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Saturday, 12 October 2013

Lifeforce (1985) - Arrow Films BluRay release.

Director(s): Tobe Hooper
Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda (Gorgeous) May, Patrick Stewart
BBFC Certificate: 18
Running Time: 116 (International version)/101 minutes (American Theatrical release)

The simple fact is is that I owe the director, Tobe Hooper an apology for the poor box office performance of his 1985 movie, Lifeforce. I propose this seemingly bold statement because it was partly my fault why the movie wasn't a great success at the time, let me explain. 1985 was a strange old year all round. Bob Geldof was busy feeding the world with his live Aid, I gave money and watched the whole event in a haze of beer. I also spent a great deal of time throughout that year's summer at a variety of open-air Rock gigs , much of it seemingly in perpetual rain, all of it in a haze of beer. It was in truth, my year of hedonistic fun.

There were also parties, plenty of parties - well at least that's what I seem to remember as time has passed. Yes, Lots of parties filled with music, bad food, girls and all in a haze of beer. However, 1985 wasn't just my year of self-indulgence (there are indeed some who know me that would argue that I've had many other years of me, me, me, in addition to just that one), it was also a year of strange contradictions in the science fiction movie world.

It was the year that produced science fiction perfection in the form of Brazil, Back To The Future, The Quiet Earth and O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilisation. However, it was also the year that brought us Morons From Outer Space, Cocoon and Weird Science………

Now it could well be that most years are full of such cinematic contradictions, however this particular year stands out for me for one particular reason. It was during one particular hazy beer episode in June of 1985 when it was suggested by a female friend of mine that we go and see a movie that week. Of course it would have to be sci-fi or horror - she was a major Gothic horror buff herself, which was one reason why we were close. The other was that she was drop-dead delicious. Anyhoo, the choice of movie going came down to two simple choices: the current box office smasher, Cocoon, or a lesser known sci-fi/horror film, Lifeforce, that had been released around the same time, but to less glowing reviews. 

Well, I say it was a simple choice, however it quickly became apparent that it was far more complex than that. The problem was that she wanted to see the aforementioned piece of sentimental syrupy claptrap directed by that guy who used to be Richie Cunningham in 'Happy days' (Cue, my very bad Fonzie impression), whilst I wanted to see the intriguing looking film about space vampires directed by the guy who made a rather good flick about a Leatherfaced, chainsaw-loving guy and his slightly eccentric family in Texas. I would love to say that I held out for days with my side of the argument, citing the quality of director Tobe Hooper's previous work and the profound effect that his work had had on not only within the genre's that we both loved, but on the wider cultural landscape as a whole. However, those who know me well will not be in the least surprised to learn that after a small discussion, I quickly relented and agreed to watch Cocoon. Did I mention that she was drop-dead delicious?………..

The consequence of my not sticking to my movie-going principles and instead thinking with my, er, well you know, was that Lifeforce was released to underwhelming box office returns. It found itself in a disappointing fourth place, losing a head-to-head battle against Cocoon, earning just over $11,000,00 at the US box office. I did manage to see Tobe's movie when it came out a year or so later on video (in which the film was finding something of a new resurgence), but the damage had been done. I'm sorry Tobe, I really am.

So when I found out that the good people at ARROW FILMS were due to release a remastered edition of Lifeforce BluRay, then I thought that possible redemption might finally be mine.

"Follow me lads, what's the worst that could happen?"
Lifeforce is based on Colin Wilson’s novel ‘The Space Vampires’. The screenplay was written by non other than Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall & Return of the Living Dead) and directed by the aforementioned friend of leather face, Tobe Hooper. So far, so good.

The movie begins with a joint British and American Space shuttle mission researching Halley's Comet when they discover that within the head of the Comet is an enormous alien space ship, seemingly derelict. Naturally, our intrepid Astronauts waste little time in spacewalking from the Churchill (the shuttle) over to the alien vessel where they discover the interior to be more organic in nature rather than mechanical. They soon come across a huge number of alien corpses, who are remarkably bat-like in their appearance. Amidst the floating corpses the crew find what appear to be three naked humanoid bodies in glass boxes, apparently in some kind of suspended animation.

At this stage the wise move would be to leave the alien lifeforms where they are and get assistance, thereby not risking bringing anything harmful back to their ship that could run amok and, well, kill them all……….. So naturally the crew decide to bring the three humanoids back to the ship and return to Earth. The consequences are naturally dire, as contact is lost with the shuttle and a rescue mission is launched, sending the space shuttle Columbia to find out just what the heck is going on. The rescuers soon find that the interior of Churchill has been almost completely decimated by a fire. All that has survived the trip back to Earth are the three glass containers with the humanoids inside, who are immediately transported to the European Space Research Centre in London (yes really, London).

