Tuesday, September 20, 2011

CMBA Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon: Lifeforce

Check out all the great reviews in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon.

Let's get the controversy out of the way: I'm not even sure that Lifeforce is a guilty pleasure. I don't feel guilty watching it, even though it's typically not considered a good movie. It bombed at the boxoffice and received mostly negative reviews. Still, the same can be said for many films I enjoy watching. Additionally, I am not alone in my admiration for Lifeforce. It has attracted a small cult following over the years and, if midnight movies were still in vogue at mainstream cinemas, I could see it gaining in popularity.

Lifeforce opens with the HMS Churchill, a space station, discovering a huge, pencil-shaped object in the head of Halley's Comet. Colonel Tom Carlsen leads a search party that discovers a bunch of crunchy dead creatures...plus three comatose human-looking aliens--one female and two males--enclosed in crystal-like containers. Shortly after Carlsen and crew evacuate the crystal-enclosed aliens to the Churchill, communications break down between the space station and the European Space Research Centre back on Earth.

The female alien...she's bad news!
When a rescue team is dispatched, it finds burned corpses and damaged equipment inside the Churchill. In fact, the only items not destroyed are the crystal cases with the aliens. The cases are transported to Earth, where they're stored in the Research Centre and guarded closely. Too closely, it turns out when a security guard--infatuated with the naked female alien--gets too close to the crystal container. It opens, she kisses the guard, and then sucks the energy out of him, leaving a shriveled corpse on the floor.

Learning of these events, the center's director, Dr. Fallada (Frank Finlay), proclaims: "Don't worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex." A few minutes later, after she's dispatched three guards and blown out the glass front of the building, the naked alien girl walks out of it.

The life force is sucked out!
To compound the situation, it turns out that the female alien's victims come back to life after two hours, but require "regular infusions of energy" to stay alive. Wait, it gets much worse: the two male aliens escape; we learn the female creature can move from body to body; and Colonel Carlsen returns to Earth in an escape pod and reveals he has a telepathic connection with the female alien.

Intriguing ideas--some original, some derivative--zip around Lifeforce like the electric currents emitted by the "naked alien girl" (Mathilda May). The film is officially based on Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires, although the proceedings have a definite Nigel Kneale feel to them. In fact, part of the film's appeal is that it reminds me of Kneale's brilliant Quatermass and the Pit, both thematically and visually. Both films propose that alien beings played a role in mankind's past, both climax with thousands of homicidal "humans" running around a burning London, and both use metal to dispatch the creatures. Interestingly, Neale's earlier The Quatermass Experiment ends in Westminster Abbey while Lifeforce stages its climax in a cathedral.

There are also similarities to Mario Bava's 1965 sci fi/horror film Planet of the Vampires, which has "space vampires" taking over members of a crew. The Hidden, which appeared two years after Lifeforce, expands on the premise of the alien moving from body to body (and adds an amusing "buddy film" spin to the proceedings).

Peter Firth as Colonel Caine.
Most of the cast in Lifeforce consists of solid British thespians like Finlay, Michael Gothard, and Patrick Stewart. The standout is Peter Firth (Equus), who plays Colonel Colin Caine of the Special Air Services, a no-nonsense investigator determined to track down his quarry. Decked in a white turtleneck and leather jacket, Caine is a memorable character worthy of his own movie. As Carlsen, Steve Railsback struggles at times in what is certainly the most difficult role in the film. May, on the other hand, has little to do as the female alien--except walk around in the buff for the majority of her scenes.

Technically, the film is a hodgepodge. Henry Mancini's score has its admirers, while the visual effects are undeniably cheesy. Tobe Hooper's direction is uninspired except for the fiery climax, which contains some striking images of London being destroyed.

There are numerous versions of Lifeforce in circulation. Hooper's cut was 128 minutes, although the final version released in the U.S. ran 101 minutes. In international markets, the running time was 116 minutes (this edition was later released on video and is the one I reviewed). Part of Mancini's score was replaced by musical cues by Michael Kamen in some versions.

Derivative, imaginative, occasionally campy, always entertaining--Lifeforce might leave you feeling a little guilty. But the final verdict is that the pleasure part will trump that modicum of guilt.


  1. Rick, I'm not a big sci-fan fan, and I most assuredly don't do a lot of B movies, so it should come as no surprise that I haven't viewed this. It sounds really cheesy...or campy, as you say. I wonder why I didn't gain in popularity with the Vamp and Goth set? Not to mention fans of strange alien films--you'd think it would find a niche audience. I'd like to say I'm gonna seek this film out after reading your review--which was fun to read--but I'd be guilty of lying. Thanks for the background, though.

  2. !I know why I didn't gain with the Vamp and Goth set...I meant the movie...LOL!

