Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce is an absolute trip. This 1985 science fiction picture is based on Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel The Space Vampires, which is a loopy tome that flips the script on the anticipated bloodsuckers and turns them loose in the cosmos. Hooper’s version of events features a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby.
After directing Poltergeist in 1982, the director signed a three movie deal with Cannon Films. Lifeforce is the first outing and it plays out like a teenage dream, with plenty of nudity and whacky space action to fill two hours. To make things more interesting, there’s a buoyant Henry Mancini score bouncing through the proceedings.
The film opens with the Churchill space shuttle encountering a strange vessel. Some of the crew boards and discovers hundreds of dead bats along with three humanoids in suspended animation. They recover the humanoids and return to Earth, but something goes horribly wrong. The female (Mathilda May) comes to and starts draining the life force out of everyone. She can shapeshift, by the way.
Later, an escape pod from the Churchill shows up and Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) pops out to explain what happened in space. He joins SAS Colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth) in tracking down the female as she begins to suck people dry throughout London. Also, the two male humanoids also escape and create chaos.
There are many plot entanglements in Lifeforce and it’s damn near impossible to sort them all out. The exposition provides some clarity, with the humanoids revealed as space vampires. There’s a catch, though, as these vampires don’t feed on blood like regular Earth vampires. They drain energy, leaving human beings as shrivelled husks when their wicked business has been completed.
What’s more, their victims also have to consume energy in order to go on living. Space vampirism is the gift that keeps on giving. Carlsen has the details because he shares a psychic connection with the female of the species, but he can’t explain much and can’t decrypt her chicanery when he winds up in an asylum run by Patrick Stewart’s Dr. Armstrong.
The scale of Lifeforce is something to behold. Everything about it is big and dumb, with plenty of streaming electric effects and wild makeup jobs to explore. From the zombie-like corpses strolling through London to the crazy energy emanating from the vampires and their victims, Hooper’s project is loud and extravagant.
To offset the lunacy spiralling through the fog, the British stiff upper lip is in full effect. The cast remains ridiculously ho-hum about everything, with the exception of Railsback’s character. He yells and screams with the best of them, but he’s an American so it comes with the territory. He’s at his best when he’s wide-eyed and trying to figure shit out.
May, meanwhile, has the job of remaining nude the entire movie. This makes things interesting on a number of levels, especially considering how much is going on. Lifeforce is not just a low budget trash heap, so the sheer volume of nudity is surprising. And it makes sense that such a sensual, life-draining being would spend most of her time in her natural state. Or whatever.
There are many metaphors one could pull from Lifeforce. The whole psychic vampire thing suggests emotional drain, with toxic people stealing energy from luckless victims. Hooper says it’s about a relationship between a man and a woman, which hypothetically speaks to the nature of psychological theft. Others have spotted metaphors for AIDS in the subtext and rightly so.
Irrespective of whether one views Lifeforce as a perplexing but hilarious slab of social commentary or one of the loopiest science fiction movies ever made, the finished product is a riot. Hooper once again takes the kitchen sink approach and the result is a splendidly excessive, hysterically daft slice of madness.