By the mid-1980s, Tobe Hooper was ready to level up.
The director had burst onto the scene with bare-budget phenomenon The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre and remained at the forefront of horror with acclaimed Stephen King miniseries Salem’s Lot. Later, he even collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Poltergeist. In hopes of taking his career to the next level, Hooper found the perfect partner in Cannon Films, which had flooded the American market with B-movies like The Apple and the Death Wish sequels.
When Hooper signed a three-picture deal with Cannon, it was a mutually beneficial partnership. Cannon wanted greater legitimacy, and Hooper wanted the studio’s bigger budgets. Neither side was expecting anything subtle, but it was still notable that the film that materialized first out of this pact was a bisexual space vampire erotic thriller.
Somehow the public didn’t go for this at the time, but Lifeforce has cult classic written all over it.
Adapted from a novel titled The Space Vampires, Lifeforce begins in space. Hooper borrows a bit from Alien, a bit from 2001, and a host of more general ‘50s space tropes to tell the story of the Churchill, an international mission between American, the U.K, and the European Space Agency to study Halley’s Comet. When the Churchill starts to get close, its crew notices an oddly elongated ship in the comet’s coma. Deciding that it’s either now or another 75 years until Halley’s Comet returns, they investigate.
The ship’s design is one of Hooper’s clearest homages to Alien, filled with spooky eggs and mysterious, destructive forces. While the shots of astronauts flying through the ship look cheesy by modern standards, it’s what they find in the center of the ship that’s really surprising: thousands of dead bat-like creatures and a beautiful naked woman (Mathilde May) in some sort of crystalline chamber. There are two naked men in chambers right next to hers, but they don’t really seem to matter in the same way this woman does.
Hooper uses a clever framing mechanism: after the decision is made to bring the glass chambers containing these three people — at least, they look like people — onto the Churchill, the movie cuts to three weeks later, back on Earth. A joint effort by the European Space Research Center and NASA has finally detected the Churchill returning to Earth, but it’s not moving as if piloted. Sending a second rocket into space reveals that a fire has burned all of the crew beyond recognition, although the three bodies in those glass containers are still perfectly intact. An escape vessel has been launched off the Churchill, too.
Trying to fit these puzzle pieces together are Oscar nominee Frank Finlay as Dr. Hans Fallada and Peter Firth as Colonel Colin Caine, given that the movie is stacked with British actors. Both investigators get some good news when the escape vessel is reported to have landed in Texas, with an astronaut still alive on board. Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Ralisback), once revived, is able to give the pair some indication of what’s happening, but it’s clear he’s holding something back. They don’t get very far in their investigation before the beautiful woman wakes up, released from her container, and begins draining the lifeforce of the soldiers around her.
Although Mathilde May isn’t on screen very long (as her character changes bodies), it’s hard to say that Lifeforce is anyone else’s movie but hers. Casting her role, credited simply as Space Girl, took a long time because, according to Hooper’s Blu-ray commentary, there “was a problem in the U.K. with the actresses not taking their clothes off.” Eventually he found May, a French ballerina who learned her few lines of English phonetically.
It’s not just that May is completely nude in Lifeforce, but that she’s nude for such an extended period of time the viewer starts to get curious about how long Hooper can sustain showing so much of his lead actress. Speaking on the Blu-ray commentary, May explained that, as a dancer, she could assert a particularly physical control over her every scene. “I was used to having a special relationship to the body,” she said. “It was a work instrument.”
Gratuitous nudity? Perhaps. But there’s something less sexualized about May than would be the case if she were wearing a skimpy outfit. In other words, there’s an otherworldy alien aura to her screen presence, as the girl wanders the halls of government buildings, guards standing by in a confused stupor. Through kissing her victims, she drains the lifeforce of those she encountered, both men and (off-screen) women, maintaining a certain regality amid each seductive murder.
If this all sounds like it’s bordering on B-movie schlock, brace yourself. Once the Space Girl has drained her victims, they become zombie-vampire creatures themselves. The movie suddenly fills up with animatronics, thanks to Hooper’s work with special effects legend John Dykstra, the lead special effects artist on the original Star Wars. Exploiting Cannon’s budget to the fullest, the team used then-cutting-edge laser technology to create the movie’s attention-grabbing visual effects sequences.
Does this pay off? Yes, without a doubt. Many movies want to be extremely weird, but only a select few can do what Lifeforce does. It throws everything — full-frontal nudity, aliens, zombies, glowing special effects, gory practical effects — at the viewer, leaving nothing to the imagination. I haven’t even gotten to Patrick Stewart’s late-in-the-film appearance as a prison warden possessed by the Space Girl.
Hooper never got close to a budget like this again, and Cannon has faded into obscurity, becoming the stuff of Hollywood legend. But Lifeforce remains as weird as ever.
Lifeforce is now streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S.