"I Am A Natural Voyeur": Lifeforce

"I Am A Natural Voyeur": Lifeforce

Accompanying us on any expedition into unexplored frontiers is our primal fear of the unknown, of what might be waiting in the dark. Space is perhaps the ultimate territory of the dark unknown, and therein is set the opening of Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper's adaptation of author Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires. Shuttle astronauts on a voyage to rendezvous with Haley's comet discover an immense spacecraft hidden in its luminescent coma. Within this intergalactic tomb are the stilled bodies of beings who appear to be perfect human specimens. But appearances are just that, and a stilled body is not necessarily a dead one. And like the comet itself, they may have visited our solar system before. Among them is a seductive female who will unleash an epidemic of vampiric chaos upon the city of London, one which will more than justify our collective fears about what lies in the mysterious void beyond our world.

The female in question is constructed from the feminine ideal as it exists in the mind of astronaut Tom Carlson (Steve Railsback). Consequently, he shares a psychic connection with the alien in addition to an intense, addict like yearning for her. The intensity of these is ever present in Railsback's portrayal. How could anyone resist the corporeal manifestation of their dream companion? Furthermore, his ties to her may be deeper than he imagined, and his attraction might be returned. Beyond physical beauty, Mathilda May brings a casual power to her role, the confidence of someone capable of bringing mankind to its knees with a life draining kiss. The character also has none of the human civilizations aversion to nudity, making her way around England without clothing, to the incapacitating surprise of her victims. But she soon abandons one body for a series of others, raising the stakes for her pursuers.

Joining Tom on the hunt is Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth),  who at one point proclaims himself to be a "natural voyeur". He is not necessarily joking. One of my favorite ever genre protagonists, Caine is reminiscent of Peter Cushing's Van Helsing: a relentless, unflinching dagger of reason set against the parasitic power of otherworldly beings. His poised, precise physicality and piercing stare show that he is not one to trifle with, be you man or alien.

One of the most surprising things about Lifeforce is its scale. A Cannon films production, it never feels limited by its budget, managing spectacle in space and throughout a London that succumbs to total vampiric bedlam. The film has its own sense of grandeur. Extra weight is provided by an epic and exuberant score from Henry Mancini. It speaks to what makes the 1980s so very special a decade that a film of this size, with such an imaginative concept, could be released with a well earned R rating. 

The elaborate moments of the story are of course realized through practical means. The optical effects used in the outer space sequences and for trails of spectral energy occaisionally bear the signature imperfection of black outlines on foreground objects, and all feature the uniquely warm glow that such effects from the period often possess. Animatronics and make up effects are done in a similar flavor to that of Rob Bottin's work, more an expression of illustrative design made into three dimensional, tactile reality rather than pedestrian "realism". The eerily alive victims of alien vampirism, reduced to conscious skeletons wrapped tightly in drawn flesh, look instead like the hyper stylized comic book version of real: bolder, weirder, the product of real physical craftsmanship guided by the eye of an artist.

One of my favorite films, I believe Lifeforce o be a genuine cult classic primarily for the way that it perverts the appearance and resources of a nicely produced sci fi mystery with utter insanity. The plot unravels as an accelerating dive into madness, which is nearly the only thing it has in common with Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Once on its feet, hardly ten minutes transpire without a new revelation or strange, otherworldly event, often concerning the biological developments and abilities of its creatures, a focus writer Dan O' Bannon also brought to his previous work on Alien. While the madness expands, the film holds precariously to a thread of coherence, but hold it does. Even when the narrative approaches absurdity, Lifeforce has the wisdom to play it straight. There are no disingenuous winks or nods to the audience, no insecurity about its own identity, as those are the signs of surrender. No artistic cowardice is to be found here, this is the work of a true genre director.

 Hooper was given what would appear to be a healthy budget and seeming artistic freedom, and he returned the favor by delivering a movie maelstrom of nudity, starving vampiric zombies, psychic phenomena, and man sized alien bat monsters. With its intricate, rollicking supernatural-by-way-of-science narrative, an exploitation film's lack of restraint, and a panoply of wild horror visuals, Lifeforce achieves maximum genre amplitude, the dial turned up to and past eleven.  Like the vampires themselves, it may for a short time seem outwardly conventional, but soon to be revealed beneath the façade is a creature of unpredictable ferocity and passion, a film that makes no apologies for what it is, and does as it pleases.

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