In the blink of an eye, the terror begins.
Continuing the look at sci-fi/horror films of the 80s brings about Lifeforce, a sci-fi vampire film that gets a little too artsy, and not scary enough. Nudity and special effects abound in this week’s Sci-Fi Saturdays!
The trailer for Lifeforce mentions both the director of Poltergeist and the special effects artist of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so right up front you always have to wonder why do they name drop? The sense that I get is that some unspeakable evil has travelled through the galaxy and has ended up on Earth. Or maybe some astronauts brought it back. Either way there’s lots of weird zombie looking characters, special effect lights, and explosions in or around London.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
On August 9, 1986, as Halley’s Comet passes by the Earth, the crew of the ESA Churchill discover an alien ship in the coma of the comet. A small boarding party, led by Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), don space suits and enter the alien vessel discovering desiccated corpses of bat-like aliens. Carlsen, who mentions feeling like he’s been here before, finds a chamber with three nude humanoids–one female and two male–encased in crystalline looking chambers. The boarding party takes all three humanoids and one of the bat-creatures back to the space shuttle Churchill. Thirty days later the Churchill nears Earth, but cannot be raised on comms.
The NASA shuttle Columbia docks with the Churchill, discovering the entire crew and ship has been burned, except for the three crystalline chambers. One of the escape pods is also missing, but they cannot ascertain if it contains a crewmember. In London, Dr. Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) is put in charge of examining the bodies, and they obviously start with the space girl (Mathilda May). She is not actually dead and awakens, draining the life force from a guard, turning him into a shriveled corpse. But something about her, more than her nudity, affects men around her. Bukovsky is attacked by her but not enough to be fatal before she escapes.
Colonel Caine (Peter Firth) from the SAS shows up to investigate and speak with Dr. Fallada (Frank Finlay), another scientist at the Space Research Centre and an expert in thanatology, which is the study of death. The two male aliens wake up but are killed by the guards. Caine, Bukovsky, Fallada, and Sir Percy (Aubrey Morris) examine the pathologist that examined the desiccated guard. The guard sucked the life from the pathologist, but after 2 hours the bodies seem to come back to life looking for another person to feed on. Caine then gets news that the Churchill’s escape pod has landed in Texas, and the sole survivor, Carlsen, is being flown to London. Carlsen explains that Rawlins, the radio operator, went crazy and smashed the systems. In order to stop the aliens from getting to Earth, Carlsen torched the ship and ejected in the pod.
Carlsen begins having strange dreams where he communicates with the space girl. He shares a psychic link with her for some reason. Carlsen, Caine, and Sir Percy follow a lead to a psychiatric hospital where the female alien is hiding in the body of another woman. Once they arrive and speak with the director Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), Carlsen realizes the alien is in him, so they tranquilize him to return to London. She breaks free of the drugs and kills Armstrong and Sir Percy. Arriving back in London, Carlsen and Caine discover to their horror that the city is under martial law.
Dr. Fallada informs them that one of the two male energy vampires, as he’s calling them now, survived the attack by taking the forms of the guards. One escaped and has been spreading its “plague” all over London. Fallada managed to kill the other one by stabbing it with an ancient leaded iron sword through the energy center of the body, just below the heart. Carlsen admits to Caine that he was the one that trashed the radio on the Churchill. The space woman haunts his dreams as the connection he has to her is greater than anything he’s every felt. They meet with the Prime Minister to brief him but realize that he is infected by the vampire plague. The alien ship has left the comet and parked just over London.
Carlsen searches the city to find the female vampire while Caine travels to the Space Research Centre to get the sword from Fallada–who succumbs to the plague as well. Carlsen finds her at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where all the harvested life energy from the dying people is being funneled through her body and up to their mother ship. Caine fights his way through the streets only to be blocked by the remaining vampire, who he stabs with the sword, transforming into a bat-creature on his deathbed. Inside the Cathedral, Carlsen can no longer resist the pull of the female. The two bond in a naked embrace as Caine tosses the sword to Carlsen. Carlsen stabs the girl and himself releasing their energy into the ship, which is apparently satiated, and pulls out of orbit, heading back to the comet.
