Chris Alexander’s SHOCK TREATMENT: An Appreciation of Tobe Hooper’s 1985 Masterpiece LIFEFORCE

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ShockTreatment!

In this ongoing SHOCK column, editor Chris Alexander muses on classic and contemporary films and music worthy of a deeper discussion.

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I’m very happy to see that Tobe Hooper’s so called “lesser” dark fantasy classics are getting more respect. Sure, in his admittedly up and down 40- plus years behind the lens, he’s had more misses than hits. But even his lowliest efforts (CROCODILE, anyone?) have a kind of loose cannon style and wry, Southern-fried wit. And, once all is said and done, and as important and untouchable his 1973 exercise in Chain Saw wielding cannibal insanity is, I think his unclassifiable and ambitious 1985 sci-fi/horror epic LIFEFORCE stands just as tall. 

And I don’t think I’m alone.

Released the same year as cult favorites RE-ANIMATOR, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, (which Hooper was originally set to direct, in 3D no less), DAY OF THE DEAD and FRIGHT, Hooper’s mammoth magnum space opera has never commanded the kind of fan base that those deservedly praised films have. But conceptually, LIFEFORCE is the most sophisticated and ballsy of them all and stands as a towering document of an ever-so-slightly bent artist at the peak of his unquestionably creative powers, funded by a now-legendary pair of Israeli’s with money to burn.

After the success of his Steven Spielberg produced (and, if you believe the rumors, co-directed) 1982 horror hit POLTERGEIST, offers began flying fast and furious for Hooper. Eventually, the stogie-chomping Texan hung his Stetson on the hooks at the offices of Cannon Pictures, the company owned and operated by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globas, those bold boys behind endless Ninja numbers, Chuck Bronson vigilante dramas and Chuck Norris shoot ‘em ups (and the subject of thus far two documentary films) and secured an impressive, unprecedented three picture deal.

Those films included the splattery, gonzo sequel to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, a remake of the 1950’s alien invasion creeper INVADERS FROM MARS (which I initially disliked but has aged really, really well) and a big budget adaptation (and extreme simplification) of the 1976 Colin Wilson fantasy novel “The Space Vampires”.

The Cannon lads hired ALIEN vet (and eventual RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD director) Dan O’Bannon to pen the screenplay which would soon be – rather flavorlessly – re-titled LIFEFORCE. The expensive movie was shot mostly in England and utilized an impressive array of classically trained British character actors (including STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION’s Patrick Stewart in a really weird role that fans delight in reminding him of), giving it an impressively refined and linguistically cultured sheen.

The resulting picture however was anything but an immediate success, sharply dividing critics and fantasy film fans alike, with some citing it as one of the year’s best while others declared it the bomb of the century, though even its detractors seemed to kind of enjoy it. How could they not?

Flashback to when Leonard Maltin trashed it and yet, sheepishly recommended it HERE.

 

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LIFEFORCE details the dark drama surrounding the UK space shuttle Churchill as it crosses paths with an eerie derelict vessel that appears to resemble a gigantic, star-locked bat. Inside the winged ghost ship, the crew discovers an army of floating, desiccated and totally dead bat-creatures and, even more alarming, a troika of super-hot, nude alien humanoids encased in glass, all of which they erroneously opt to bring on board.

The beautiful ET’s turn out to be energy-sucking vampires and their curvy leader (the impossibly stunning French actress/musician Mathilda May) proceeds to lay waste to the Churchill’s crew, draining them dry, save for one lovesick sap, a one Col. Tom Carlson (HELTER SKELTER’s Steve Railsback).

The sexy galactic ghouls then make their way to earth and proceed to annihilate London, guzzling energy and turning their now-infected victims into blood and energy hungry zombies. At the centre of it all, the terminally confused Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) and Carlson (who shares an erotic, psychic link to May) race around trying to stop the escalating, apocalyptic madness.

The chief reason why many love LIFEFORCE is the same reason that others loathe it: the film is certifiably insane. It begins as an ALIEN clone, turns into a vampire flick, nods a few times to the Hammer film QUATERMASS AND THE PIT before morphing into a living dead drama, then becomes a clock-racing plague/epidemic thriller. All the while, the film refuses to acknowledge the hysterical silliness of its hyperactive, totally nuts narrative, choosing to play itself out instead as a deadly serious piece of glossy, grim pulp fiction.

Even if you don’t fall squarely under LIFEFORCE’s unique spell, there’s no denying that John (Star Wars) Dykstra’s blazing lightshow visual effects are still phenomenal and Nick Maley’s dehydrated zombie puppets are tactile and terrifying. And the performances are fascinating and wildly eccentric. They range from flat-out fantastic (THE PIANIST’s Frank Finlay is mesmerizing), to frenetic (Railsback is wild eyed from frame one), to unforgettable (May is femininity personified). The fact that more often than not, none of these actors seem to be co-existing in the same universe only add to the delirious fun.

 

Hardcore LIFEFORCE fans have long been savvy to the fact that there are two radically different versions of the film in circulation. There’s the original Cannon/Hooper 116- minute cut featuring a rollicking orchestral score by Henry Mancini and the 102-minute version prepared for American distributor Tri-Star. The Tri-Star version was the one widely distributed on VHS by now defunct label Vestron in the 1980’s and I think it’s the best of the two. The tighter running time perks up the pacing; the completely inappropriate opening voice over by CHAIN SAW narrator and future NIGHT COURT star John Larroquette is removed, as is some laughable last reel dialogue between Firth and one of the male vamps (“It will be much easier if you just come to me”); there’s more zombies-in-London action (and the edit reveals the zombies earlier, which adds some welcome foreshadowing to the final reel mayhem) and most importantly the score is considerably different.

While Mancini’s lavish suites and cues are certainly majestic, the Tri-Star version replaces a lot of his material with an incredibly eerie, ambient strings and synth noise soundscape by the late composer Michael Kamen that adds deeply to the picture’s creep factor. The version that was widely available on DVD and Laserdisc from MGM was the original edit and for a long time, that Vestron tape (see my musing on that tape here) was something of a collectible. Maybe it still is. A couple of years ago, Scream Factory licensed the film from Sony/MGM and released both versions on Blu-ray, complete with acres of special features.

That edition is essential. Find it.

But no matter how you see this incredible motion picture, the bottom line is to simply see it. It’s a breathtaking entertainment and testament to a time when people with cash trusted awesome madmen to make movies, with unpredictable, alarming and enduring results.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qej5nlRb9VM

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Weekend: Sep. 19, 2019, Sep. 22, 2019

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