Approaching Lifeforce, the notorious naked space vampire movie from 1985 directed by Tobe Hopper, the man responsible for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, my expectations were very low indeed. In fact while it’s every bit as bad a piece of film-making as you’d expect from someone with such a pedigree, there is one huge difference - Lifeforce is tremendous fun!
It’s based on Colin Wilson’s totally insane 1976 novel The Space Vampires, with a script by Dan O’Bannon. He’s best known as the writer of Alien, but perhaps more relevant here is the fact that he also penned John Carpenter’s delirious sci-fi black comedy Dark Star. Most of the interestingly bizarre ideas from Wilson’s novel have been dropped, but that was probably inevitable. Those kinds of off-the-wall philosophical musings are not particularly cinematic, and in any case would be well beyond the range of someone like Tobe Hooper.
What the movie does retain is at least a hint of the psycho-sexual weirdness of Wilson’s book.
An Anglo-American space mission encounters a gigantic alien spacecraft. Inside this ship are what appear to be three perfectly preserved naked corpses, two male and one female. The mission commander, Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback), cannot contact mission control but decides on his own initiative to bring the three bodies back to Earth. But are they really dead?
It soon transpires that the answer to that is, not exactly. These are creatures that, even when dead, can drain a person’s lifeforce. And then come back to life. As an unfortunate guard finds out when he has his lifeforce drained completely by Naked Vampire Space Girl (Mathilda May). And Naked Vampire Space Girl has other talents. She can swap bodies. She escapes from custody and soon the bodies start to pile up. And her victims have some disturbing habits as well, coming back to life after two hours and then (if they are unable to find a convenient lifeforce to exploit) self-destructing spectacularly.
Luckily the British can call on the services of dashing and unflappable SAS hero Colonel Kane (Peter Firth). Although he can’t stop the plot from spiralling wildly out of control. But it doesn’t matter. This movie is at its weakest when it tries to be serious science fiction. Fortunately it hardly ever does so. The crazier it gets, the better it gets.
And then the zombies turn up. Where did they come from? No-one knows, but presumably someone suggested they should have zombies and Tobe Hopper was happy to go along with that since it meant he could add more explosions. Because, you know, if you have zombies you have lots of stuff exploding. And in this movie almost anything can explode at any moment. Tobe Hooper has a touching, almost child-like faith in the idea that if you want excitement in a movie, blow stuff up. His approach to the movie is like a kid with an insanely expensive train set. Except it’s a train set you can blow up.
Strangely enough this is a British movie, even though both writer and director are Americans. It has a few interesting ideas, lots of very 1980s special effects, lots of explosions, and lots of nudity. Mathilda May spends 99 percent of her screen time completely naked. In spite of this I couldn’t honestly say the nudity is gratuitous. Most of her nude scenes are taken directly from the book, and these are vampires that to a considerable degree feed off human sexuality. You could say that the vampires find humans to be perfect victims because human sexuality is essentially vampiric.
So the sexual element was not added just to spice the movie up. Although of course Mathilda May’s spectacular physical assets certainly helped to sell the film!
The acting is absolutely atrocious but I rather suspect this was deliberate. I’m convinced Peter Firth was playing Colonel Kane with tongue planted firmly in cheek. He plays him as an old-fashioned square-jawed British Boys’ Own Adventure hero. He’s not affected by Naked Vampire Space Girl’s physical charms because Boys’ Own Adventure heroes are pure in mind and body. They’re too busy thinking about manly things like playing cricket to bother about sex.
As for Mathilda May, well she looks good. To be fair it’s a role that doesn’t really call for much in the acting department. The other actors mostly overact outrageously. It’s the correct approach.
Movies don’t get much cheesier than this one, but if you like your movies big, silly, dumb and extremely entertaining you’re not likely to find much cause for complaint.