In the pantheon of naturist astro-Dracula cinema, very few films outclass Lifeforce. Replete with astronauts behaving like they never graduated middle school and cosmic Nosferatus forgetting their pants, Lifeforce appeals to the galactic Van Helsing in all of us.
This 1985 science-fiction horror extravaganza was directed by Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The film was adapted for the screen by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead) based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson.
Steve Railsback (The Stunt Man, Helter Skelter, Ed Gein) plays Col. Tom Carlsen, commander of a joint British/American mission to explore Halley’s comet. When their craft, the Churchill, arrives at the comet the crew discovers a 150-mile long alien spacecraft with three naked human-looking beings on board in suspended animation (Mathilda May, Chris Jager, Bill Malin). Evidently having never seen any movies like this before, they decide to take the aliens on board their craft for return to Earth.
On the flight home things go rapidly from bad to worse to “Ellen Ripley” and the Churchill returns to Earth gutted by fire, everyone on board dead and one escape pod missing. All that remains intact are the three (still naked) cometeers.
The rescue team decide to quarantine the orbiting craft until a research facility can be built on the far side of the moon to protect humanity from any potential fallout of examining humanoid creatures of unknown origin who probably killed every living thing on the Churchill.
I’m joking of course. Naturally, they bring the aliens straight to London. I had you going for a moment there, didn’t I?
When the brain surgeons and rocket scientists (well, they are) in London attempt to investigate the aliens, the female springs to life, begins sucking the lifeforce out of pretty much everyone and escapes into the night, hopping from host body to host body as she goes.
Meanwhile, Col. Carlsen has returned to Earth in the missing escape pod with quite a tale to tell. Apparently those hot naked aliens are some sort of space vampires who drained the crew during the return flight. Thank God Col. Carlsen managed to set fire to the ship and escape to warn Earth before they did something stupid like bring the aliens to a major population center. Whoops.
While Carlsen (now taunted in his dreams by visions of the space vampire succubus) and his crew of foppish British sidekicks comb the countryside looking for the alien girl’s host body, the two male vampires escape and get the zombie apocalypse train rolling in London.
Yadda yadda yadda, arrival of giant artichoke-shaped alien spacecraft in Earth orbit, mass zombification of Londoners, transfer of their bland, flavorless, overcooked lifeforce energy to said spacecraft and a final confrontation between Col. Carlsen and his space vampire lady friend, the end. Or was it? Yes it was.
On paper, the combination of Dan O’Bannon, Tobe Hooper and Colin Wilson should have been horror gold. Between Hooper’s grisly no-holds-barred directing, Colin Wilson’s Lovecraftian eldritch dread and O’Bannon’s rock-and-roll science fiction sensibility and love of boobies, Lifeforce had everything a good horror production could want.
But, like a good child thrust into the care of a wicked, uncaring and hopelessly cheap and tacky stepmother, Lifeforce was cursed with two burdens that few films of the era were able to survive: producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, whose cinematic crimes are far too numerous to enumerate, but suffice to say that when you think break-dancing ninjas battling delta force commandos, think Golan-Globus.
Fundamentally, a film like Lifeforce depends on good taste. No, wait, stay with me. Good in the sense of understanding your form and delivering it with verisimilitude. Lifeforce is deep fantasy science fiction like Heavy Metal or Alien. Films like this demand a good deal of suspension of disbelief, and Lifeforce never seems to miss an opportunity to break it.
I’m not just talking about rubber vampire skeletons and cheeseball light show special effects. This was the 80s and many of John Dykstra’s visual effects are quite good. Rather, I’m talking about the little production details that inhabit the uncanny valley between suspension of disbelief and stark incredulity.
Take, for example, this scene in the “operating room” of a local hospital, whose door is clearly an interior/exterior townhouse door with a hand-painted “surgery” sign. And get a load of the colonial-reproduction wall sconces and the complete lack of medical equipment (clip begins at 1:00).
Or try this scene, where the female vampire claims her first victim. Count the number of doors the admin has to run through to get to the lab from his office and try NOT to hear Yakety Sax playing over Henry Mancini’s theme music (NSFW, nudity, clip begins at 0:00).
From EVA space suits with two-piece tailoring (really?) and utility uniforms with deerskin felt boots (yeah, really) to space program directors who dress like diamond merchants and an allegedly spaceworthy escape pod that’s about the size of two large exercise balls, the production design feels like a piece of popcorn trapped between your teeth, ever pulling your attention away from the story and characters, such as they are.
But for all its sins, Lifeforce didn’t skimp in the one area whose importance towers over all the rest. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Matilda May’s naked body is pretty much a miracle of nature. And you get plenty of time to get a good look at it. So, full marks for space boobies.
Lifeforce is available on Netflix Streaming and is all over the YouTube.
Update, 9:51 a.m., May 6, 2020: This post has been updated to remove several broken video embeds.
Jason Shankel is a writer and creative developer from San Francisco who regrets that he never had a chance to thank Mr. O’Bannon for Trash’s graveyard dance sequence in Return of the Living Dead. Well played, sir.