“I mean, in a sense we’re all vampires. We drain energy from other life forms. The difference is one of degree.” – Dr. Fallada
History in the Making
Like many of the sci-fi films that Sc-Fi Saturdays has looked at, Lifeforce is based on a book. Originally published in 1976, “The Space Vampires,” by Colin Wilson, was a mildly successful hit before being adapted into this film. It seems interesting that the producers seemed to think that the original title was too descriptive perhaps, when they decided to call it Lifeforce. “The Space Vampires” clearly sounds like a sci-fi film from the 50s or the 60s, doesn’t it?
Now that science-fiction and horror films were so popular, touting the creators responsible for such films was another marketing point. And based on the behind-the-scenes credits, Lifeforce sounds like a smash hit. Some of the famous names associated with the production include: Tobe Hooper, John Dykstra, Dan O’Bannon, and Henry Mancini. Director Hooper was responsible for part of the new wave of horror in the 1970s with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, plus the 1981 slasher film The Funhouse, and the 1982 Spielberg-produced Poltergeist. Dykstra was responsible for special effects on Silent Running, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and of course, Star Wars. Dan O’Bannon was the writer behind Dark Star, Alien, and Return of the Living Dead. While Mancini was a famous composer having created the themes for The Pink Panther and Peter Gunn plus wrote “Moon River” for Breakfast at Tiffanies.
Seeing the big names from some important films, it might be safe to assume that this film would be monumental in some way. Unfortunately the film doesn’t live up to the possibilities. It has a great look to it, with some fun and interesting special effects, but the story and plot are muddled making several elements unclear. It also is not particularly scary. There are a few jump-scares to get the blood pumping, but those are not enough to resurrect the film by that point. It’s also long. Clocking in at almost two hours is a good time for a sci-fi film, but not so much for a horror film. It takes too long to get started and then once it gets into the main plot, it’s so convoluted the audience spends more time trying to understand what’s going on, rather than be scared or concerned for the characters.
By the mid-1980s sci-fi films had been able to produce convincing outer space environments. Model making and other effects to depict spaceships in flight, or space battles. So technically the film looked comparable to other films. The space shuttles Churchill and Columbia both were familiar looking elements, seen in real-life and in films like Moonraker. The film introduced a newer space element not used in film, Halley’s comet. The comet, which was due to pass by Earth the following year in 1986, was the centerpiece for the early part of the film. This mysterious interstellar object housed the alien spaceship and led to the whole plot of the film. Lifeforce contained everything to make this a solid sci-fi film.
Lifeforce was also made up of the necessary elements for a horror film. You had the crew of a ship approaching an unknown vessel in which they find (apparently) dead creatures plus other strange things. Bringing those beings back to civilization unleashes a viral plague that threatens humanity. And since these beings are space vampires, there are a lot of nods to the Dracula films. The Character’s life force is sucked out of them, the same way Dracula sucks blood. Characters appear to be hypnotized by the vampires. There’s even a creepy sanitarium. But overall the elements do just not gel well enough to be an effective horror film.
As other reviews of Lifeforce have pointed out, the film is similar to an H.P. Lovecraft story, with its timeless entities that attempt to conquer our world with ancient evil. It actually seems very similar to a sci-fi/horror film that was looked at last November called Quatermass and the Pit. That film invokes long-dead aliens using psychic energy to drive the populous of London insane. It used the sci-fi elements to postulate a reason why spooky elements occur as they do in horror films. Here the space vampires are thought to be the reason why tales of vampires exist in folklore at all. It’s not that it’s a knockoff of the previous film (possibly it’s done in homage) but the similarities are certainly there.
There’s no real deep meaning in the film, apart from creating a sci-fi vampire film where the creatures take life energy instead of blood. The main thrust of the movie is first realizing there’s a problem, and then trying to locate the female vampire. Killing the creatures seems to come easy, as Dr. Fallada figures it out on his first go. Just like traditional vampire mythology, the creature is killed when a stake pierces its heart, or in this case a piece of leaded iron pierces its energy center, near the heart.