At this point things start to go pear-shaped as the aliens turn out to be anything but nice as they begin to literally suck the life out of their captors and in turn set off a chain event of transforming the populace of London to a fellow life sucking Zombies. The race is on to save humanity from having the life-force sucked out of it by these space vampires.
"Look at me everybody, apparently I'm a bit gorgeous"

Now before I start with such lesser topics as dialogue and plot, I'll get to it straightaway. When I mean 'it', I mean something far more important, and one of the foremost associations that many minds have with this movie (both positive and negative) - her name is Mathilda May. The 18 year old French girl & in only her second acting experience, plays the female vampire completely naked throughout the film (well except for in a couple of brief scenes). I will leave it up to others far more able and qualified to examine whether this is another example of cinematic female exploitation (after all, neither of her fellow male aliens at any time display the 'sexual tackle' bestowed upon them), or if the filmmakers intention it was to exemplify the message of the female empowerment of her sexual irresistibility to all. Whatever the view some may have, the truth that cannot be denied is that her brave and fearless performance has a genuine spectral and supernatural edge about it that perfectly compliments the genuine erotic nature of her appearance and interpretation. I do not wish to dismiss the suggestion that it is exploitation, however it is the stuff of a million male fantasies - now maybe that's the real reason why my girlfriend didn't want me to go and see it……….

Lifeforce it neither a bad film or a great one, however it does have clear examples of both extremes within it. The movie didn't perform at all well on it's initial cinematic release, and while that may be partly my fault, it's safe to say that critics and audiences alike were intrigued and confused in equal measure on it's first viewings. In part this is due to the movie's numerous influences, it's almost as if the homages were fighting to be acknowledged. A prime example are the opening scenes where the astronauts first come across the alien ship and travel through its interior is a clear reference to Ridley Scott's masterpiece, Alien.

"Nothing to see here guys….move along, move along"

The fact that the screenwriter was also responsible for writing that seminal movie is perhaps no coincidence with the slow atmospheric build up as the humans head towards the alien ship and then the journey through a very organic-living spacecraft interior (all accompanied by a majestic musical score by Henry Mancini). 

Another more implicit influence on Lifeforce are the various parallels to the familiar Dracula story with Vampires brought back to our shores only for him/her to escape and wreak havoc upon the people and place it finds itself in. This reference is has been clearly identified by Tobe Hooper himself who says in one of the interview extras that he consciously wanted the alien spacecraft to have an authentic classical Gothic look, or as he puts it “The look of the ship in my head was Dracula's castle…."

Indeed, The whole movie can been seen as a disjointed concoction of of different themes within one movie - we start with a traditional creepy strange alien found in space, then we move onto to an alien invasion of earth with the final third of the film morning into a more modern day obsession of a Zombie apocalypse taking over one of our major cities. 
This very unevenness has confused and distracted critics and audiences alike ever since it's initial release.

Yes, this is something of a mishmash of a concept and film, though that could be explained in part by the films legendary complex and problematic production and post-production history. Not only did the film-shoot quickly fall behind schedule, it soon started to go well over-budget as the film studio, Cannon, began to lose what little control it had over it's films finances (hence one of the many reasons for the demise of one of the last great hopes for the British cinema industry). The result was the non-filming of key scenes and some lingering mechanical issues with the Zombie characters malfunctioning on a regular basis. These were but two problems, there were many, many more.

Things didn't get any better in post-production when it seemed at times that the movie would never see the light of day. The initial cut of the film came out at 128 mins which Tobe Hooper said was needed to fully cater to the ambitious themes, messages and feel of the movie - otherwise, he said, the story just wouldn't make sense. However both the film company and the home distributors practically choked on their prawn sandwiches at the expansive running time and insisted that nearly 30 mins was chopped off, many of them taking place at the beginning of the film on the space shuttle Churchill. Not only that, it was felt that the 'overtly British' feel of the film would put off wider (American) audiences so a number of the British performances (notably that of Nicholas Ball) were not only trimmed, some were cut completely, but also some voices were over-dubbed with American actors - Tobe was not pleased.

Finlay and Finch search frantically
 for their careers
Another uneven quality to the film is the acting and certain plot issues. Lifeforce boasts something of a stellar British cast with the likes of acting stalwarts such as Frank Finlay, Peter Finch, Nicholas Ball and a pre-Star Trek Next Generations Patrick Stewart - to name but a few. Some of the performances, particularly from Finlay are truly excellent and evenly played and only rarely encroaching on the territory of the 'Ham'. However, some of the other performances are less convincing, for example, Steve Railback's performance in the central role being at times somewhat toe-curling and bordering on histrionic. 

