There’s a point in Tobe Hooper’s film Lifeforce where Mathilda May has some clothes on. Blink though and you’ll miss it.
Whenever I mention Lifeforce to people who have heard of the film, May’s constant state of nudity is the first thing anyone mentions, and indeed, rewatching it again after having not seen it in some years, it is quite hard not to be overwhelmed by May’s ample talents. However, there’s more to this film than May’s towering assets, as impressive as they are.
Lifeforce marked director Tobe Hooper’s first feature for Cannon Films. He would also helm Invaders from Mars (1986) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) for the studio as part of a three picture deal; both of those movies have gone on to become cult classics in their own right. Lifeforce was originally supposed to be titled The Space Vampires after the 1976 novel by Colin Wilson of the same name the film is based on. However, the studio opted to change it to avoid the film being lumped with the low budget exploitation fare the studio was synonymous with. Cannon wanted this to be a blockbuster, but their idea of a blockbuster was different to that of other studios.
Interestingly, the project had originally being offered to Michael Winner, whose Death Wish sequels remain some of Cannon’s finest output. When Hooper signed up for the project, he was fresh off the back of a huge hit with 1982’s chiller Poltergeist. Now we all know Spielberg supposedly had his hand in that pot, but Hooper was a hot commodity in genre films nonetheless. Lifeforce was given a big budget and boasted a fairly impressive cast of well known British character actors like Peter Firth, Patrick Stewart and Frank Finlay (who spends most of the film clearly having the absolute time of his life hamming it up). It was clear that Cannon were after a hit, and the talent at their disposal was rather impressive.
But the box office takings weren’t up to scratch for Lifeforce. The film only managed to recoup $11 million back from its $25 million budget. Granted, it did go up against Ron Howard’s family film Cocoon opening day, but even then they should have known better to invest so much money in something this nutzoid. Not that we’re complaining; we wish more studios were this risky. You don’t see movies this bonkers in cinemas too often these days.
Naturally, the film divided critics and audiences right down the middle upon its release, but as the years have passed it’s gone on to garner a loyal fan base and become appreciated for what it is: a silly good time. It’s not a good film by any means, but it has its charms, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another sci-fi film that’s this bat shit insane from a major studio.
The story follows a joint UK/US manned space shuttle, the Churchill, that finds a mysterious object in Halley’s Comet. Upon entering it, they find a load of fossilised aliens who look like giant bats, but three human-like crew remain. These three are taken on board the Churchill, which then suffers a disaster that leaves commander Tom Carleson (Steve Railsback) to explain all to Peter Firth’s SAS colonel Caine, and Finlay’s Doctor Fallada as the bodies of the aliens are taken to London for investigation, which leads to carnage, explosions, zombies and gratuitous shots of Mathilda May’s naked breasts.
If there’s a hint of recognition in the plot that’s because Alien co-creator Dan O’Bannon co-wrote the script, which is utterly terrible throughout the film. Every line of dialogue is so badly written that there’s a point when it transcends how terrible it is to become something utterly unique in the annals of Cannon Films. Instead of it just being a succession of set pieces, it becomes such a roller coaster of insanity that it’s impossible not to have some fun with it. Lifeforce isn’t a hard film to watch. In fact once Frank Finlay pops up, you can just settle in and enjoy the film as much as he clearly is; though I will say the final act when London is falling apart Quatermass and the Pit style, the film is a visually spectacular treat. It also helps that, by this point, there’s not a lot of dialogue or plot to bog it down – just zombies, nudity and hammy acting from people happy to pick up the cheque. Even though Cannon changed the title to distance itself from silly B movies, everything about Lifeforce epitomises one, albeit on a grander scale.
It doesn’t matter that it’s sheer, utter bollocks, Lifeforce is an enjoyable romp. It’s as much of an oddity as it is a big budget British SF/horror/soft porn film, and one can safely say that is a genre all unto itself. Only Cannon would think it a good idea to invest vast sums of money in blockbusters about naked alien women, and it’s this type of decision making that led to its bankruptcy. But it’s also ensured its legacy as a beloved entity in the history of cult cinema.