-cool. This is when Carlsen reveals the truth about what occurred on his spaceship, a tale of lust, murder, and spiritual awakenings.
Soon, London is on fire. Zombies and husk-monsters are running through the streets. The plague is spreading. The weird spaceship is swiftly approaching. NATO is called in and quarantines the city. The prime minister tries to life-suck his secretary! And the Earth’s future lies within the libido and sexual prowess of Col. Carlsen. Will true love be able to stop the spread of alien-vampirism?
LIFEFORCE isn’t perfect. Steve Railsback overacts shamelessly, chewing the scenery and spitting it out with a veracity usually relegated to low rent small-town Shakespeare Theater. Also, if you couldn’t tell by the synopsis, this is one complicated and convoluted plot. You really must pay attention to keep track of all the players on the board. This is, after all, a story about naked space vampires. It’s not King Lear.
However, the screenplay, especially in the extended director’s cut, is quite intelligent for a genre picture, even though it never quite gets as good as the novel on which it was based. It has an abundance of references to the Quartermass films of the 1960s, especially the brilliant FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967). Dr. Fallada is our Quartermass stand-in, and Frank Finley does a more than capable job.
The special effects range from very good to dazzling, especially in the insane ending when London erupts into chaos as the vampires collect lifeforces from humans. Henry Mancini’s music is full of great majestic marches, reminiscent of John Williams’ scores, elevating the movie to a higher level. Also, Tobe Hooper does a good job of reigning in all the various plot elements so that it all (almost) makes sense. Hooper has taken a lot of flack in recent years for becoming a hack, with such dreadful movies as CROCODILE (2000) and MORTUARY (2005) to his (dis)credit. LIFEFORCE, however, shows that the man could direct a big picture and that POLTERGEIST (1982) was no fluke. He frames this movie as a wink at the audience, providing ample scenes of monsters, destruction, sex, and just sheer audacity, while never taking himself (or the film) too seriously. These are, after all, say it with me, naked space vampires. All in all, it’s a campy, fabulous good time.
Scream Factory has released LIFEFORCE in a great Blu-Ray/DVD set filled with interesting extras. The complete version has also been color-corrected by Tobe Hooper, making this the best this movie has ever looked. And the sound is especially amazing on this disc. Crank it up for those final twenty minutes of insanity.
I give LIFEFORCE three naked space vampires out of four.
© Copyright 2013 by William D. Carl