Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Cannon Files: LIFEFORCE (1985)

(UK - 1985)

Directed by Tobe Hooper.  Written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby.  Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard, Nicholas Ball, Aubrey Morris, Nancy Paul, John Hallam, Chris Jagger, Bill Malin, John Forbes-Robertson, Peter Porteous. (R, 101 mins/116 mins)

When Menahem Golan offered him a job directing an adaptation of Colin Wilson's 1976 novel The Space Vampires, Tobe Hooper was coming off of the 1982 blockbuster POLTERGEIST, produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, a film that's still shrouded in controversy over which person did what 31 years after the fact.  Hooper had already established himself thanks to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), EATEN ALIVE (1977), the TV miniseries SALEM'S LOT (1979), and THE FUNHOUSE (1981).  But he was also fired from two other horror films (1979's THE DARK and 1982's VENOM) and had to be frustrated with the endless gossip that he was just Spielberg's puppet on POLTERGEIST, a film that was supposed to elevate Hooper to the A-list, but only left him in Spielberg's shadow.  Spielberg called their working relationship "collaborative," but many associated with the film say Hooper had to run his decisions by Spielberg and that Spielberg was present nearly every day of production and was essentially calling the shots even with Hooper on the set. When POLTERGEIST was being shot in the summer of 1981, Spielberg had RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in theaters and was about to begin work on E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL in the fall, and part of his E.T. deal with Universal stipulated that he couldn't direct another film for another studio in the meantime (MGM was handling POLTERGEIST).  When POLTERGEIST was released in June 1982, critics and moviegoers considered it Spielberg's project.  The controversy was enough for the Director's Guild of America to launch an investigation that yielded no real conclusions, but by the time he met up with Golan,  Hooper was eager to show everyone that he didn't need Spielberg to make a Spielberg-sized blockbuster.  He wanted vindication, which Golan and Yoram Globus were ready to provide--with some help--in the form of a whopping $25 million budget, more than double what POLTERGEIST cost to make.  LIFEFORCE--which was shot as SPACE VAMPIRES, with the title change taking place during post-production as all parties involved thought it sounded too much like a B-horror flick--was going to be Cannon's and Hooper's biggest project yet, and was the first of a three-picture deal Hooper made with Cannon, who also agreed to finance his remake of INVADERS FROM MARS as well as his long-awaited THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (both films were released in the summer of 1986). 

The much-ballyhooed Cannon/Hooper alliance failed to financially pay off.  Only TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 made back its cost as LIFEFORCE and INVADERS FROM MARS tanked at the box office.

To help with the then-immense cost of LIFEFORCE, Cannon set up a US distribution deal with Tri-Star, who covered a little over half of the budget and pulled rank by re-editing the US theatrical version, cutting 15 minutes out of it (mostly at the beginning, which unfolds in a very choppy fashion in the US cut but plays much more ominously effective in the longer version), revoicing the British astronauts with American accents, and adding some incidental music by Michael Kamen and James Guthrie along with the film's regular score by the legendary Henry Mancini (again, Cannon sparing no expense).  Cannon had enjoyed some success and was gaining momentum in production and distribution, and LIFEFORCE was to be their attempt to get into the Spielberg/George Lucas big leagues, but of course, much like selling Charles Bronson films to an aging audience that wasn't really interested in seeing the more exploitative elements, they failed to realize that the Spielberg/Lucas films didn't center on hot, naked vampire women from space.  Sure, if you, like me, were a 12-year-old kid when LIFEFORCE came out, you loved it and probably still do today at 40.  And if your mom dropped you and a couple of like-minded 12-year-old friends off at the theater, you probably bought tickets to THE GOONIES and snuck into LIFEFORCE.  LIFEFORCE only grossed $11 million, but I'm sure it lost at least a few million thanks to boob-obsessed junior-high-age Fangoria readers doing exactly what we did.

Very much a product of its time (Hooper directed Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself" video and wanted Idol to play one of the male vampires, but the closest he got to a rocker was Mick Jagger's younger brother Chris), LIFEFORCE, just released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory (both versions are included), opens with a joint US/British space mission to investigate Halley's Comet, which was due to return in 1986.  The crew of the Churchill, led by American Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), discovers a 150-mile-long space ship in the tail of the comet, housing large bat carcasses and three encased, nude bodies--two male and one female--that are human-like in appearance.  When Earth loses contact with the ship, a rescue team is sent and discovers the ship destroyed by fire, with only the three encased figures remaining.  They're brought to a government research facility in London, overseen by Dr. Fallada (Frank Finlay) and the bureaucratic Bukovsky (Michael Gothard).  Soon, the female alien (Mathilda May) awakens and draws the life out of a security guard, feeding on the energy--the "lifeforce"--and promptly escapes.  As SAS officer Caine (Peter Firth) investigates, Churchill's escape pod lands in Texas, with only Carlsen onboard.  Carlsen arrives in London and is haunted by nightmares that reveal he has some kind of psychic link with the Space Girl, who is able to enter the bodies of host victims to spread a vampiric contagion not by drinking blood, but by literally drawing--sucking--the life out of her victims.

