You know, I said I was going to stop writing about horror so much. But that was before I found out about the Final Girl Film Club, which just seems like too much fun to pass up. Basically how it works is a bunch of us film nerds agree to review the same obscure horror film on the same day, thus fostering community, attracting new visitors to our respective sites, and generally making the internet just a smidge more similar to having actual friends. (By the way, If you haven’t seen Stacey Ponder’s little new-media empire, which in addition to the aforementioned Film Club includes two blogs, assorted facebook gruppen, and an agreeably DIY webseries; it’s all well worth a look. Provided you like horror. Which if you don’t, by now you’ve probably already clicked through to one of our Disney Princess posts.)
So this month’s movie is Lifeforce, generally known as “that Tobe Hooper movie with the space vampires.” You could remove the “Tobe Hooper” designation without losing much specificity (although of course there are other space vampire movies). But what kind of movie is Lifeforce, really? Well, it’s a camel, which as the saying goes is a horse designed by committee. It’s sci-fi! It’s horror! It’s a vampire movie! It’s a zombie movie! It’s a knockoff of 2001! It’s a knockoff of Alien! It’s kiiind of a knockoff of Highlander, in one or two scenes? And it’s a huuuge knockoff of Species, or rather Species is a knockoff of it. And as you might imagine, it does none of these things particularly well. I dunno, I guess it gets the “Species” formula right. But since the Species formula is just “breasts + (scifi+horror)/2 + (bald, classically trained, British actor who really ought to know better)+ (more breasts) = profit,” I’m not going to give Lifeforce – or Species – too much credit for hitting that particular nail on the head.
The plot breaks down like this: the space shuttle Churchill, on a joint British-American mission to Halley’s comet, finds an enormous spaceship made out of apparently biological materials. (This, by the way, is the only real similarity between Lifeforce the movie and Lifeforce the NES game. Alas.)
Inside, they find the dessicated carcasses of giant humanoid space-bats, and then, in an interior chamber, three human bodies, perfectly preserved in glass cases. They decide to bring the bodies back with them. Obviously this dooms everyone on the spaceship, but I can’t really fault them for genre-blindness in this case. I mean, they’re astronauts: going up in space and bringing back stuff from space is literally their job. What are they supposed to tell mission control? “Yeah, so we found incontrovertible evidence of extraterrestrial life? But then we kind of got the jibblies? So we left it all back on the comet?”
Anyway, at this point we switch perspective to mission control. The Churchill has entered earth orbit on autopilot and can’t be raised on the radio. When NASA and BNSC send up a rescue mission, they find that the shuttle has been gutted by fire, destroying everything onboard except for the three human bodies, which are eerily untouched. Because, uh, space vampires. Yeah. Naturally the rescue mission decides to bring the caskets back to earth. And naturally, the space vampires come back to life and start to do some damage.
I won’t explain exactly how this goes down, because there are some nice scary moments in this section of the movie that work better as surprises. I will, however, mention that there are also lots and lots of breasts. (Well, there’s precisely two of them, but in Heraclitian terms it works out to WAY more.) I’d like to be able to say that the nudity is gratuitous, but in this case it’s really not. The whole point of this section of the movie – probably the point of the movie itself – is to associate female sexuality with death and decay. The more sexualized the woman, and the more freaky the gore effects, the more the film succeeds in its particular mission. For better or for worse, Hooper delivers on both fronts.
Now, by any rational standards, the movie has already gone completely off the rails. But Lifeforce requires a brand new set of standards. It still has to make it’s detours into classic zombie
and Highlander and/or Exorcist
territories. Plus it turns out that one of the astronauts from the beginning isn’t dead after all, having apparently remembered to hit up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-b-a-b-a-start before the Churchill got blown up? And now he’s psychic for some reason? And having weird sex dreams about the character credited only as “Space Girl,” which is where the movie justifies throwing in all the traditional vampire imagery that otherwise wouldn’t make any sense, because clearly, making sense is what this movie is all about?
Anyway, Tom the psychic astronaut (played by Steve Railsback, who went on to star in “Quake,” “Slash,” Zigs,” and “Nukie”) and Colonel Colin Caine (a British government agent played by Peter Firth) start tracking the escaped space vampires down, only to learn that the aliens can hide inside people’s brains. There are fewer breasts, but the psychosexual weirdness quotient hardly even dips. The title of this post is a direct quote, as you could probably guess, but it doesn’t come close to winning the embarrassing dialogue prize. That goes to an exchange between Colonel Caine and Major Tom,* delivered while they interrogate a woman who has information about the Vampire hideout. I may have gotten some of the specific phrasing wrong here, but trust me when I say that I have captured its awkward, awkward core. The “Life Force” of the conversation, if you will (but I hope to god you won’t).
Tom: “This woman is a natural masochist! She wants me to force the information out of her! I can see it in her mind!”
[He pulls her shirt off revealing some half-healed scratch marks on her back]
Tom (to Caine): “You might want to leave the room.”
Caine: “That’s quite all right. I am a natural voyeur.”
And that’s about all I have to say about that.
Oh wait! There was one more thing! The bald, classically trained, British actor who really should have known better! (Of course it wasn’t Peter Firth: he has hair.) That’s right, Patrick Stewart is in this for about five minutes as the director of a psychiatric hospital, criminally underused in a role that basically requires him to scream, die, and have a plastic bust of his head made for this one special effect sequence right here, which to be fair looks pretty damn realistic and awesome if you don’t freeze-frame it.
Honestly, if they’d stuck him in the psychic astronaut role, Lifeforce would be a much better movie. Maybe not quite good-good, but definitely a much higher grade of bad-good. I don’t think even Patrick Stewart could pull off that “natural masochist” line, but wouldn’t it be fun to see him try? As it is, Lifeforce is… well, it’s never dull, certainly. But it’s never quite as fun as you’d like it to be, either, and there’s just too much stuff going on for it to really be scary, except for some of those early scenes. It needed to be either a *little* bit more crazy, or waaaaay way less crazy. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t enjoy this movie – I’m not made of stone, man! – but if you’re going to see just one thoroughly daft horror film with wall-to-wall bosoms, make it Lair of the White Worm instead.
* Tom the Psychic Astronaut is actually a Colonel, but this would have been pretty awesome.