The dialogue too at times is hard to believe, with such lines as "Don't worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex."….. which is soon to be followed by the classic "Now she has clothes". Shakespeare this aint.

Oh and yes, there are certain plot issues that I've always had. For instance, just what the hell sort of organisation brings back three potentially threatening aliens back to Earth and puts them in a complex guarded by a few unarmed middle-aged overweight men?

However for all it's faults, and there are quite a few, I truly love this movie. What it occasionally lacks in logic, structure and dialogue, it makes for in spades in other areas. Mathilda May is not only delicious but utterly convincing in her role as the life sucking alien. The special effects provide a knuckle ride of an experience at times from the beginnings of the alien ship exploration through the blue light life forcing sucking visuals and finally right through to London's violent Zombie apocalypse.

Some may call this a so-bad-that-it's-good-guilty-pleasure of a movie experience, but it's far more (and better) than that. It is almost Tobe Hooper's whole career in one single movie - periods of brilliance mixed with moments of ordinaryness and all surrounded with a modicum of chaos. Hooper has not directed a movie of the stature and budget of Lifeforce since, that may be down partly to his own reserved character and well-known shyness or partly due to the politics of contemporary film making. Tobe Hooper deserves much more than that.  

One is for certain is that I love this film. Yes it is unevenly chaotic at times and utterly brilliant at others - it sort of reminds me of myself…….
It is widely considered (well at least between me and a mate after an online discussion yesterday) that in the last year or so, Arrow Films have noticeably raised their game in terms of the quality of their releases. Whatever your opinion on the quality of the movie itself, one cannot deny that once again they have kept up the constantly high standard of treatment and packaging. In terms of the visual treatment, the effect is simply jaw-dropping with the crispness and colour quality that at times overwhelms the visual input - the transfer is simply excellent.

The BluRay release comes on two separate discs - one with the original American theatrical release version and the other is the international version which is the far superior of the two as it is the fuller 116 min cut and resembles far more Hooper's original look for the film rather than the one cut and butchered by the American distributors. 
The restoration in particular highlights the high standard of the original lighting, photography and especially the special effects which were put into the film's production - The scenes of, and inside the alien ship, together with the subsequent 'battle for London' simply take on a further breathtaking quality of clarity and detail. The film is now quite simply a stunning visual feast for the eyes.

The ears don't lose out either as a result of the restoration, the music and sound effect quality means that the restored master audio mix is astonishing in it's clarity, adding tension and fear during the action sequences and providing a genuine level of atmospheric on other set-pieces. All of which serves to envelop and consume you completely as it combines with the visual elements - It is quite possibly the best sound 're-vamp' for a BlueRay release that I have heard for quite some time.

As usual Arrow films provide a genuine profusion of extra special feature goodies to further tempt us.

2-Disc Blu-ray Special Edition Features:

- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of both the Theatrical and International Versions, transferred from original elements by MGM with supervision by director Tobe Hooper

- Optional uncompressed 2.0 Stereo PCM and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround Sound

- Isolated Music and Effects Sound Track

- Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

- Audio commentary with Tobe Hooper, moderated by filmmaker Tim Sullivan

- Audio commentary with Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Douglas Smith, moderated by filmmaker and scholar Howard S. Berger 

- Audio commentary with make-up effects artist Nick Maley, moderated by filmmaker Michael Felsher

- Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce - An epic UK-exclusive look at the genesis, production and release of Lifeforce featuring interviews with Hooper, producer Michael J. Kagan, editor John Grover, actors Aubrey Morris and Nicholas Ball, makeup artist Sandra Exelby, screenwriter Michael Armstrong, sound designer Vernon Messenger, artistic designers Tom Adams and Douglas Smith and effects artist John Schoonraad

- Space Vampires in London: An interview with Tobe Hooper

Blimey, someone still looks a bit hot….
- Dangerous Beauty: An interview with Mathilda May, Lifeforce’s iconic star.

The still remarkably gorgeous French actress talks candidly about the strange experience of being 18 and able to speak virtually no English in London AND spending most of the production naked. Her account of the nerve it took to stand and perform with out any clothes on in front of so many people and her lack of regret of the experience whilst acknowledging that she wouldn't do it again, is refreshing and humorous. She gives a lovely account of her time before and during the movie recounting how all her dialogue was learnt phonetically in her only one previous acting experience. Indeed, she confides that much her English speaking performance was leant from listening to and copying Frank Finlay's magnificent speaking voice.

- Carlsen’s Curse: Star Steve Railsback looks back on Lifeforce and his career

- Original Theatrical Trailer

- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin

- Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by science fiction expert Bill Warren, a new interview with Oscar-winning visual effects artist John Dykstra by Calum Waddell, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

This article can also be found on that most excellent of websites UKHorrorScene.

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