It only gets crazier from there, as Hooper, working from a script by sci-fi/horror vet Dan O'Bannon (ALIEN, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and Don Jakoby, with some uncredited contributions by MARK OF THE DEVIL director Michael Armstrong and CRUCIBLE OF HORROR and THE GODSEND screenwriter Olaf Pooley, throws London into chaos and martial law with a vampire plague creating a horde of rampaging zombies, a large bat demon, and a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart as a doctor possessed by the Space Girl.  LIFEFORCE combines elements of '80s blockbusters, old-school QUATERMASS sci-fi, vintage Hammer horror, modern special effects splatter, and the kind of zombie apocalypse mayhem that George Romero wanted to do with DAY OF THE DEAD before his budget got slashed.  It's beautifully-made, epic in scope, with impressive visual effects by the great John Dykstra, but with a debuting May completely nude for about 98% of her screen time (19 at the time of filming, she became an instant cult horror icon with this, and has a pretty good sense of humor about it on the Blu-ray bonus features, and yes, she still looks great), it also feels like an B-grade exploitation flick.  In a way, it perfectly sums up the dichotomy of Cannon's glory days:  it's essentially a simple horror story that could've come from Hooper's or O'Bannon's salad days, but like its legendary producers, it has aspirations toward greatness.  When I say LIFEFORCE bites off more than it can chew, it's one of those rare instances where it's meant as a compliment.  It has a bold, go-for-broke attitude and its balls-to-the-wall insanity--marvel at Railsback's scenery-chewing performance--is infectious.  It's the kind of film that works just as well if you approach it as a serious, unsung classic of modern sci-fi/horror or if you make it the main feature for your next Bad Movie Night.  LIFEFORCE is the kind of movie where anything can happen at any moment.

LIFEFORCE, in its truncated 101-minute cut, opened in US theaters on June 21, 1985.  It landed in fourth place at the box office (Ron Howard's COCOON opened the same day) and got generally negative reviews.   Not surprisingly, horror fans were more appreciative of it and it found a significant cult over the years (this reappraisal was also helped once Hooper's intended version became available on DVD).  LIFEFORCE gets a little too batshit at times for its own good and has more ideas than it can handle in two hours, but there's no denying that it's one of the essential sci-fi/horror films of the 1980s, and easily Hooper's most ambitious work as a filmmaker. 

Hooper immediately followed LIFEFORCE with INVADERS FROM MARS (in theaters June 1986), and the extremely rushed THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (shot in June/July 1986 and somehow in theaters by late August 1986).  LIFEFORCE didn't catapult Hooper on to the A-list, and in fact, his association with Golan & Globus has, thus far, constituted his last noteworthy work as a director.  He did some hired-gun TV gigs in the '80s and '90s, but the last quarter century, with rare exception, has seen Hooper mired in one of the worst extended slumps ever endured by a major filmmaker.  Since 1986, he's had one troubled production and terrible movie after another:  1990's SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, 1993's NIGHT TERRORS, and 1995's THE MANGLER range from awful at best to unwatchable at worst.  Hooper spent a good chunk of the 2000s teaming with fanboy horror hacks Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch (co-writers of Dario Argento's MOTHER OF TEARS and the useless 2010 remake of NIGHT OF THE DEMONS) on DTV fodder like 2000's CROCODILE, 2005's TOOLBOX MURDERS (a remake of the 1978 grindhouse classic), and 2006's MORTUARY.  His most recent effort, the United Arab Emirates-financed horror film DJINN, was completed in 2011 but has yet to be released. It's great that Shout! Factory has assembled such a nice package for their LIFEFORCE Blu-ray and got the now-70-year-old Hooper to contribute a commentary.  He seems like a smart guy who knows his horror history.  He obviously knows how to make good movies, and milestones like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, SALEM'S LOT, and POLTERGEIST, and cult classics like THE FUNHOUSE and LIFEFORCE have cemented his place in horror history.  But it's troubling to consider that this influential and talented horror legend hasn't really been able to get it together for over 25 years.  Despite high points like LIFEFORCE and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, Hooper has never been able to shake the POLTERGEIST controversy, making it sadly ironic that the biggest commercial success to feature the credit "Directed by Tobe Hooper" was, in retrospect, the first major step in the derailing of his career.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Mark, for explaining what happened on the set of Poltergeist and for encouraging me to seek out this movie.