Space Vampires (!)


Day 10: British sci-fi meets American bombastimages

The following originally appeared on Flick Attack, 27 October 2011.

Ah, the 1980s. It was a simpler time: a time of magic, miracles, demons and gods. A time when a cult horror director with one Spielberg-produced hit under his belt could commandeer a $25 million budget to construct an amalgamation of thoughtful British science-fiction and American horror.

A time when Steve Railsback was considered a viable leading man.

I speak of the infamous flop (and now certifiable cult classic) Lifeforce.

Loosely based on Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires—fairly on-the-nose for a title—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper and Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon together cobbled one of cinema’s most bizarre achievements. Ostensibly a tale of intergalactic space vampires discovered within the tail of Halley’s LifesuckComet (said vampires embodied by actress Mathilda May, wandering nude through all her scenes and helping a few teenagers achieve maturity much faster), Lifeforce switches tones at will, transforming from space opera to vampire flick to chase film, then going absolutely bugnuts to become a zombie apocalypse.

At one point, apropos of nothing, May replicates herself through blood streaming from the faces of nearby victims. Somehow, it just makes sense at the time.

Cannon Films clearly didn’t know what it had signed on for. Lifeforce flopped, with reviews generally negative or worse (although Gene Siskel liked it). But aided through hindsight and extended editions, Lifeforce is a geeky classic, a movie I revisit with the relish of seeing an old eccentric friend.

Certainly no one involved phoned it in; the movie is overall completely gorgeous, Hooper’s direction (never better) captures the style and dry wit of the classic British Quatermass films (well worth checking out), the score by Henry Mancini (!) is appropriately quirky and bombastic, and John Dykstra’s (Star Wars) special effects are superb—the desiccated zombie design is wonderful, and the alien spacecraft is a thing of beauty. No CGI here, just craft and skill.

Patrick StewartAnd that cast! Railsback is fittingly hammy as the token American hero, and the rest of the talent is a who’s who of classic British faces, including the legendary Patrick Stewart (who may well be a Highlander considering he hasn’t aged a day in almost three decades).

Lifeforce ain’t particularly scary, although it has its goodly share of Boo! moments. But when you add up its elements—vampires, zombies, mad scientists, astronauts, sex, spaceships, psychics, aliens, Lovecraftian undertones—you have one utterly sui generis film.

Lifeforce zombie

Through October I’ll be posting on a variety of horrific topics. Sorry if I offended you.