Tobe Hooper left behind a nightmare landscape that tracked uncomfortably well to the American one. From remote farmhouses in Texas to southern Californian suburbia there was death lurking just behind the door. Families could become monsters and children could come back as vampires. America is a haunted country, constantly on the run from its own past, and Hooper’s work showed an acute understanding of the truths we can’t bring ourselves to say. He found horror lurking everywhere on Earth, and in one of his most startling works he found it lurking in outer space too.
In 1985 B movie studio Cannon was looking to go A list. Their attempt at that was an adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires. Forgoing their usual practice of shaving away a promised budget to finance several additional pictures they laid out money for big names. The special effects were handled by Star Wars alum John Dykstra. Henry Mancini traded the cocktail swing of his The Pink Panther score for a very good John Barry impression. Dan O'Bannon (Alien) did the script. It was a decision only Cannon could make.The film wildly veers from a locked room mystery to a serial killer who can hop bodies to a zombie apocalypse climax, while taking time for memorable moments such as Sir Patrick Stewart vomiting a geyser of blood and exploding. If the plan was for Cannon producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to pretend to be major studio producers, and for Tobe Hooper to pretend to be Ridley Scott, I’m happy to say it did not work. Lifeforce’s failure at the box office is not much of a surprise but its failure to find an enthusiastic cult in the years since is.
The story seems tailor made for people who pre-order the latest Scream Factory blu-ray. It starts with a spaceship coming back to Earth with all but one of its crew dead. In the ship’s hold a mysterious woman is in some kind of hibernation. The story ends with a pile of zombie corpses in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But Lifeforce’s chilly reception hinges on the film’s unapologetically baroque tone and a narrative incoherence that wings the viewer from Point A to Point Zombie Apocalypse without resolving many of its subplots. And yet the overall effect of Lifeforce is closest to my memories of looking at lurid sci-fi and horror paperback covers before I was old enough to read them. The places my imagination taking me based on those strange, ominous images were often miles away from the story inside. In an entertainment climate where you have seen almost every new movie before, and can see its plot twists coming from the trailer, the idea of a movie actually surprising you starts to look appealing. If you’re willing to watch it knowing you honestly will have no idea where the film is going next, Lifeforce is often exhausting but not easily forgotten.
Lifeforce’s cast is a collection stalwart British character actors, the kind who wear turtlenecks and smoke when calmly discussing what to do about an alien, shapeshifting killer on the loose. This is perhaps another reason for the film’s difficulty in picking up admirers. The film’s scientists and government officials do not quip or load shotguns with a single shake of the arm. They’re simply adults who are good at their jobs. And adults who are good at their jobs were about to go extinct as blockbuster heroes in 1985. The entire film feels curiously like a raucous wake for strains of entertainment and types of stories that were on the way out. Drawing on disparate threads like the Quatermass movies (a British series about a scientist constantly tangling with extraterrestrial threats), and the delirium soaked sci-fi art of Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Philippe Druillet the film creates a tactile world of naked vampire women and sinewy corpses that was about to be brushed away for CGI and the PG-13 rating.
Tobe Hooper had a knack for digging out the horror in the breakdown of systems, from how families could fail to protect us from harm, to the collapse of communities who fail to repel an invading evil. In Lifeforce everything is breaking down, from common sense to cities, to the very fabric of space. There is no center and nothing holds. It was an impossible sell to audiences in 1985, but in that curious way movies have of finding their moment it’s very much ripe for rediscovery right now. In this time that feels like a carnival ride that slipped its brakes, where nothing appears to have meaning and outrage is topped by outrageousness and then all swept away by the next howling fiasco, Lifeforce was a sci-fi horror film that saw our inability to save ourselves, to avoid readily obvious danger. Like Steve Railsback’s astronaut, we opened our arms to our own destruction for the sheer novelty of it. Hooper’s death feels so acute, because he saw so clearly where we were going.