The question that is raised by the film if these energy vampires haven’t visited Earth at some time in the past. If they hang out on Halley’s Comet, there’s the possibility that they come around every 76 years or so. If so, that answers some ambiguous moments with Carlsen. Two lines of dialogue, one at the start and one more at the end make it seem as if Carlsen is a secret energy vampire. As they enter the alien vessel he says, “I almost have the feeling I’ve been here before.” He makes the observation in telling the story of the Churchill, that he survived by having more willpower than the others, but also that he gave energy to the female, but also took some in return. The climax has him asking, “why do I feel so close to you?” The female vampire answers, “because you’re one of us. You always have been.”
This really does not seem to make much sense, other than create explanations for why he survives the initial attack of the vampires, and then why he has a psychic connection to the female. At the end of the movie when he “kills” himself and the vampire, they turn into red energy (all the other ”souls” seen leaving bodies are blue) and ascend into the ship causing it leave Earth orbit. Did he poison the soul energy? Was it satiated? Has he evolved back into another form of being, and now lives forever? It’s unclear and very unsatisfying for both a horror film and a sci-fi film.
The Science in The Fiction
The main impetus of the film is the return of Halley’s comet. Early in the film a news report on television has the reporter stating that “comets were once considered to be harbingers of evil.” A very obvious piece of foreshadowing, considering we’ve already seen the strange creatures brought back to the planet. The date in the introduction of the film is given only as August 9, but it is implied that it is 1986. Tobe Hooper has mentioned adding this element in due to the comet reappearing the year after the film’s release. However the mission would probably not have worked the way it was depicted in the film, where the comet was visible in the sky from England, due to the comet and Earth being on opposite sides of the sun in 1986. Nevertheless the addition of such a monumental event for this film, around the time of the real event was interesting and might have sparked some additional interest in the film (as well as the comet).
One radical misstatement by the characters however is regard to the way the Churchill’s engine works. The astronauts mention their new NERVA engine, which provides “constant acceleration” creating gravity for the first time. This must be a mistake on the screenwriters part and they meant either constant velocity or constant speed, which would in fact provide a gravity like force upon the ship and the occupants. Having a constant acceleration means that you are increasing your speed at a regular rate, such as 1 meter per second. So this means after 2 seconds, the ship is going 2 m/s, after 3 seconds, 3 m/s, and so forth. They would never be able to slow down and would soon be crushed under the tremendous forces created. But this is a horror film right? That little detail shouldn’t matter.
The Final Frontier
Since the film offers much time to ruminate as it’s being watched, some other things occur to the astute observer; all about the vampires depicted. The space girl shares that the reason she and her two compatriots look like naked humans is because they scanned the astronauts coming aboard, specifically Carlsen, and took images from his mind. Excellent! They don’t look like the bat-creature on the space ship for that reason. Then when the first vampire is stabbed by Dr. Fallada, he appears as a dead human dressed in the military fatigues he was wearing at the time of death. Yet the second vampire when stabbed turns into a large humanoid bat-creature (different looking than the ones on the alien ship), and then explodes in a ball of light, leaving the sword to clatter on the ground. Finally when the female and Carlsen are stabbed, they turn into another form of energy and beam back to the ship. What gives? This is a little detail, but also shows the lack of continuity in the film for whatever reason exists.
Besides its copious amounts of full frontal nudity, Lifeforce is also famous for being an early film with Patrick Stewart in a much larger role. Two of his previous films are cult favorites as well: the Arthurian Excalibur from 1981, and the 1984 David Lynch version of Dune. He would appear in a couple other films before going on to his biggest role as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He continues in that role today in his own series Star Trek: Picard, as well as portraying the leader of the X-Men, Professor Xavier in a string of films..
Lifeforce is not a perfect film. But it did attempt to create a smarter hybrid of science-fiction and horror than had been done before. To that effect, it failed miserably, because in creating this hybrid it made a film that was neither an interesting sci-fi film, nor a scary horror film. There’s still three more Sci-Fi Saturdays during 31 Days of Horror, so hopefully the remaining films, also from the 1980s, will be a little more appropriate.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.