Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying the status of director Tobe Hooper in the world of horror. Having directed revered horror monuments such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist and Salem’s Lot, Hooper has also been the target of much controversy and discussion in the horror community for his divisive and arguably overrated filmography. However, no critic of any stature can argue the absence of imagination and outright lunacy in Hooper’s work, which have given many of his lesser-received films a fervent cult following. And there may be no Hooper film that’s ever teetered so close to brilliance as Lifeforce, at long last on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, even as the wheels of the film spiral out of control in the final act.
Co-written by Alien and Return of the Living Dead mastermind Dan O’Bannon and adapted from The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson (who publicly derided the film upon release), Lifeforce follows the fall-out of an investigation of Halley’s comet, which heralded the unearthing of an alien vessel and three perfectly preserved bodies. When the bodies are brought back to Earth, they are discovered to be interstellar vampiric beings, surviving by draining the “lifeforce” out of their entranced victims, who in turn become vampiric beings themselves. In order to prevent a global epidemic, the sole survivor of the mission (Steve Railsback) takes it upon himself to destroy the monster that be plagued upon humanity.
To this date, Lifeforce remains one of the few science-fiction vampire films, playing with an ambition previously unsheltered by Hooper with such a hectic and convoluted combination of genres that a true philosophical analysis would likely drive a reviewer insane. However, there are many cultural aspects to Lifeforce that have a fascinating connotation to the vampire subgenre. Despite the depiction of bat-like creatures initially discovered amongst the Halley Comet spacecraft, all vampire tropes and mythology are thrown out the window, in turn exchanging the decrepit and intimidating portrayal of the mythological beast for pristine, beautiful bodies and ominous lust. In fact, the only vampiric element to these creatures is their need to sustain life from the life of humans, which is not taken via fang but via physical osmosis.
Not only does Hooper exhibit the most imaginative and surreal elements of his prolific career in Lifeforce, but in collaboration with Return of the Jedi’s cinematographer Alan Hume and Star Wars effects guru John Dykstra, Hooper offers his most visually arresting film in this horror hybrid, which is a title to be taken seriously following its sense-pleasing predecessor, Poltergeist. Images of space-travel and soul-absorption are portrayed with a giallo-esque color scheme, with old school matte and miniature effects adding an aura of authenticity to the visual proceedings. Combine those elements with the incredibly practical effects work, including absolutely breathtaking sequences specifically involving mummified victims of the vampires, and Lifeforce truly becomes a work of in-camera wonder.
However, as with many of Hooper’s films, the visual excellence is somewhat off-set by the irregular pacing and bizarrely varied levels of acting. Although the Blu-ray features both the theatrical and international versions of the film, the tonal shifts and illogical narrative progression would be forgivable had the film not taken itself so seriously and not taken so long to reach its eventual apex. The visual perfection of the opening sequence is never quite matched throughout the film, despite the incredible practical effect showcases and the futile attempts on the part of Dykstra to liven up the closing sequence. And despite several inspired performances, including an always-reliable Patrick Stewart and an immeasurably beautiful Mathilda May, much of the acting in the film either falls by the way of era-appropriate cinematic stereotypes, unmotivated blandness or misguided manic confusion, par for the course with 80s genre mash-ups.
For those outside of the cult of Lifeforce, the film is a frustrating and simultaneously ingenious trip to the horizon of science fiction greatness, undone by the unfocused and overblown run time as well as the decision to transform into a generic action film in the third act. Despite the films flaws, however, Lifeforce is ultimately mesmerizing, balancing science-fiction, erotica and the vampire subgenre into a dread-inspiring cinematic fascination; a kind of film that would undoubtedly never get made today.
With Toby Hooper himself overseeing the transfer and restoration of the film for this release (both versions), Lifeforce has never looked better than this. Shout! Factory is to be commended for not digitally over-tinkering with the image and leaving the original grain intact. Thus, the presentation retains a filmic look. Colors are very strong and well-saturated. Details is crisp, even in the many murky sequences. This totally blows all previous DVD and video releases out of the water.
Both the Audio 5.1 and Audio 2.0 tracks sound excellent. The surround sound effects are convincing and exciting, while the standard stereo track has clarity, depth and a good dynamic range.
On par for a Shout! release, there’s a welcome mix of both old and new. Die-hard fans may skip the previously released albeit interesting commentary from Tobe Hooper, although for new fans, it’s recommended. The All-New Retrospective featuring the cast and crew is possibly the most enticing and vivacious feature on the set, which appropriately celebrates the legacy of the film, yet may be grating for those not completely enamored with the film. The Vintage “Making-of” Featurette will be great for nostalgic cinephiles and those fascinated with the behind-the-scenes aspect of the flick, while the usual suspects of the Theatrical Trailer, TV Spots and Still Gallery all make for further optional yet worthwhile Lifeforce indulgence.
For Lifeforce fans and 80s horror collectors, there won’t likely be a disc that’ll get better than this, and the film is definitely worth a watch, even despite the undeniable problems on full display. Lifeforce holds up visually, and the elements of surrealism and wonderment not often found in Hooper films should attract the unfamiliar horror buffs. Casual viewers may be less receptive to this indefinable oddity, but for the open minded, Lifeforce is too crazy not to warrant a recommendation.
~ By Ken W. Hanley