VHS MOVIE REVIEW : LIFEFORCE
If you remember Cannon Films, you'll most likely remember this logo. It is the original company that released this film. I recall the original logo on the vhs tape that we rented at the video store I worked at, and it was this one. It was well polished and awesome to say the least. The Cannon films were great, and usually featured more graphic violence and terror themes than any other company out there. I even have a Cannon t-shirt...but enough of that.
Lifeforce combines two genres into one hell of a classic romp. Tobe Hooper directs this intense attempt at combining vampire movies with science fiction, and fails miserably to do justice to either side of the coin. This movie is plagued from the beginning, but has a lot of nudity to suffice the fact that there is not a lot of gore to satisfy diehard fans.
I mention gore solely on the premise that Hooper did The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and part two as well). However, the nudity almost saves this film at times, and is one of the main reasons that I followed through the whole film. The film is based on a 1976 novel entitled; “The Space Vampires” by Colin Wilson.
The movie follows a group of astronauts exploring Haley’s Comet. As the team explores the comet they find a spaceship deep inside and upon entering they discover three beings in a state of suspended animation. The majority of the crew dies, but two guys survive and save these beings, and brings them to earth.
It turns out that these beings are “space vampires” and suck the water out of people, turning the victims into flesh eating zombies. They all answer to one queen bee, who answers to some synapse looking space ship right outside of earth’s orbit.
VHS MOVIE REVIEW : LIFEFORCE
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby (based on the novel "The Space Vampires" by Colin Wilson)
1985, Region 1 (NTSC), 116 minutes, Rated R
DVD released on May 27th, 1998
Steve Railsback as Carlsen
Peter Firth as Caine
Frank Finlay as Fallada
Nicholas Ball as Derebridge
Mathilda May as Space Girl
Many horror fans believe director Tobe Hooper did nothing of note after his seminal The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the Steven Spielberg-influenced Poltergeist. But the science-fiction/horror film Lifeforce may be the exception to that rule. The film is one part Alien-esque science fiction, one part supernatural thriller and one part Dawn of the Dead, with the story progressing from outer space to the heart of London.
The film begins with the space shuttle Churchill on a mission to explore Halley's Comet on one of its rare visits to the solar system. But the crew of the Churchill finds more than it bargained for when it finds a giant spacecraft hidden in the comet's corona. Col. Carlsen, the commander of the mission, leads a team into the spacecraft, where they find two types of creatures: large bat-like ones, and three perfectly preserved, seemingly human ones.
Once the humanoids make their way back to Earth, all hell breaks loose as they prove to be life force-draining "vampires" — and it is up to Carlsen and the British government to track them down across England, and then stop them before they can destroy London and claim its souls for their own purposes.
The acting is strong, with Steve Railsback (The Stunt Man) and Peter Firth (Chill Factor) effective as the tormented Col. Carlsen and the enigmatic SAS Col. Caine, respectively. Railsback is somewhat over the top, but that style plays well against Firth's understated performance. The two colonels are aided on their quest by a pair of eccentric scientists, the death aficionado Fallada (Frank Finlay, Cthulhu Mansion) and the weary Bukofsky (Michael Gothard, The Devils of Loudon) — who spends most of film suffering after a too-close encounter with one of the vampires — as well as Britain's Home Secretary (Aubrey Morris, A Clockwork Orange) and a few others.
(Trekkies, watch for "The Next Generation's" Capt. Picard, Patrick Stewart, in a small but memorable role.)
But what is undoubtedly the film's most memorable performance, and the one that probably has elevated this film to its minor cult status, is that of then-newcomer Mathilda May as the "Space Girl," the leader of the vampire creatures. What is it about the lovely May (The Jackal) that makes her performance stand out? The French actress spends most of her on-screen time naked. Stark naked. Fortunately, she is either comfortable with her body or able to hide any awkwardness well, and turns in a fine performance , beyond just being a pretty face (and more).
The film dates to 1985, and while the effects don't show the CGI polish of the current era, they are good, handling bat-aliens, drained corpses and vampire-zombies with equal aplomb. The low budget shows in places, but only to those paying close attention.
Overall, the script mixes the film's multiple genres well if a few plot holes can be overlooked, and Hooper's direction keeps the tension high. Throw in the actors' sturdy performances, and the result is a solid feature well worth a look if you enjoy your horror with a healthy dose of science fiction.
VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SHRIEKER
When I first saw this movie several years ago, I was severely disappointed by what I saw as the unimaginative use of some intriguing ideas in a script that spent most of its pages wasting time and spinning wheels. Now, rewatching it, my assessment isn’t exactly laudatory, but it’s not nearly as harsh. One possible explanation is that I’m better equipped to allow for budgetary restrictions and appreciate the work done despite the handicaps. Another is that I’ve been bludgeoned by so many spectacularly bad movies in the interim that I can no longer honestly assess one that’s only moderately bad. And I may have just said that same thing twice.
Whichever it is, Shrieker is the handiwork of some of our favorite Full Moon pseudonyms, “Victoria Sloan” (I’m not exactly sure why Dave deCoteau didn’t just direct under his own name here) and “Benjamin Carr” (which everyone but Neal Marshall Stevens seems to agree is really Neal Marshall Stevens). This movie also introduced the world to Tanya Dempsey, who later shucked the brunette in favor of blonde and was featured in a slew of flicks for Full Moon and other low-budget genre filmmakers. It also features a two-headed creature, a gibbering college Communist, and killer tattoo designs. What’s not to like?