  3. Love you choice, Rick. A fun movie that I would definitely never acknowledge to anyone I wanted to impress that I like it! It does have a great cast, and the story has good stuff, but basically it is a bit of a stinker. Unlike Kim, I LOVE sci-fi, the cheesier the better (well, you know what I mean). Lifeforce has an unpleasant effect on me though - the scenes of the lifeforce being sucked out of people reminds me too much of an ex-husband and some relatives who have done that to me. Brings out so many memories...LOL! I loved your description of the "crunchy dead people"--Ick!! Very entertaining post, Rick -- makes me want to feel guilty and watch it again, despite the memories.....

  4. I really don't like people referring to a film as a "guilty pleasure," and I appreciate your addressing that issue in your opening, Rick. Why feel guilty about a film that you enjoy? LIFEFORCE is a most excellent example of what is but shouldn't be a "guilty pleasure." As you stated, it's derivative with campy effects, but it's also entertaining, which means that either something was done right or done so wrong that it turned out right, and that makes a good film. Don't forget that, as a for instance, some movies thrive on showing the viewers very little due to budgetary restraints, but the limitations work in the filmmakers' favor; it's a similar concept to a movie with subpar components coming together to form a movie that's undeniably watchable.

    Some of LIFEFORCE is played straight, but I don't think it was ever meant to be completely sincere, since the alien (or "space vampire," if you will) was a beautiful woman more often than not sans clothes. I like many of Tobe Hooper's films, but I agree that his work in this film is "uninspired." He had a distinctive documentary-style of filmmaking, which worked wonderfully with TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but not so much with LIFEFORCE. Rick, your write-up on this film is engaging and respectful. I like this movie, too, and I feel not a shred of guilt about enjoying any movie.

  5. I've never heard of "Lifeforce" before. You have me intrigued. It sounds like it might influence some pretty cheesy nightmares. Ooh.

  6. Have not seen this Rick but it sounds like a lot of fun and has a surprisingly good cast. Great write up as always.

    Since you and Sark have brought it up, I just want to add that it would be interesting to hear everyone's opinion (everyone who participated)on just what constitutes a "guilty pleasure." Just from the wonderful reviews I have read I can see a wide variety of thoughts and difference on this.


  7. Rick, up until, Invaders From Mars I liked Tobes work,after that I passed on his films. Maybe I have to give Lifeforce. a look

  8. Well, Rick, this is another so-called "guilty pleasure" I've never seen or heard of...and with a Henry Mancini score! A real outlier, it seems. As I think of it, it also seems that many of the films cited in the GP blogathon are off the beaten path (I like John's idea of getting feedback from blogathon participants on the "guilty pleasure" concept). Great post, Rick.

  9. Rick,
    Between you and Nate I've learned so much about Sci-Fi and 50's Monster films in the past year. It's made me more open to those genres that I've always avoided. After reading your review I think I would actually like this film.

    It never fails does it that when you comment on naked aliens not being able to escape, that very thing always happens? I love the still where you can actually see the transfer of 'Lifeforce' from an alien to the victim. It looks like what you would expect if you dropped a toaster into a bathtub.

    A really interesting film that may or may not be attributed to your fantastic writing. I'm now one of those excited to see it.
    Well done as always Rick.

  10. Rick, I think I've hit on a sequel to LIFEFORCE, called DAY OF THE CRUNCHY DEAD! :-) Your blog post is a great read, as always! I've only given LIFEFORCE my undivided attention once: when I saw it during its original theatrical release. It wasn't my favorite science fiction film, but it had its moments -- just not enough to make me want to put aside whatever I was doing long enough to sit down and watch it. The fellas we know certainly enjoyed seeing Mathilda May in the buff, anyway! :-) However, we got a DVD copy of it that a friend gave us along with a gaggle of other DVDs, so who knows, we might give it a shot. At any rate, I'd be curious to hear Henry Mancini's score, since he wouldn't be the first composer who'd leap to mind for an SF thriller, but I've never heard a Mancini score I didn't like!

  11. I wouldn't call LIFEFORCE "cheesy" nor a "stinker." As Sark said, it may border on campy at times, but it's basically a popcorn movie and, as such, I think it delivers the goods. As for "guilty pleasure," I never feel guilty about watching a movie I enjoy. And I'm not shy about professing my love for films like PARRISH, which are looked down upon in some quarters. In fact, give me enough time and I bet I can go a long way toward convincing you that all my "guilty pleasures" are very good movies worthy of another look.

  12. I don't think anyone was trying to be really insulting or anything - personally I thought the movies chosen were to be ones that no one was that serious about. I know that I like cheesy stinkers, and I watch a lot of them. It's just for fun.

  13. Oh, I didn't take it as insulting at all. I was saying that, personally, I don't consider LIFEFORCE to be a stinker. I don't consider any of my "guilty pleasures" to be bad...even though most of them are considered to be so by others.

