Cosmic vamp, comet's tale

Close encounter includes naked shocks

Published: Nov 16 2014, 01:01:am

Monday, June 10, 1985.
LIFEFORCE. Written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby. Based on the novel The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. Music by Henry Mancini. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Running time: 101 minutes. 14 Year Limited Admittance with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some gory scenes and nudity. In 70mm and THX stereophonic sound.
DEEP SPACE IS THE last place Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) expected to meet a naked lady. The commander of the space shuttle Churchill, Col. Carlsen is the leader of a joint U.S./U.K. mission sent to take mankind's first close look at Halley's Comet.
    The expedition is surprised to discover an alien spacecraft hidden within
the comet's fiery corona. On board is an even bigger surprise — three humanoids in suspended animation, one of them a beautiful young woman (Mathilda May).
     After loading the aliens' transparent sarcophagi aboard the Churchill, the astronauts head back to Earth. Although the experience seems to have left most of his craw in a state of lethargy, Carlsen finds the sight of the sleeping woman invigorating, a genuine stimulant to his Lifeforce.
    For filmmaker Tobe Hooper, the success of his previous picture, 1982's Poltergeist, was a mixed blessing. Although Hooper was the director of record, Steven Spielberg was his producer.
    Word got around that Spielberg had really wanted to direct, and that he actually did a lot more than just oversee the bookkeeping. People noticed that Poltergeist looked a lot more like a Spielberg (E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark) film than a Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) project.
    Lest there be any doubt on this round, Lifeforce is identified immediately as "a Tobe Hooper film." If Spielberg and his sometimes-collaborator George Lucas draw their vital inspiration from pre-Second World War serials, Hooper shares with John (The Thing) Carpenter a fondness for the shock-effect films of the late 1950s.
    Based on Max Headroom co-creator Colin Wilson's 1976 novel The Space Vampires, Lifeforce offers filmgoers a return to the days when E.T.s were villains of monstrous mien and evil intent. Combining elements of such low-budget classics as Britain's Five Million Years to Earth (a.k.a. Quatermass and the Pit; 1967) and Italy's Planet of the Vampires (1965), screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby have created a crackling good matinee entertainment.
    When the returned Churchill fails to respond to NASA control, the shuttle Columbia is sent up to investigate. It finds a fire-gutted ship, a dead crew, and three undamaged crystal sarcophagi.
    The aliens are delivered to London's European Space Research Centre, where a planned autopsy is postponed when the female subject opens her eyes and offers Dr. Han Fallada (Frank Finlay) and his scientific team a deadly demonstration of her powers.
    Soon the space woman is at large and the survival of the city is in doubt. Called in to do something is Special Air Services Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth).
     When astronaut Carlsen's escape pod turns up in Texas, the quick-tempered American is flown over to help the matter-of-fact Brit save the world.
    With the help of a top-notch Henry Manicini score and Oscar-winner John (Star  Wars) Dykstra's special visual effects, Hooper's $25-million science fiction thriller maintains its pace and mood of old-fashioned menace. His Lifeforce is a Star Trek for grown-ups.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1985. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: People still talk about Texas-born Steve Railsback's breakthrough performance as charismatic killer Charles Manson in the 1976 TV miniseries Helter Skelter. More than a decade later, he played the title role in Ed Gein (2000), a docudrama based on the life of the rural Wisconsin grave-robber whose story inspired Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Pyscho and Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 feature film. My own favourite Railsback character remains Cameron, a man on the run who's adopted into the film "family" of director Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole) in the classic movie-about-moviemaking The Stunt Man (1980). Demonstrating an ability to be both brash and vulnerable, he's worked constantly in television and features ever since. And, yes, he's been to Vancouver. In 1994 he was here to star in two second-season episodes of The X-Files (in which he plays a hostage-taker who believes himself to be an alien abductee). In 1998, his visit was for a principal role in director David Nutter's shock feature Disturbing Behavior, and he was back in 2005 as a guest star in the Supernatural pilot.  
    The version of Lifeforce that played Vancouver was the 101-minute "U.S. domestic cut," in which there is somewhat less violence and considerably less of actress May's nude performance. The 116-minute "international cut" is preferable, though, because it features the uncut version of Henry Mancini's superb score
. When the producers wanted changes for the shortened U.S. version, composer Michael Kamen was brought in to "doctor" the music. Lifeforce is memorable as Mancini's single opportunity to score a big-budget science-fiction film, and it is a rare treat for soundtrack aficionados.