In 1974, director Tobe Hooper made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film that would change the landscape of horror forever. After following it up with the less-successful but still respected Eaten Alive, Hooper had a run of bad luck. He was fired from two movies, The Dark and Venom, in the middle of production. He was brought on to direct the Steven Spielberg-produced Poltergeist in 1982, only to have Spielberg direct most of that film himself (allegedly, depending on which story you believe, of course). Three years later, Hooper finally got himself a break; he made Lifeforce.
Lifeforce begins with the space shuttle Churchill, a joint British/American expedition under the command of Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback from Trick or Treats and “Helter Skelter”), approaching Halley’s Comet for some scientific observation. When the shuttle gets close enough, the crew notices an alien spacecraft floating in the tail of the comet. Carlsen and his crew investigate the ship and find three live humanoids – one female, two male – suspended in glass boxes. The humanoids are taken back to the Churchill, but contact with the shuttle is lost on its way back to Earth. Another shuttle is launched to check it out, and the rescue crew finds the Churchill completely destroyed by fire – all except the three alien humanoids. The aliens are taken back to Earth for examination. The female (The Jackal’s Mathilda May) wakes up and seduces a guard, sucking the life right out of him before escaping. Meanwhile, the Churchill’s escape pod is found, with Carlsen inside and alive. Carlsen is brought to London to give his version of events, and he warns the doctors about the aliens, telling them that they are vampire-like beings. Carlsen and another soldier, Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth from The Hunt for Red October), track down the escaped female, but before they can get her back to London, the two male aliens escape. Before anyone knows it, London is overrun with alien vampire zombies. Carlsen and Caine have to figure out a way to end the plague of space vampires.
Released while Return of the Jedi was still fresh in the public’s mind, Lifeforce tried to capitalize on the science fiction trend while adding a dash of horror to the mix. The screenplay was adapted by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Dead and Buried) and Don Jakoby (Arachnophobia, John Carpenter’s Vampires) from the novel “The Space Vampires” by Colin Wilson. “The Space Vampires” is a perfect literal title for the film; the antagonists gain energy by sucking the “lifeforce” out of their victims, leaving their host dried up and skeletal. It’s a clever variation on a universal trope; whether they come from Transylvania or from the far reaches of the universe, vampires are scary.
It’s pretty well known that Steven Spielberg was very hands-on with Poltergeist, yet there is a lot of speculation as to whether he or Tobe Hooper directed the bulk of the film. One thing that is clear from the visual effects in Lifeforce is that, if Hooper didn’t direct Poltergeist, he at least learned a lot from working on it with Spielberg. Lifeforce is full of the same ghostly, blue-lightning overlay effects that make up much of the third act of Poltergeist (and are also featured in another Spielberg film, Raiders of the Lost Ark). In some ways, Lifeforce feels like a sci-fi version of Poltergeist, so if Hooper didn’t actually direct Poltergeist, Lifeforce proves that he could have.
Spielberg wasn’t the only blockbuster producer who had an influence on Lifeforce. The standard technique for shooting space scenes in the eighties was to use miniatures and matte paintings, and Tobe Hooper used George Lucas’ modeling team of John Dykstra, Robert Shepherd, and Grant McCune (who all worked on Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to bring his galactic scenes to life. The flying spaceships in Lifeforce aren’t quite as slick as they are in the higher-budget films of the time period, but the sub-par models add to the b-movie charm of the film. Lifeforce combines sci-fi effects with horror shocks, and does it in a cool way.
In addition to Steve Railsback and Peter Firth, there are many familiar faces in Lifeforce. Frank Finlay (The Three Musketeers) and Michael Gothard (The Devils) are cast as the two doctors in charge of the aliens in London. Captain Picard and Professor X himself, Patrick Stewart, stars as the administrator of the mental hospital to which Caine and Carlsen track the female alien. The male aliens are played by Bill Malin, who was a Cyberman on “Doctor Who,” and Chris Jagger, brother of Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger. Okay, so maybe those last two aren’t exactly household names, but the cast in Lifeforce is interesting nonetheless.
There are two versions of Lifeforce: an international version and a U.S. theatrical version. Fifteen minutes of the film was cut for American domestic release, but what is really interesting about the edited version is that the film was also partially re-scored. The original score was composed by the legendary Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther, Wait Until Dark), and consisted of a heavily orchestrated big-screen soundtrack that, at times, ventured into the realm of atonality and meshed in with the film’s sound design. For the American release, several music cues that were written by Michael Kamen (The Dead Zone, Highlander) were used to clean up the cuts. To his credit, Kamen’s music blends effortlessly with Mancini’s score, even if an educated ear can ultimately discern who wrote what. However, viewers should be aware; there’s more of a difference between the two versions than just a few cut shots.
After Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper experimented with sci-fi again with Invaders from Mars before he gave the people what they want with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Curiously enough, he then concentrated on television for pretty much the next twenty years. At the time of its release, Lifeforce provided a much needed boost in Tobe Hooper’s career after he had experienced a few bumps in the road, and the film is still thought of by his fans as one of his coolest pictures.