Hot off the heels of his most successful effort to date (POLTERGEIST), director Tobe Hooper was offered a three-picture deal by Cannon Films during its lucrative reign by cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. The three titles included Hooper’s remake of a 1950s matinee classic (INVADERS FROM MARS) and the first sequel to his signature film (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2), but the first of these was an adaptation of Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel, The Space Vampires. With a screenplay written by ALIEN’s Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby, the film was an ambitious science fiction epic with the notable talent to pull off the needed visual dazzle and intricate storytelling, and the budget was somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million, which was a lot for an independent company at the time. A summer box office failure in the U.S. (where it was shown in a truncated, re-edited version), LIFEFORCE has naturally gathered a sizable cult following over the last 28 years, and has been screaming for a digital release for over a decade. Once again, Scream Factory steps up to the plate to deliver a special edition (and a new HD transfer) which is what LIFEFORCE fanatics have been waiting so very patiently for.
With a crew made up of British and American astronauts, the space shuttle Churchill is on a mission to explore Halley’s comet when a mysterious, long vessel is discovered hidden in its corona. What lies inside is dozens of petrified bat-like creatures and three naked aliens (one female and one male) – which seem human in appearance — kept in suspended animation in clear glass cylinders. The crew decides to take the three humanoids back to Earth, but during their return home, contact is lost with mission control and a rescue party is sent out. Weeks later when Churchill is located, it’s been severely damaged in a fire, with the entire crew shriveled up corpses, but the three aliens remain safe and preserved in the containers, and they are transported to the European Space Research Centre in London. It is there that they are observed by the nervous, chain-smoking Dr. Leonard Bukovski (Michael Gothard, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) and the death-obsessed scientist Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay, THE DEADLY BEES). During the night, the female alien (lovely French actress Mathilda May, THE JACKAL) awakens, only to suck to the life out of the on-duty guard, turning him into a dried up prune. Dr. Bukovski tries to stop her, but her overwhelming sexuality prevents him from doing so, and she makes a rowdy exit from the building, still totally in the buff.
The scientists are now of the belief that the aliens are of a race of space vampires that remove the “lifeforce” from their victims rather than blood, and they are also able to “shape-shift” which the female does as she’s somewhere on the outside wreaking havoc. In the meantime, with the entire crew of Churchill believed to have perished, an escape pod containing American astronaut Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback, THE STUNT MAN) safely inside lands in Texas. The frazzled Carlsen is immediately brought to London where he can describe the events and why his companions were drained of their lifeforce, stating that he himself set fire to the ship to save the Earth from devastation. Fallada puts Carlsen under hypnosis, learning that Carlsen shares a psychic link to the very attractive female alien. Colin Caine (Peter Firth, EQUUS) of the British SAS is brought in to investigate and teams up with Carlsen to try an unearth the vampire alien woman, which is not going to be easy, knowing her shape-shifting abilities; but Carlsen’s psychic connection to her will help them greatly. All hell then breaks loose in London, as the two male aliens also have escaped, and the three lethal aliens have now caused a massive plague which has transformed a majority of the population into zombie-like, parasitic beings spreading their virus through their need to absorb life.
A Golan-Globus British production shot at Elstree Studios, with a lot of bits done on location, LIFEFORCE has some top-notch talent behind it, making for a an energetic and costly B movie campfest. This includes lush cinematography from Alan Hume (veteran of numerous British classics, including some of the Roger Moore 007 films), eye-catching special visual effects by John Dykstra (the special photographic effects supervisor on STAR WARS) and a grand, fully-orchestrated score by legendary composer Henry Mancini, as well as a cast of familiar character actors (some who tend to ham it up quite a bit). While the plotting and dialog can be heavy-handed, the film is highly entertaining in an odd sort of manner and the storyline is a fairly original sci-fi saga with a twist on the age-old vampire lore, something American audiences were not ready for or didn’t care about in 1985. At the time, successful science fiction films were mainly of the cutesy “feel good” kind (much like Ron Howard’s COCOON) and vampires were not exactly the in thing, so LIFEFORCE got lost upon its release and was largely looked down upon by critics. It took home video and cable airings to give this film its wider appeal, and its retro style of what is now considered old fashioned effects holds up even better today in an age when every big budget sci-fi trailer is an off-putting, headache-inducing parade of uncontrollably silly CGI. With its Britishness very much in check, LIFEFORCE (even with its Texas-born director) feels like the kind of film that Hammer might have been doing, had the company continue to do features at the time. The whole concept of the astronaut responsible for an alien menace brought back to Earth, which becomes a threat to mankind, is reminiscent of a Quatermass adventure, and the scenes of burning London with the British army in tow are very reminiscent of the devastating street chaos in Hammer’s QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH). And although this is horror specialist Hooper’s first foray into sci-fi, the horror elements are still present throughout, with a good amount of bloody ooze, dried-up and exploding bodies (which also involves some very creepy animatronic effects) and frenzied living dead streetwalkers thrown into the mix.
