Saturday, July 13, 2013

Summer Fest 5 (Day One): Lifeforce

 There's no excuse for Lifeforce to be as tedious as it is; there's simply too much talent involved behind the camera to explain how something with such a "can't miss" premise could be this, pun intended, lifeless. If, in 1985, I told you that the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was teaming up with the writer of Alien to make a movie about Space Vampires who create a zombie-like plague in London while Haley's Comet passes over, and oh by the way the lead vampire is played by Mathilda May, who spends 90% of her time on-screen in the nude, you'd already be buying tickets.

 And that's before the icing on the cake that John Dykstra (Star Wars) would be handling visual effects and Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther) would write the score. This is an assemblage of talent rarely seen for a movie about naked space vampires, dammit! Add to the equation a small role by Patrick Stewart, two years out from Star Trek: The Next Generation but already having appeared in Dune and Excalibur. I guess some people might have known Steve Railsback from Helter Skelter or The Stunt Man (he'll always be Duane Barry, the man who kidnapped Dana Scully on The X-Files).

 Yet, Lifeforce is a mostly inert handling of pulp sci-fi / horror that spends entirely too much time as a procedural instead of delivering on its schlock-y premise. After a promising opening in space - where an British-American shuttle Churchill discovers a derelict spacecraft hidden in the tail of Haley's Comet - and an ambiguous flash-forward to the now abandoned ship returning to Earth, we're expecting some fun. The astronauts find a ship filled with giant bat-like creatures, and then what appear to be three coffins: two with what appear to be perfectly preserved men and another with a woman (May), all nude and on display for the mostly male crew to ogle.

 When the coffins are discovered to be intact in the otherwise burnt-out Churchill, they are returned to the European Space Research Centre and an effort is made to conduct an autopsy on the female. She awakens, and with vampiric powers, draws the "life force" out of a guard (visualized as electricity rather than blood), leaving him a quasi-mummified zombie (if it helps, think of the zombies in Night of the Creeps). She then walks out of the facility, despite the better (?) efforts of security, and is free to venture into the English countryside, cavorting nakedly.

 (That last part I simply have to assume since we don't see her again for quite a while).

 I suspect that it's this first part which is remembered by every guy who was once thirteen years old and saw Lifeforce on Cinemax or something to that effect. Not to be crude, but I can't blame them for being "finished" after May wanders off into the night, so they didn't stick around for the long, often tedious parts in between when she returns in dream sequences or at the very end.

 For most of the movie, we're unraveling the mystery of "where she went" and "what does she want" with Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) and the only survivor of the Churchill, Colonel tom Carsen (Railsback), who knows what really happened to the crew and why the ship immolated. That information is doled out at a glacial pace, including a flashback that is then altered with the "real" flashback of what happened, at which point we really don't care anymore.

 The only important part of Carlsen tagging along is that he shares a psychic link with the vampire and can "sense" her when she takes over the bodies of other people. This leads to interrogations of possible "victims" where Carlsen shakes them and demands that she gets "out of my head!," and, in what may be the highlight of the film's drawn out mid-section, when he nearly locks lips with Patrick Stewart's Dr. Armstrong. (Stewart indicated, by the way, that his was his first on-screen kiss)

 Unfortunately, by the time we get to London overrun by zombie-vampire things and more all-nude encounters with May (one time comprised of blood and the other in a church basement), the damage has been done. People have fallen asleep on the couch and the Cap'n is just barely staying awake, mostly out of a "dammit, if nobody else will, I'll finish this damned thing!"

 I suppose you could say that Hooper was past his prime (there are the continued arguments about whether he really directed Poltergeist or not) but I would point out that Dan O'Bannon, who in addition to writing the screenplay for Alien also wrote and directed Return of the Living Dead the very same year Lifeforce came out. Return of the Living Dead is exactly the kind of movie that Lifeforce should have been, in terms of embracing its B-movie roots, if not necessarily tonally. Lifeforce doesn't need to be parodic, per se, but it damn well would have benefited from embracing a pulpier tone. I haven't read Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires, but it appears that O'Bannon and co-writer Don Jakoby (Arachnophobia, Blue Thunder) augmented some of the more outlandish elements in adapting the novel.

 The end result seems to be a film that wants to be serious but also feels the need to have a 20-year-old ballerina wandering around without clothes for as long as possible. And sometimes shoot electricity out of her crotch. Somehow the two sides of Lifeforce's ambitions never join to make a cohesive whole. Instead, we're left with a movie designed to appeal to young men that runs out of steam, stumbles along for another hour, and then reaches a hastily cobbled together apocalyptic climax, with some unintentional hilarity in the meantime.

 Luckily, things could only go up from Lifeforce... right? Stay tuned for Saturday's coverage, beginning with Prisoners of the Lost Universe. Surely that's an improvement...

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