The Miracle of Space Vampires
The recent anniversary of Tobe Hooper's passing brought a lot of talk about him and his work on the internet. This lead me to spend a lot of time thinking about him and watching his movies. It's amazing to me how as I go through the wide filmography of a director my affection for all of it grows in one way or another. The Mangler may not be great cinema, but I love how of a piece it is with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Last night I rewatched Lifeforce and it opened up to me in a whole new way.
I saw Lifeforce for the first time years ago when I was first introducing myself to Hooper (outside of Poltergeist). I liked it enough, and thought it was bonkers, cheesy B-movie fun. I'd seen it a time or two since then, and my opinion of it never changed. It wasn't until earlier this week that I realized I may have been looking at the movie wrong. I heard that Hooper called this film his "chance to make a 70mm Hammer Film".
To use a ridiculous phrase, this blew my mind. I've loved Hammer Horror movies longer than any other kind of horror other than Universal Monsters. When I was a kid I taped Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein off TV and watched the VHS tapes constantly. How did I not see Hooper was making his version of that with this crazy space vampire movie?
I watched the movie again last night and saw a completely different film. I had been watching Lifeforce wrong. This isn't a bonkers, cheesey B-movie. This is a massive-scale, beautifully made Hammer film. All the pieces are there. It has very old-fashioned and classy British men in the leads who are very professional. The one exception to this is the leading man Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), an American from Texas. Obviously in this case Hooper wanted a lead he could relate to more, himself of course being from Texas. Still, it does not take away from the Hammer feeling. Peter Firth as the British Coronal seems to be directly channeling Peter Cushing. It is a very male dominated film, as most of Hammer is as well. Like Hammer, the sets are incredibly grand and eleborate. In this case it trades Gothic castles for space ships and Alien lairs. Of course the film features a heavily seductive female vampire, much like in The Brides of Dracula or The Vampire Lovers. In this case Hooper updated the trope for the more excessive time of the '80s and just made her completely naked. The film is so classy, however, that this never feel exploitative. It only makes sense in terms of the plot, and adds to the fact that this is an uncompromising Horror film for adults.
One of my problems I used to have with the film was the lead performance by Steve Railsback. Yes, it is very wild, unhinged and often loud. I found it too over the top. Honestly, what's changed my mind on this is that I've delved much further into Hooper's filmography and found that this is exactly the kind of leading man he likes best. Railsback fits perfectly with Dennis Hopper in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Ted Levine in The Mangler. Tobe Hooper leading men tend to be unhinged and driven by wild obsession. Hopper by revenge, Levine by grief, and Railsback by sexual desire. It also helps that I went through the special features on the scream factory disc and Railsback seems to be an incredibly decent man who was friends with Hooper and gives him tons of love and respect. Of course that makes me like him more.
Lifeforce was a poor business decision of the part of Cannon Films. They allowed Tobe Hooper to make a very noncommercial film at an incredibly high budget. So much money was spent on this film that it had a higher budget than Star Wars or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The film is a stunning epic of massive proportions. There are special effects everywhere and they all look incredible. But unlike most high budget science fiction, this is not a crowd-pleaser for a wide audience. Lifeforce is mature and a film that requires the viewer to think about it. It is not a hero's journey, or about a suburban child making friends with an alien. This is about a group of adult, professional men who must stop a fully naked space vampire from destroying the world by spreading her vampirism all over the world. Some of the imagery even borders on being of a surrealist art film. I'm thinking particularly of the moment the vampire appears completely blood soaked just to scream and collapse into a puddle of guts. Dammit, the film even has a dark ending. Was there any way this would be a commercial success?
This is precisely why Lifeforce is such a miracle. There is simply no other film like it in the world. Tobe Hooper masterfully made an epic of the biggest scale it could be made, and somehow the only thing he seems to have had to compromise on was the title (he wanted to keep the book's title Space Vampires). It's a bizarre experiment that actually worked beautifully. It's now one of my favorite films of all time.