Gather ’round children of the night and hear the story of Lifeforce, a movie so weird that we’re still talking about it almost forty years later. It has everything you would want from a vampire movie and much, much more. There’s not a single thing about it that’s ordinary or plain. This is what makes it so intriguing and difficult to describe. So, let’s just dive into it and see what happens. What you’re about to witness is a story of horror, full-frontal nudity, odd artistic choices, and just general craziness. And I recommend you do see it for yourself before reading any further.
First of all, you should know that Lifeforce is based on Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel The Space Vampires. Well, there you go, that’s your first clue that you’re in for a treat. Oddly enough, space vampires first made it onto the screen in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, back in 1965. And I don’t think I need to mention Dracula 3000, from 2001, one of those hilarious so bad that they’re good movies. Wilson hated the movie saying “Well, at least there’s lots of full-frontal nudity.” Although I agree with him, there are many other aspects that I want to talk about.
It starts as an outer space movie, then turns into a vampire movie, then into a zombie movie, and finally into an end-of-the-world movie! You would think this is enough but wait, there’s so much more. Directed by Tobe Hooper, best known for his cult classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is supposed to be Alien with vampires. The script, after all, was written by Dan O’Bannon who wrote not only the original Alien, Aliens but also Total Recall. Tobe, however, said that it’s actually exploring the issue of men dealing with the feminine mystique or the feminine terror. Plus discovering the feminine inside themselves. And discover it they will.
Cannon’s Biggest Production To Date
Ahh, Cannon production group, we meet again. I’m so happy that I can write again about these guys after talking about them in Cyborg  – A Detailed Look Into B Movie Gold. Five years before that disaster, they were still full of hope and optimism. And they saw Lifeforce as a chance to move to a higher level. They wanted to make the biggest movie of that year, a summer blockbuster with a big budget. Up until now, they’ve been known as the guys who were making low-budget action movies. So, they’ve signed up Tobe Hooper and spent a whopping $25 million trying to change that. This included the title change from the original The Space Vampires to much more palatable Lifeforce.
In my opinion, Hooper fucked them over, making a highly conceptual and bizarre movie. A movie that was nothing like the thing they originally wanted. It actually was much more similar to their usual brand than a “Spielberg blockbuster”. I mention Spielberg because Hooper’s last movie was Poltergeist, produced by him and a huge hit all over the world. On the other hand, Hooper said it was a pleasure to work with Golan and Globus. The funniest thing is that they’ve signed a three-movie deal with him. The other two movies were Invaders from Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. And both of them are just as wacky.
I highly recommend you check out Electric Boogaloo The Wild Untold Story Of Cannon Films documentary about these guys. And if you buy the Bluray edition of this movie, you will also get Cannon Fodder: Making of Lifeforce. At one point, the movie even ran out of money and filming had to be stopped. However, Golan and Globus were determined to make it so they just kept saying to Hooper keep going, keep going. And kept sending him more and more money. And that money arrived in suitcases, which is nothing strange for Cannon productions.
Hooper’s Cocaine-Fueled Vision of Lifeforce
Given free reign by the production team, Hooper set out to make something truly unique. According to John Grover, who worked on a movie as an editor, half of the crew was high on cocaine most of the time. And this includes Tobe Hooper, who was also chain-smoking and drinking Dr. Peppers constantly. I have to say that I have immense respect for him and his methods. He’s a true artist, a visionary working on a higher level and creating something that will be remembered.
For example, it was his idea to place the ship in the tail of the Halley’s Comet. Mostly because the comet was going to pass by Earth one year following this movie’s release. He wanted to make a tribute to old Hammer movies and once I realized this everything fell into place. First of all, the movie is full of these reaction shots that look completely out of place, even in a movie as bizarre as this one. Whenever something terrifying happens people around the event just stand back grimacing in horror.
Secondly, there are all these chunky scenes that make up the bulk of the movie. Originally, the scenes on Churchill took up whopping 35 minutes of the movie. It’s speculated that the Hammer Film Productions’ Quatermass and the Pit served as an inspiration for this movie. Their gothic horror movies were popular in the fifties and sixties, featuring all kinds of creatures of the night. However, I have to say that Lifeforce is far too peculiar to be called a straight-up Hammer homage.
