Bonus Features: Lifeforce (1985)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1985’s Lifeforce, finds screenwriter Dan O’Bannon returning to the retro sci-fi horror he revived to great success in Ridley Scott’s Alien (and, less famously, in John Carpenter’s Dark Star).  Just like in Alien, Lifeforce follows an unprepared crew of astronauts who are lured by a mysterious distress signal to a hostile alien landscape (in this case, on the surface of Halley’s Comet), where they’re hunted by the horrific creatures who inhabit it (in this case, soul-sucking nudist vampires).  By the time those creatures become stowaways on the space crew’s return to Earth, it’s clear that O’Bannon was recalling a very specific subgenre of Atomic Age sci-fi from his youth in both films; what’s unclear is what exact retro sci-fi titles he was referencing.

After revisiting Alien and watching Lifeforce for the first time this year, I did find myself curious about what Atomic Age sci-fi cheapies had influenced their shared tropes.  What I found was a group of cheap, quaint space travel pictures with a remarkable narrative overlap in O’Bannon’s screenplays.  Alien & Lifeforce are both updated to the modern horror tastes of their times, but there were plenty of retro space travel cheapies that mapped out the future details of their shared plot structure.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see the vintage prototypes for its distinctly 1980s mayhem.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

You can’t ask for a much more straightforward, no-frills prototype for O’Bannon’s stowaway space alien invasions than It! The Terror from Beyond Space.  Even though the film’s rubber-masked pig-man is more adorable than scary, the way it hides in the rafters & crawl spaces of its Earthling victims’ spaceship is pure Alien.  It’s the kind of 1950s space travel thriller where the poster declares “$50,000 guaranteed by a renowned insurance company to the first person who can prove It is not on Mars now!” (despite the fact that It spends most of the runtime on a spaceship, not its Martian home planet).  It also laid out a roadmap to the kinds of stowaway alien invasion movies that O’Bannon would later emulate in his two biggest productions.

It!  The Terror Beyond Space even introduces its Earthling spaceship crew chatting around the dinner table, which is how audiences got familiar with the crew of Nostromo in Alien.  The stark difference here is that the women onboard the ship are mostly around to serve the men coffee at that table, and to tend to their wounds after the Martian creature attacks.  O’Bannon originally wrote Eleanor Ripley as a man, and his domineering nudist vampire villain in Lifeforce isn’t exactly the personification of Feminism, but you still have to credit him for giving his women characters something more to do than hang around as waitresses & cheerleaders.

Queen of Blood (1966)

In a lot of ways Queen of Blood is the least substantial of these Alien prototypes, if not only because it’s one of those AIP/Corman cheapies that were built out of Americanized scraps of better-funded, more imaginative Soviet sci-fi films — lurking among throwaway titles like Battle Beyond the Sun & Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.  It’s the one that most closely resembles the plot of Lifeforce, though, in that its stowaway alien invader is a wordless, beautiful woman who feeds on the blood of men like a vampire.  You’d think that of all the retro sci-fi films of this ilk this would be the one titled Planet of the Vampires—since Mario Bava’s own eerie Alien prototype doesn’t feature any actual vampires—but the title Queen of Blood is just as badass, so we’ll have to let that slide.

It’s hard to know exactly what to praise in Queen of Blood, since so much of its sci-fi spectacle is borrowed wholesale from the Soviet film Mechte Navstrechu, but its titular, green-skinned vampire queen is fabulous; she’s got a whole Juno Birch thing going on and it’s wonderful.  Not for nothing, but the film’s space crew also include prominent female scientists who actively save the day as the horndog men around them fall victim to the vampire, which is more than you can say for either Lifeforce or It!  The Terror Beyond Space.

The Green Slime (1968)

If you want to see the retro Alien prototype at its goofiest, you likely won’t do any better than 1968’s The Green Slime, a sci-fi creature feature collaboration between MGM and the Japanese studio Toei.  From its funky psych-rock theme song to its adorable X from Outer Space-style miniatures, to its slimy rubber monster, The Green Slime is pure kitsch.  Many of its plot details overlap with the specifics of Alien, though, despite that goofiness: its stowaway creatures’ lethally corrosive blood, its menacing stockpile of alien eggs, its doomed crew members’ refusal to adhere to proper quarantine protocol, etc.  You can practically picture little baby O’Bannon propped in front of his cathode-ray TV scribbling notes on how to tell an alien invasion story.

The Green Slime was mocked on the pilot episode for Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and it’s easy to see why they thought it left enough dead air for the show’s riffing to fill.  Its adorable old-school special effects work compensates for its lethargic pacing issues, though, and it’s the only film on this list that even vaguely resembles the batshit goofballery that O’Bannon would later indulge in Lifeforce.  It’s a shame that Lifeforce didn’t have its own titular theme song, though, since the one for The Green Slime is such a delight:

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Lifeforce (1985)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Lifeforce (1985).

Brandon:  Lifeforce is a Golan-Globus production directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper and adapted from the sci-fi pulp novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for Alien.  It is an absurdly lavish production for a Cannon Group film—or really for any film with this chaotic of an imagination—especially considering the scrappier genre pictures its creators usually helm. 

