In olden times, comets were seen as portents of death and disaster, so goodness knws what they’d have thought of the Rosetta mission: the ambitious attempt to put a landing craft on the jagged bulk of a comet called Churyumov-Gerasimenko – a delicate procedure that ended in 2015. Our ancestors probably would have thought we were completely mad. Or in league with the devil for creating such advanced machinery in the first place.
Then again, who knows what they would have thought of Lifeforce, the 1985 film about an exploratory mission to Halley’s Comet, which inadvertently causes a trio of space vampires to attack London – and all from the director Tobe Hooper, who brought us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Lifeforce is, in short, one of the most bonkers science fiction films yet seen from a major studio.
That major studio was Cannon Films, perhaps the only company who would throw extravagant sums of money (a reported $25m) at a film about a naked woman sucking the soul out of Patrick Stewart. Having originally been offered to Michael Winner, the project landed in the hands of Tobe Hooper, who’d just made a three-picture deal with Cannon following the financial success of Poltergeist – his spectral collaboration with Steven Spielberg. It’s fair to say that Lifeforce didn’t have quite the mainstream impact of Hooper’s supernatural thriller.
Loosely based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, Lifeforce sees a group of British and American astronauts (aboard a space shuttle patriotically called Churchill) head into the tail of Halley’s Comet. There, hidden from view, they find a gigantic space ship that looks like a cross between a vegetable and an umbrella. Venturing inside, they discover long-dead, bat-like creatures, and even more strange, a trio of humanoid bodies, perfectly preserved inside crystaline containers.
The astronauts unwisely take these humanoid bodies back to the Churchill, only to discover that the beings are in fact a breed of vampire, which feed on life-giving energy instead of blood. Worse still, the space vampires – two male, one female – end up back on Earth, having killed most of the astronauts during the return trip. Only Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback) survived, having ejected from the shuttle in an escape pod while all the soul-sucking was still going on.
The vampires cause all kinds of havoc on Earth – particularly the female one, played by Mathilda May, who strides around in her birthday suit and partakes of the energy of everyone she meets. Her antics soon cause a kind of plague to break out in London, and Colonel Carlsen has to team up with a tough agent named Caine (another colonel, this one played by a macho Peter Firth) to stop the entire planet from descending into chaos.
For some, Lifeforce will be mostly memorable for Mathilda May, who must have been absolutely freezing for the entire shoot (in a documentary on the Arrow Films release of Lifeforce, May says words to the effect of, “I don’t know how I did it, and I’d never do it again.”) But there’s far more to Lifeforce than just salacious shots of a naked vampire striding about like she’s in a Jesus Franco flick.
For one thing, there are the special effects, which range from the not-bad-for-the-time to the extremely good. The outer space shots, where the Churchill explores the derelict space ship, were devised by John Dykstra, whose previous work included Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. This explains why there’s a genuinely eerie sense of adventure as the astronauts near the ship – even if the alien vessel was, according to Dykstra, inspired by the shape of an artichoke.
The Earth-based sequences are less precise, but equally enjoyable. The space vampires leave in their wake a trail of shrivelled bodies, created by effects supervisor Nick Maley and his team. One of them even explodes in a shower of dust and body parts. Although not all of these scenes are entirely convincing – there’s one moment where a shriveled corpse starts rolling its eyes and waving its arms about, and looks like something out of a ghost train ride – you constantly have the sense that the effects people were thoroughly enjoying themselves. John Schoonraad was one of the artists working on those prosthetic effects, and when we spoke to him back in 2012, he remembered creating the various wizened bodies in the back of an old converted ambulance.
The gleeful abandon extends to the script, which was co-written by Dan O’Bannon. Sure, it’s full of clunky dialogue (“It would be much less terrifying if you just come to me” is a beauty), but it has a way of moving breathlessly from one bonkers scenario to another that is quite mesmerising. This is also thanks to Tobe Hooper, of course. Remember all those extraordinary light-bathed scenes from Poltergeist? There are even more of them in Lifeforce, along with a really striking colour palette straight out of a Bava or Argento horror outing, from the acid green of Halley’s Comet to the chilly blue of London besieged by an astral vampire epidemic.
Cannon was keen to get away from its image as a peddler of genre B-pictures, and encouraged Hooper to change the film’s title from The Space Vampires to Lifeforce in order to make it all sound a bit classier. But Lifeforce is a B-movie to its very core, from its vampires-in-space premise to its avalanche of nudity to its conclusion, which sees Peter Firth offing aliens with a gigantic sword. It’s an exceedingly strange film, but Hooper seemed to know this, upping the warped humour he displayed in his earlier films (Texas Chain Saw was full of the stuff, as was Poltergiest) and revelling in all the exploding bodies and flashing lights.
What boggles the mind, even today, is how much money Cannon threw at the thing. To modern ears, $25m probably doesn’t sound like much for a movie with lots of effects in it. But consider this: Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, released two years before Lifeforce, had cost just a shade over $11.2m to make, and that had space battles and William Shatner’s ego to pay for. Lifeforce‘s rival picture Cocoon, directed by Ron Howard and released on the very same day in June 1985, cost $17.5m, and that was a warm family film with more than a reasonable chance of making all its money back with the right marketing behind it. To press this further point further, $25m is considerably more than Cannon spent on Superman IV: A Quest For Peace two years later, though by then the studio was having serious cash flow problems.
Those cash flow problems were due in no small part to weird ventures like Lifeforce. Going head to head against Cocoon in the US proved to be a tactical error, and the film ultimately clawed back less than half its investment at the box office. But Lifeforce did, like so many Cannon Films, enjoy an extended life on VHS, and has since gone on to become something of a cult gem. And with good reason; there’s so much to enjoy in it. Henry Mancini’s dramatic score, a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart uttering the words, “He’s been naughty”, the welter of mad special effects (if certain shots of London look like a model village, then that’s because they are) and yes, the spectral presence of Mathilda May. There really is no other film quite like it.
As these words are being typed, reports have come through that the Philae lander has just safely touched down on the surface of that incredibly hard-to-spell comet. Only time will tell whether they’ll find evidence of real space vampires. Until then, we’ll always have Lifeforce, one of the weirdest sci-fi films of the 80s.