Since most ooky-spooky movies require a premise that confines the pool of protagonists, novelty in that aspect of the story is always appreciated, and here we have that novelty, even if it goes largely untapped: Clark (Dempsey) is a college freshman who’s been invited to live with a number of other students as “urban pioneers,” squatting for free in a long-abandoned hospital, with jerry-rigged electrical power and cell phones for outside contact. Since the entire movie is confined to the hospital (with the university remaining a hypothetical construct somewhere over the horizon) and since there’s a certain whodunit aspect to the plot, here’s Clark’s roster of housemates:
- Zak (Jamie Gannon), the nice guy who brings Clark in and wants to get into her pants;
- David (Parry Allen), the ultra-capitalist who first moved into the hospital;
- Tanya (Alison Cuffe), the strident college-communist cliche and David’s main foil;
- Mike (Chris Boyd), the fellow so good-looking that he introduces himself with “I’m not gay”; his electrical engineering background is what enables them all to have power;
- Elaine (Jenya Lano), the quiet pre-med student.
Clark has barely unpacked when she discovers that the rollcall above isn’t complete; investigating a strange shrieking noise in the basement, she finds a strange circular pile of ashes as if someone had been conducting a ritual, and then discovers one more person living in the hospital: Robert (Roger Crowe, imitating Christian Slater as hard as he can), who’s been there the whole time. Robert’s also something of a seeker, a dabbler in occult lore, who cocks an eyebrow and tells Clark something of the mysterious history of the hospital, which had been shut down after a massacre conducted by something dubbed “the Shrieker” in the press. We don’t get a very good look at Robert’s digs, but you just know that he’s got a well-thumbed complete set of first edition AD&D manuals around there somewhere.
Clark agrees to keep Robert’s presence a secret while she helps him decode the symbols left in the burnt circle. Unfortunately, her secretive behavior in doing so starts to earn her the suspicion of the other residents. Especially when something starts roaming the hospital corridors at night… and people start disappearing.
Unfortunately, the “urban pioneer” angle isn’t explored nearly as much as it should have been. In a better version of this movie, it would be brought home forcefully that these intelligent college students have gotten themselves into a heap of trouble by placing themselves in a position where they are unable to seek any help from outside the chainlink fence. Their isolation should be front and center as they realize their predicament. Instead, they just act like the case of every other cheap horror movie, wandering around with flashlights and bickering. Rather than being an intriguing element in their situation, the “squatting” idea seems to have been more a contrivance to maneuver student characters into a hospital property that the producers had access to.
As a counterpart to the setting, the Shrieker itself is a criminally underdeveloped beastie. As you may have guessed, it shrieks from time to time, when it’s not huffing and moaning. The monster costume is imaginative with a second head (the shrieking one) sticking out from the side of the main head. But no reason for its appearance is ever given. In fact, there’s precious little rationale for its existence at all. It originally appeared at the hospital because… um… And it killed people then because… um… And it disappeared because… um… And now someone’s re-summoned it because… um…
Yes, that’s right, it’s been summoned on purpose this time. According to Robert’s arcane texts, it takes five lives as offerings and then becomes subject to a sixth person, who arranges all of the previous deaths. And how? By the unwieldy and arbitrary method of planting somewhere on that person or in their possessions or rooms a complicated symbol drawn on paper. Once that individual has “received” that symbol (as arbitrary as such reception can be — it can even be hidden in a laundry hamper and still count!), that person is irrevocably marked for slashings and gnashings by the Shrieker.
That whole mythology, by the way, was explained to us once during the opening credits, and then all over again when Robert and Clark go about their investigation. I guess that just because all of the characters are college students doesn’t mean the filmmakers thought that the audience would be very quick studies.
So between the underused setting and the underexplained Shrieker, the movie has a feel of being unfinished and only partially formed, as if there were too few dots and no lines connecting them. That may actually be a consequence of production problems; chunks of footage here and there look as if they were inadequately lit when shot, and had to be digitally lightened in the editing (although J.R. Bookwalter, who edited it, remembers no such adjustments). And if they were scrimping and making do with that kind of footage just to complete the post-production, there may well have been plenty of other connective footage which, thanks to similar technical problems, was unusable for the final edit.
But I don’t think any lost footage can account for the central problem with the film: It’s structurally a whodunit, but as a whodunit it sucks. A good mystery is one which appears unsolvable from the front, but makes perfect sense in hindsight. This one, though, only shows the seams and zippers in retrospect, with characters taking actions which turn out to have been for no rational reason except to set up the mystery, the misdirections around it, and the “shocking” twist revelation at the end.
And that kind of severely-flawed story design is something I can’t really forgive on the basis of budgetary restriction. So while I’m not nearly as hard on this movie as I once was, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the sense of disappointment it gives me.
Some Notable Totables:
- body count: 7
- breasts: 0
- explosions: 0
- dream sequences: 0
- ominous thunderstorms: 0
- actors who’ve appeared on Star Trek: 0