The cheap and cheerful Cannon Group were ready for the big time in the mid 1980s. Having made a decent amount of money out of various barrelscrapers – Death Wish sequels, Chuck Norris actioners and assorted Ninja movies – they decided to move upmarket. Lifeforce was the result, a big-budget (for them) sci-fi movie and the first of a three-picture deal between director Tobe Hooper (still hot from Poltergeist) and the “Go-Go boys”, as Cannon owners, cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, were known.
The film was a total flop on its release and got hacked about a bit in an attempt to make it more sellable. That didn’t work either. However, over time it’s built up a bit of a cult following and these days it’s usually shown at its original 116-minute length.
It’s an adaptation of Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires, which would have been a better title for what is obviously a reworking of the Dracula story. But vampires were out in the mid 80s and space was in and so…
Instead of Transylvania, the action kicks off inside the coma (the fuzzy glowing envelope) of Halley’s Comet, where a joint British American space mission (wearing European Space Agency spacesuits, confusingly) discovers a 150-mile long space station full of dead bats and also containing three perfectly preserved humans, or humanoids at least, who seem to be in a state of suspended animation.
The humanoids are returned to earth on the ship, which arrives back with all its crew dead (an echo of Dracula’s voyage to Whitby in Bram Stoker’s story) whereupon the space vampires – for that is what they are – get to work draining the life out of any human they come into contact with.
In a familiar Hammer horror race to the finish, it now falls to the American Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback) and Brit Colonel Caine (Peter Firth), advised by Van Helsing analogue Dr Fallada (Frank Finlay), to take the fight to the vampires before all of London is turned into slavering zombies.
Never mind the various illogicalities of this film, or the terrible creature effects deployed whenever a hapless human meets a space vampire, or the fact that the two Colonels should in fact be just one character. Instead marvel at Mathilda May’s breasts, which are both bounteous and splendid. She is Space Vampire number one – the other two, played by Bill Malin and Chris (brother of Mick) Jagger, barely get a look-in – and from the moment she snaps back into life naked on a slab in an examination room, Hooper’s camera returns to May’s naked form as if it can’t believe what it saw. A precursor or inspiration for Scarlett Johansson’s evil alien babe in Under the Skin?
If only everything else were as good. Adapters Dan O’Bannon (of Alien fame) and Don Jakoby inject just a tiny bit of Solaris’s plot to explain why Space Girl (as she’s billed) looks like Mathilda May but otherwise this is a much more familiar story than anyone involved seems to realise, with pacing that’s way too slow as a consequence.
As said, the creature effects are woeful, with the unfortunate humans drained of lifeforce by the vampires resembling ventriloquist dummies. But the other effects compensate – lighting effects are whizzy, physical effects are well done, and Henry Mancini’s score has a John Williams bounce to it that was clearly part of his brief.
Approach in a “let’s have a go at this one then” frame of mind and it’s all good, camp fun, and there’s a glorious madness to it that’s almost exhilarating. Vampires, zombies, sex and space, was some cocaine involved anywhere in the writing or production process?
Look out for Hooper’s reference to the silent classic Nosferatu, but instead of the shadow of the prowling vampire, talons prominent, he swaps in the shadow of Mathilda May’s breasts. Funny. And there’s a money shot at the end when the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral blows off as Colonel Carlsen grapples with Space Girl – naked again – in a fight to the death.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023