The Cast of Lifeforce
Envisioned as the big movie of 1985, the crew set out to recruit the biggest names in cinema for this project. First Anthony Hopkins turned them down, then the deal with Terence Stamp fell through for some reason, so they kept searching. John Gielgud and Klaus Kinski were also set to appear in the movie but ultimately didn’t. Since Hooper shot Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself hit video he tried to get him on but failed. Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris, replaced him, ultimately doing a surprisingly good job as one of the main vampires.
After all this, you would think that the cast of this movie consisted of nobodies but you couldn’t be farther from the truth. Although these are actors that are not that familiar to today’s audiences, they were one of the most popular at the time. Frank Finlay was one of the best British actors along with Aubrey Morris and I don’t think that Patrick Stewart needs much introduction. Actually, Finlay was made Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire during the filming. At the ceremony, Queen Elizabeth II asked him what movie was he working on and he was too embarrassed to say Space Vampires.
The same goes for our two leads, Steve Railsback and Peter Firth. The entire cast of the movie took their roles extremely seriously. Hooper was particularly impressed with the British actors and how committed they were. Same as our lead here, Railsback, who was in character for several months. Morris recalls how, as time went on, this started to take a toll on him. He became the guy he was playing in the movie. The production itself was an incredibly difficult and grueling process, especially the outer space scenes.
The Space Girl
The key element of Lifeforce was The Space Girl, so it was incredibly important to cast the right girl for the role. A girl who would spend most of her on-screen time completely nude. All of the British actresses considered for the role didn’t want to disrobe, so they had to continue searching elsewhere. They even had a group of girls flown in from Germany but that turned out to be a complete disaster. Finally, after interviewing over a thousand potential space girls they’ve found the one. Her name was Mathilda May and she was French.
The only problem was that she didn’t speak English so she had to learn her lines phonetically. However, that didn’t matter much as this 18-year-old had a perfect body and was willing to be completely nude. Actually, that didn’t bother her too much and she was quite comfortable with nudity. There are photos of her chatting backstage with the rest of the crew wearing no clothes totally relaxed. The crew was the ones who were uncomfortable as they were trying not to stare at her perfect body.
This also explains an unusual number of carpenters and electricians that were present when she was on set. Something that forced the production to close the set when they were shooting her nude scenes. One of the lucky ones was make-up Artist Nick Maley who spent weeks and weeks applying makeup on her body to make it even more perfect. He says it was his favorite part of the job. I bet it was, Nick, I bet it was.
The Nudity in Lifeforce
Years after the release of the movie, Tobe Hooper said that when someone asks him about Lifeforce, the first thing that comes to his mind is “a very succinct and timid Mathilda May.” And I think most of us will give a similar answer. Something that’s quite surprising considering the fact that she has only seven minutes of screen time. On the other hand, almost all of that time she’s completely nude. It’s funny that the censors didn’t have a problem with female full-frontal nudity but the male was a no-go. This meant that other vampires had to wear flesh-colored socks to hide their junk.
Speaking of censorship, much of the footage containing nudity simply could not be used. The infamous walk down the stairs was so pornographic in nature that editor John Grover simply could not believe it. “I absolutely gasped. I’d never seen such a pornographic shot. Not for a commercial film in those days.” To get around this, they added shadows in post-production and edited the footage so it doesn’t look as graphic as it did. This brings us to the whole pubic hair issue. What, did you think that a movie like this wouldn’t have such an issue?
When they first started shooting, they waxed May’s entire pubic area thinking it would “look less rude”. Hooper also wanted her completely hairless. Obviously, as soon as the filming started, they could see her entire vulva making the shot extremely graphic. Not to mention the fact that this made her look even younger. Finally, Hooper caved in saying “Well I want the pubic hair as short as possible. And lighten it up. I don’t really want to see it.” Also, during the autopsy of the blonde woman scene, pay attention to her pubic area.
The Mind-blowing Visuals
Apart from nudity and zany story, the impressive visuals were also one of the important components of this movie. There are four elements to the visual effects in Lifeforce: Optical Special Effects, Prosthetics Crew, Wire Crew and Set Design Crew. They hired John Dykstra, who just left ILM after working with them on Star Wars, to do the optical special effects. You have to remember that special effects were much more difficult to create at the time. And I think that the work they’ve done here is among some of the best I ever saw. They used laser beams refracting off a mylar surface to achieve the effect of moving and bending light.