It starts as an Alien-style sci-fi pulp throwback where dormant “space vampires” are discovered in both bat & humanoid form on an abandoned spaceship parked on Haley’s Comet, then brought back to London for scientific examination.  Once the lead vampire awakes on the autopsy table and sucks the electrified “lifeforce” out of the first nearby victim, the boundaries of the film’s genre classification explode into every possible direction.  This is at times an alien invasion film, a body-possession story, a sci-fi spin on vampire lore, a post-Romero zombie apocalypse picture, and an all-around genre meltdown whatsit that keeps piling new, upsetting ideas onto each subsequent sequence until you’re crushed by the enormity of its imagination.  With Lifeforce, Hooper & O’Bannon found the rare freedom to stage a gross-out B-picture on a proper Hollywood blockbuster budget, and they indulged every bizarre idea they could conjure in the process – complete with extravagant practical effects and a swashbuckling action-hero score performed by The London Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been meaning to make time for Lifeforce since as far back as our buddies at the We Love to Watch podcast covered it five years ago.  I am not surprised that I loved it, but I was delighted to discover how much its space-vampire mayhem is a supernatural form of erotic menace, which is my #1 horror sweet spot.  It would have been more than enough for the soul-sucking space-vampires to turn Earthlings into exploding dust-zombies & leaky bloodsacks, but what really made me fall in love is how they start the process by hypnotizing their victims with intense horniness. 

Like with Alien, Dan O’Bannon is playing with the psychosexual terror lurking just below the surface of retro sci-fi relics like Queen of Blood & The Astounding She-Monster, but the approach to modernizing that erotic menace is much more heteronormative here than with the male-pregnancy & penetrative fears of H.R. Giger’s iconic alien designs.  Lifeforce portrays modern-day London as a city of sexually repressed Conservative men whose greatest fear is a confident, nude woman.  The lead nudist vampire is not only too sexy & self-assured for the terminally British subs who fall under her spell, she also terrorizes them by linking that intense erotic attraction to the blurred gender boundaries of their own psyches.  Some of the best scenes of the film are when her victims describe her as “the most overwhelmingly feminine presence [they’ve] ever encountered” or when she confesses that her physical form is just a projection of the femininity trapped inside their own minds.  By the time a silhouette of her breasts is framed as if it were Nosferatu‘s creeping shadow, I was fully in love with the way this film attacks its uptight macho victims through the vulnerability of their erotic imaginations.  I love a good wet nightmare, and it was endlessly fun to watch them squirm.

Hanna, what do you make of this film’s sexual & gender politics?  Does its erotic terror add anything substantial to the more traditional zombie & vampire scares that throw London into chaos, or does it just feel like an exploitative excuse to cram some straight-boy-marketed nudity onto the screen?

Hanna: Boy howdy!  Lifeforce was one of the exponentially wildest things I’ve seen in recent memory.  Brandon, I think you mentioned The Wicker Man during our screening, which is the exact vein of horny fear I found in this movie; the ill-fated, repressed sexualities of Anglo-Saxon men never cease to delight me.  I was completely on board with a beautiful naked woman walking her way—unbelievably slowly—through quivering throngs of Brits.

Overall, Lifeforce is a fantastic addition to the vampire canon, which has always had lots to say about the terror of sex and sexuality.  Most of the vampire movies I’ve seen feature naturally hot, youthful vamps, lounging around in sensuous mansions.  I’ll never turn down a coven of hot Draculas, but I loved that these vampires of Lifeforce were truly horrifying space hell beasts using the fantasies of their hosts to craft their appearances (I like to imagine the other aliens that these vampires have sucked dry throughout the galaxy – imagine the hottest tentacled space glob in the universe).  Human sexuality is so specific to particular events and images at different moments of a person’s life that I think lots of people don’t understand where their kinks and preferences come from.  I loved that moment Brandon mentioned when the lead space vampire (named “Space Girl” in the credits, which tickles me) tells Col. Carlsen that she’s the manifestation of his femininity; he’s totally locked that aspect of his sexuality away from himself, but it’s plainly obvious and extremely easy to exploit.  What would Space Girl find in my mind?  I kind of want to know, but I kind of don’t!

I do have to say that I was a little disappointed by the exclusive focus on heteronormative sexuality.  On one hand, part of the humor of this movie is that Space Girl exerts minimal effort while successfully throwing London into unchecked chaos with her cadre of androgynous space vampire hunks, due in large part to the desperately horny male leaders of foundational institutions.  Clearly, this was the correct tack to take from a strategic standpoint.  It’s just that for a super sexy movie that featuring exploding dust zombies, shapeshifting space vampires, and a floating, coagulated blob comprised of torrents of Sir Patrick Stewart’s blood, couldn’t we have gotten just a little touch of queer flirtation?  (I guess she sucks the life force out of a woman in the park, but we don’t actually see it happen, so I’m not counting it!) We get a little touch of that in the femininity scene, but I wish the movie would have delved into even kinkier territory.