Adding to the film’s over-the-top formula, Railsback shows his knack for playing disturbed or unhinged characters, and he has good chemistry with Firth when they become an investigative team for most of the second half, but his romantic and extrasensory link to the alien vampire girl (the absolutely stunning May, who is seen mostly in the nude whether she's in a state of rest, walking about or sucking face with her male victims) grants the film some of its more a strange and distinctive ideas. Fans of older British horror films will recognize a number of familiar faces including Aubrey Morris (BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB, THE WICKER MAN) as the scowling parliament member Sir Percy Heseltine, John Forbes-Robertson (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES) as a minister, and Nicholas Ball (from the unforgettable “Hammer House of Horror” episode, “The House That Bled to Death”) and Carl Rigg (THE OBLONG BOX, CRY OF THE BANSHEE) as members of the doomed Churchill crew. Two years before his groundbreaking role as Captain Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, Patrick Stewart (EXCALIBUR) has a key supportive role as Dr. Armstrong and Mick’s younger brother Chris Jagger (Peter Walker’s HOME BEFORE MIDINIGHT) is one of the two male alien vampires.
LIFEFORCE is the perfect candidate for Scream Factory’s line of Blu-rays and DVDs, as it was initially released on DVD by MGM back in 1998 in a non-anamorphic transfer which was never upgraded in several subsequent re-releases. Representing the uncut 116-minute British version (as the original MGM DVD had), the new transfer and its color correction were supervised by Hooper himself, and the results are spectacular. The High Definition transfer is AVC encoded and 1080p, presenting the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The well saturated, consistent colors are noticeably improved over the previous DVD transfer (with one particular red gel-lighted scene finally looking the way it should), but then so is everything else about it. Fleshtones look natural, contrasts are excellent, and the image is sharp and very detailed, with the film’s ultra cinematic appearance shining through for the entire running time. Black levels are rendered nicely, and there are no blemishes to be found on the transfer source, and grain is minimal, even when optical effects are on screen. The audio comes in both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, with the 5.1 track especially being dynamic range, with special effects and music suitably robust and dialog being clear. English SDH subtitles are included. The DVD portion also features the same HD transfer in standard definition (2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen), but Scream Factory has also included (on the Blu-ray disc only) the short-running American version (1:41:17) which is in 1080p and on par with the video and audio quality of the longer cut. Representing what Tri-Star released theatrically in the U.S., this version is not only shorter, but it has a re-edited title sequence and replacement music cues by Michael Kamen (THE DEAD ZONE) among other changes. It’s great to have it for completeness and collectability, and to see what U.S. theatergoers (such as myself) experienced back in ’85.
The supplements (all of which are included on both the Blu-ray and DVD) include two energetic audio commentaries. The first one is with director Hooper, moderated by Tim Sullivan, which covers a number of subjects including the film’s long shoot, what it was like filming it in London (including the historic Elstree sound stages and backlot), what the actors were like (as well as mention of names considered for the film that didn’t appear in it, including Billy Idol, who he wanted for one of the male vampires) and how they reacted to the material and some of the secrets behind the elaborate special effects. The second commentary has make-up/effects designer Nick Maley and is moderated by Michael Felsher. Maley details most of the effects in the film that he was responsible for (which is largely the extensive animatronics that were utilized), describing the technique as they appear on screen, and also talks about his career in general and his mentor, the late great Stuart Freeborn, who he worked on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with (among other films), where the two collaborated on the creation of “Yoda”.
There are also three featurettes, all produced by Felsher and Red Shirt Pictures. The first is "Space Vampires in London with Tobe Hooper" (9:58), which begins with the director discussing the original title (“Space Vampires”) and why it was changed before release. He describes the film as easy to get off the ground due to Cannon’s showman-like nature, and that he was able to go back to his roots by making a "70mm Hammer Film" and that he was able to say a lot on screen with the larger budget he was allotted. "Carlsen’s Curse with Steve Railsback" (7:07) has the actor talking about how he was only offered “killer” roles after portraying Charles Manson in HELTER SKELTER, and that he first met Hooper on the set of that TV movie (it featured TEXAS CHAINSAW star Marilyn Burns). Railsback had a great time, extremely admiring the cast and crew, and he’s pleased to see the respect the film deserves today. The last and longest featurette, "Dangerous Beauty with Mathilda May" (15:15) features the actress describing her initial reluctance of doing the called-for nude scenes, and that she wasn’t originally intending on being an actress when she auditioned (she was a ballerina dancer). She goes on to tell that being French, she didn’t speak English at the time (she learned her few lines phonetically), and she describes the director as shy but very classy and nice, and details a memorable scene (shot on her birthday) where she was covered in latex appliances and fake blood for hours. The vintage “making of” film (actually, shot on videotape) runs over 21 minutes and reportedly was shown on HBO around the time of the film’s release. It includes on-the-set interviews (with the likes of Hooper, Firth, Finlay, Railsback, Dykstra and Maley), but it really gives a unique glimpse of how some of the more memorable effects were achieved, followed by the results and how they are seen in the final film. Rounding out the extras are a TV spot, two different U.S. theatrical trailers (one a short teaser, the other a longer Red Band nudity-friendly trailer) and a photo gallery (featuring stills, behind-the-scenes shots and poster art from around the world). As with many of these Scream Factory releases, the cover is reversible, and this is a an all-around spectacular edition of a title that's been waiting SE treatment for what seems like ages! (George R. Reis)
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