The prosthetics crew made more than 500 freaking molds. These were all the severed arms, legs and masks that you see in the movie. They were also responsible for the impressive-looking giant bat creature and all the mummy zombies. I know that by today’s standards they look quite rudimentary but they have a certain charm about them. The Wire crew was the same one that worked on Superman movies, trying to create the illusion of weightlessness. A crane, with two guys operating it, was in charge of one astronaut. And you had scenes where there’s four of them really close to each other.
Finally, the set design crew worked for six months on the design of the ship, which looked like a giant penis. The inspiration was, of course, H.R. Giger’s vision for the Alien movie. Too bad the work they did barely shows up in the movie. And I didn’t even mention the huge sets for the Space Shuttle on gimbals, miniatures that stood in for London, bulky spacesuits with air-conditioning in them, and all the other shit that we just don’t have the room for.
Is Lifeforce a Real Vampire Movie?
On the face of it, the main story in Lifeforce has many similarities with the original Dracula story. Both vampires arrive in England on a ship whose crew they used to feed themselves. They also hunker down at a place of religious worship and form a special bond with a chosen human. And while the list goes on for a bit, there are some parts that are wildly different from the usual vampire lore. First of all, there are no vampire teeth here or bloodsucking as such. These Space Vampires seem to be able to suck out the lifeforce out of you through some unknown process.
Secondly, they can inhabit other people’s bodies with their spirit. I know that there’s some mind-control in the original story but this is a totally different thing. Thirdly, you have the whole shriveling up part complete with a very strict time limit of two hours before you die. And finally, you kill these vampires using a leaded metal shaft penetrating not through the heart but through the energy center two inches below the heart. Now, all we need to do is find some leaded metal shafts. I think that Mr. Rob Halford may have some for us.
Apart from being able to suck the life out of you, vampires can also break windows and materialize using the blood of their possessed minions. Yes, outer space blood vampires are tight. This reminds me of another science fiction movie featuring a comet, 1984 Night of the Comet. I also can’t help but mention the fact that in the second part of the movie, the vampires turn into zombies without much explanation.
So, Just How Weird is This Movie?
It’s so weird that it features the first on-screen kiss for Sir Patrick Stewart. With Steve Railsback no less. It’s so weird that after the Railsback character starts beating the shit out of a woman, he says don’t worry she’s into extreme masochism. Caine who stays to watch this questioning saying that he’s a natural voyeur. The shifts in atmosphere, tone, and pacing are constant throughout the movie.
The first part is the slow-paced and meticulous exploration of the intriguing alien vessel. I simply loved this, it’s very similar to the Alien and you keep thinking okay, this is going to be an awesome outer space horror movie. Then we go back to Earth and almost immediately shit hits the fan. People start turning into mummies, main vampires escape and all sorts of problems start popping up.
The last quarter of Lifeforce consists of frantic, violent and at times cheesy action. The entire London is burning and those mummy-like creatures become full-blown zombies wandering the streets. The lifeforce of the entire planet is sucked towards the sky as we slowly get closer to the grand finale. And I didn’t even get to mention any of the hilarious lines like: “She’s totally alien to this planet and our life form… and totally dangerous.” and “Don’t worry, a naked woman is not going to get out of this complex.”
As you might have guessed, the movie was panned by both the critics and regular viewers at the time of its release. Despite its lavish budget and big names, it failed to be profitable making only $11.6 million on a $25 budget. It also, sadly, turned out to be the last big Tobe Hooper movie. It was forgotten for decades, languishing in the sea of strange eighties movies. However, over the last twenty years, it developed a cult following.
This was crowned with the glorious Bluray release in 2014 featuring a lot of additional material. We also finally got the opportunity to see the director’s cut of Lifeforce containing, of course, more nudity and extreme violence. Moreover, it features the original structure of the movie, as Tobe envisioned it all those years ago. So we get a lot more exposition and find out what happened to the crew of Churchill much earlier.
Today, more and more people are willing to take a look at this eighties oddity, considering it a guilty pleasure. And how could it not be with that much full-frontal nudity, silly action, stilted dialogue, and all the other insanities it features. To me, it’s a special movie that combined the things I love in an unusual way. And we here at Rabbit Reviews, and when say we, I mean I, like unusual. Ten years after the release of Lifeforce, we got another very similar movie that unfortunately didn’t feature any vampires. Species, however, featured an extremely beautiful, succinct 18-year-old Natasha Henstridge.