Boomer, I thought these space vampires were a great direction for film’s hall of vampires.  What did you think?  How do these monsters compare to their terrestrial blueprints? 

Boomer: I was also hung up on the vampires’ heteronormativity.  We spend so much full-frontal time with Space Girl that I could draw her labia from memory right now, weeks after seeing the movie, but we (of course) had plentiful and abundant convenient censorship of our hot space twunks’ docking equipment. I suppose it’s logical that a film that exists solely because of the male gaze and which requires the ubiquity of the male gaze to make narrative sense should also cater solely to it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t complain about it. 

Unusually for me, I prefer my vampire fiction mystical rather than scientific.  It’s not just because most sci-fi vampire films are pretty bad (Daybreakers immediately comes to mind, followed by Bloodsuckers and Ultraviolet); there are plenty of terrible supernatural vampire movies. Still, when measuring good against bad, the ratio of good sci-fi vampires to bad ones skews much more negatively than their magical brethren. As much as I liked Lifeforce, that this (blessed) mess counts as one of the good ones kind of tells you everything that you need to know, right? I just like it when vampires have to glamour people or have to be invited in; I think it makes for more interesting storytelling than vampirism-as-a-virus or, as is the case here, vampires are extraterrestrial beings that suck out life force.  When it comes to twists on the lore, however, there was one thing that I really did like: the reanimation of victims who must likewise consume life energy, and which turn to dust if unable to do so.  The effects in these scenes were nothing short of spectacular, and they were the best part of the film.  I know that they must have been remastered at some point, but those puppets were really something fascinating to behold. 

One of the things that I did have some trouble with was the pacing, especially with regards to character introductions.  For the first 20 minutes or so, it’s like watching 2001 (or Star Trek: The Motion Picture) on fast-forward as spectacular vistas and space structures are explored, before we’re suddenly in a very boring office space, and we’re figuratively and literally down to earth for the rest of the movie.  There’s not that much interesting about any of the spaces we explore (other than that one lady’s apartment with the Liza Minnelli poster), and it felt like every 20 minutes a new guy just sort of walked into the view of the camera and the film became about him for a while.  I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be our protagonist, which left me spinning.  That our leads were all largely indistinguishable white dudes also contributed to this for me; when Steve Railsback reappeared after not having been seen since the ship exploration sequence, I thought he was the same character as the guy who had exploded into dust in the scene immediately prior.  Was this also an issue for you, Britnee?  Did the pacing work for you? 

Britnee: When looking back on the scenery in Lifeforce, all I can recall is the color brown. All of those wood paneled walls and dull office spaces made the sets feel a little musty. The one major exception is when the space crew explores the mysterious 150-mile-long spacecraft (a scale I still can’t wrap my head around). I loved the uncomfortable rectum-looking entrance that leads them to the collection of dried-up bat creatures and the hive of nude “humans” in glass containers. I wasn’t ready to leave that funky space place so quickly. I wanted to see more compartments of the craft explored. There was 150 miles of it after all, and they only went through what seemed to be less than a mile. I know poking around the craft would cost money, but with the massive budget for this film, the money was obviously there. It just should have been spent better. 

As for the pacing, I was so focused on all of the space vampire mayhem that I didn’t pay much attention to all of the boring white guys who were main characters . . . unless they were getting their life sucked out of them and exploding into dust. It was pretty difficult to keep up with who was who and how they plugged into all of the insanity, but it didn’t really bother me because just about everything else in the movie was so much fun. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: Lifeforce would do so well as an animated series. I saw that there was talk about a potential remake, but it seems like animation would be the way to go. That way, there would be fewer financial limitations, so all the freaky stuff could be even freakier. 

Boomer: That both of our male leads (at least I think they’re our leads) had hard-C alliterative names (Colonel Carlsen and Colonel Colin Caine) was a real detriment.  But once Kat pointed out that Carlsen was Steve Railsback, aka Duane Barry, I could at least keep track of him. 

Brandon: I was initially disappointed by the lack of onscreen peen myself, but the more I think about how much this movie is about straight men’s psychosexual discomforts the more I’m okay with it.  If you’re going to frame your lusty B-movie this strictly through male gaze, you need to at least interrogate the limitations & vulnerabilities of that gaze, and I think Lifeforce does that well.  Rather than a remake, I think there’s an angle for a spinoff sequel that follows the two Nude Dudes around the entire night instead of Space Girl, since most of their adventures were off-screen.  Coming to Hulu as soon as Disney buys up the Cannon Group catalog, after they’ve gobbled up the rest of the pop media landscape.

Hanna: Speaking of constant female nudity, my favorite tidbit of trivia about Lifeforce is that it was extremely difficult to find a female lead willing to be naked for the entire movie. Hooper had to resort to chartering a plane of German actresses to London after failing to find an English actress; by the time the actresses got to London, they had collectively agreed not to audition for the part. Thank God for Mathilda May! Maybe it would have been too much trouble to get some peen in the picture; I’m glad we got at least a little ethereal, vampiric nakedness.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2021

-The Swampflix Crew