  14. Although I have my sci-fi moments, I’m a big fan of Silent Running; I admit I’m guilty of ignorance regarding the genre. I find myself wondering where Lifeforce falls in the grand scheme of films, pre-Alien, post-Alien? I also can’t help wondering about the internal logic of the story (sorry): the arrival of the Churchill prompts a life force suck fest, but the rescue ship manages to bring the alien vampires to earth without incident. Were the aliens simply too full from their first feast to attack the crew of the rescue ship (I’m this nit-picky when I watch Dr. Who, too)?

  15. Hey Rick - Great post as always ... I'm a pretty big sci-fi fan but have to admit I've never seen "Lifeforce". I'll be on the look for it now though ...

  16. Being a true chick, I am not aware of your not-so-guilty pleasure, but you had me at "campy" so now I have to see it! I enjoyed your post immensely!

  17. I wonder if this is the only film of which you can say, 'the naked female alien has left the building' ... I really enjoyed your post and its descriptions ("crunchy dead creatures" is quite evocative). I haven't seen LIFEFORCE, but it sounds like a worthwhile view. A feminist reading of this film might also be quite interesting, particularly since its main female character seems quite powerful.

  18. Please add me to the long list of classic movie fans, who have never seen "Lifeforce". I will be on the look for it.

    I do not think I have ever felt guilty about watching any movie. Maybe.. the last piece of chocolate cake in the house...but, never a movie.

  19. I was wondering how you were going to handle the pics of Mathilda May in this write-up. Nice restraint.

    I love "Lifeforce" because its so gloriously gonzo. I actually prefer the shorter version because it makes even less sense and seems somewhat appropriate for this glorious madhouse of a movie. There wasn't a dull moment in it. It has everything in it but the proverbial kitchen sink.

    I second your recommendation for a series of movies featuring the Colonel Caine character. I'd be there opening night.

    I love the Mancini score, especially the driving end title music, which is one of the great end title cues of all time. It's like a mini overture.

    A few years after the movie came out Henry Mancini came to Chicago to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an evening of movie music. I wasn't able to go but a friend of mine did and one of the pieces he conducted was the end title from "Lifeforce." The CSO playing Lifeforce"! The mind boggles.

  20. Steve Railsback struggles at times in what is certainly the most difficult role in the film

    I think Railsback's struggle has more to do with the fact that every time I look at him I say "Charlie Manson!"--even when I'm watching a movie like The Stunt Man.

    I'd agree with most people that Lifeforce is probably no great shakes, but I'm a sucker for a Tobe Hooper movie, a filmmaker who never really received his due after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one of my favorite horror films (I know his name is on Poltergeist but most of the known universe argues it's all really Spielberg). I never really made the connection between this movie and Quatermass and the Pit (man, do I love that movie) but I'm glad you were sharp enough to pick up on it. Great review, Rick!

  21. This was an entertaining post about "Lifeforce" and I especially enjoyed the comparisons to "Quatermass and the Pit." Great job, Rick!

  22. I have to agree Rick. It's not bad, nor is it cheesy. It's simply a film. I only saw the picture once (I think) and the only thing it did for me was make me wonder why I came to see it. Matilda May was most likely told "this could be your big break" in an effort to get her out of her clothes. I'd rate it it a 3 out of 10.

  23. Rick, I love this movie and it's one of my favorite sci-fi films. I don't think of this movie as a guilty pleasure because it is a well made in my opinion. I don't pay much attention to special effects in sci-fi movies because I find myself so absorbed by the story I don't care. The movie is not campy, not derivative nor is it cheesy and I am not offended by any nudity in a film. I think it was rather original in plot and unique for the time it was made. I agree with Kevin that the main theme is haunting. The lifeforce idea instead of blood for vampire food is a great plot. I love this film and like Sark said, I don't feel the least bit guilty when I watch it. I just sit down, turn it on, and don't analyse it but enjoy it. Enjoyed your review too by the way!

  24. I get the "guilty pleasure" reference. As someone added a disclaimer of "...and I most assuredly dont do a lot of B Movies...," above, illustrating the idea, i couldn't help but smile at the irony. People always have to pick apart SOME THING, and it usually ends up a fail. Irony and totally not getting "it"=fail. I always feel some type of "way" when I am surprised by a movie considered "B" because, well- a lot of movies display typical qualities that make them labeled as such. Unfortunately, because of this, we have a culture of treating the enjoyment of them like a guilty pleasure, because we are taught to judge; I shouldn't want this or I should be doing that.
    Back to being surprised, that's exactly what this movie did to me. It had all traits mentioned in review, but some decent acting peppered throughout kept my interest, esp. Peter Firth. I did also find the endingunderwhelming. while definitely amused that he was in love with the alien. Not shocked (insert sexist snicker),
    Thanks for the thread. Most of all the decent review. Its refreshing to read one that's intelligent and right on. Heather S.