Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

10 Reasons LIFEFORCE (1985)

True story - I was staying with my buddy Alan at his grandparents' cottage in Cape May for the summer of '85 and they dropped us off to see LIFEFORCE, by which I mean, to see THE GOONIES which was playing in the adjacent theater of this old Cape May dual-plex out there - gone by now I'm sure, we had to buy tickets for that as we lacked ID and LIFEFORCE was R (we had to sneak across the theater). One of the last movies I saw in such a way, i.e. sober, a child, rather than a stoner college student. Anyway, we couldn't have known then that the film was the shorter American cut, it seemed put together by a sugar-addled Armenian with no regard for pacing or logic, never stopping to see if anyone was along for the ride. We agreed the babe was hot, but the rest was ridiculous --I forgot all about it. With the advent of widescreen HD however, especially now that the longer British cut is more widely available, it's very memorable. It still seems rushed for all that, but it's a little funnier--in a deadpan manly way--and better every time I see it. As with other 'Ten Reasons' films like DREAMCATCHER and THE LEGACY it might not hold up to logic's cold light but I'd watch it a fourth or fifth time over sober, logical better-made inquiries any old time.

I should preface that, even for its longer cut, LIFEFORCE has issues: terrible painted body stockings over what looks like half-inflated sex dolls are used on some of his zombie/vampire undead, they look worse even than some of the animated corpses in Hopper's next film, TEXAS CHAINSAW 2. And the intro is pretty slow, though the VO about the "Minerva Engine" and its constant acceleration creating gravity deflects our attention into thinking, especially with the thunderous Mancini score, that this is going to be an old-school space adventure rather than.... what it is. I wish the score was more analog synth, not that Mancini's score isn't full-bodied and bold as love and way better than anything we might hear from John Williams (dig those groovy gongs).

1. Mathilda May as the Space Girl

For these alluring sirens things to work the girl has to be mad hot, not in the way where you can tell a woman or a gay man cast her, or the script was written with someone else in mind, or to flatter an aging acting titan, but in a straight male un-PC way. See, we don't like hair all done up and frizzed out --that's a gay man/woman thing, that's just one example. We like young, flowing, healthy girls so when we see anima type characters that look like the weary-looking Liz Taylor in DOCTOR FAUSTUS, or Angelina Jolie in THE TOURIST they don't seem anima-esque, just overly-made-up, fussed-over like when you work on getting your hair right for so long it just looks like a flat mess.

But Natashsa Henstridge in SPECIES or Matilda May here, impossibly young, perfectly formed, as if from heaven's mint, then it all works and I mention all this not to seem sexist or ageist but because nature and the unconscious is sexist and ageist. Whether we're 17-18 (as I must have been) or 80 we know we'd damn our souls to hell and jump off a cliff or whatnot if Henstridge in SPECIES or May here asked us to. We'd have no choice. That's why, when Scott shouts in her face during the climactic soul drain, "WHAT ARE THESE FEELINGS?!" it's gut-bustingly funny. He seems to react towards her touch by screaming at the top of his lungs. So good. May's (unaugmented) allure is so all-consuming to us as well, we totally get it, aside from the screaming. A lot of time she has no real acting to do but a wolfish smile and eyes that dilate and occasionally widen (with spiral irises!) as if throwing a lot of invisible carnal force in these male's directions. "Totally alien... and totally dangerous."

2. Ancient Alien Hypothesis explaining the Periodic Reality of Vampirism via Halley's Comet

One or seven steps ahead of our current internet paranoia dot-connectors (myself included), Dan O'Bannon's (the co-creator of ALIEN) adaptation of British mystic Colin Wilson's novel is adept at connecting ancient vampire lore with pre-Halley pass excitement. The explanation that vampires are ancient aliens who basically ride around in the wake / gravitational drag of Halley's comet is so dope: Jungian archetypal psychology, ancient alien theory and Bob Lazar's Area 51 statements (how we're a soul farm, and aliens want to make sure no extra-planetary force damages their harvest's 'containers'), and even Cronenberg-Romero-style outbreaking (the emptied containers come back and have an hour or so to try and 'fill up' again or they exploded in a shower of dust, ditto their own victims, etc., all ties in perfectly with the 1986 (then a year away in real life) arrival of Halley's comet. as explored in another personal favorite, 1984's NIGHT OF THE COMET. It's all connected.

3. Addiction 
The same year LIFEFORCE came out, 1985, saw Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (by then I had just started drinking and smoking weed-- what a year!), and as opposed to Romero's slower, less hilarious DAY OF - (also '85), there's a sense of real junkie madness in O'Bannon's zombies in both films. His zombies are the only ones who talk, and who eat only brains, and moan for "more brains!" But what stands out in both those zombies and these energy vampires is their crazed desperation, the agony that devouring brains or energy can allay, and even then it's only temporary. That terrifying sense of junky withdrawal agony and its prolonged, gathering intensity is something I've recently directly experienced (what a year!) and can vouch for O'Bannon's zombies doing it better than anyone, in both films.

4. Michael Gothard as Dr. Bukovsky
One of the few scientists in Britain's space building who gets the full May treatment but survives, he's left a shivering wreck, from a love and desire greater than any he's ever known. Having to explain that he can't help the investigation as he's too worn out from almost hooking up would be either laughable or idiotic in lesser hands, but Gothard, with his great deep actorly voice is masterful. Too bad he barely got to speak as the Germanic assassin in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY! Most of his other credits seem to be in long-forgotten BBC shows and direct-to-video OOP stuff. Sic temper brutus, Gothard, you're so good here you deserve better! Got to love his reactions to all the veiled disses from the other guys along the lines of so "you were overpowered by a cute young naked woman who'd just come out of a long coma?" And he's like "yes." You also have to like how his groovy space center is in, like, the heart of London, and guarded at night only by a few bumbling security guards, when compared with, say Area 51 and the military fuss we'd make over a similar alien body find.

5. The Col. Caine / Quatermass Connection
With his dope sounding name offset by his halo of blonde curls, Peter Firth (EQUUS) is in rare form as the 'what you haven't heard of me?' Col. Caine, the big MI6 or Special Service guy called in on these spook details. Once the space girl busts loose and the body count's too big to cover up, Caine's the man they send for, and we're treated to his spirited cut-the-shit solve-the-problem attitude with the scientist survivors.

Note: don't watch EQUUS (1977) the same night as LIFEFORCE, or ever.

6. The comical reaction cutaways.
Throughout there are cutaways to reaction shots so absurdly mismatched you can tell they were shot half tongue-in-cheek (I imagine Hooper just shooting the actor standing in the scene shouting at them MOS, "now you're scared, some bright light is shining, cover your eyes! Look! You're scared again! Oh no!") and them trying not to laugh or look too unmanly (one shining reaction shot by Firth is soooo fey it's like one of Price's Phibes pantomimes) and then Hooper and the editors just going 'fuck it, let's use it.' Maybe these were taken out of the original American release to make it less funny? At any rate, I'm glad they're back.

7.a. Ellen, EXTREME masochist: The dead serious tone with the sexual content is perfect, and at it's best in the scene with the nurse: "This woman is a masochist!," Railsback shouts. "An extreme masochist! She wants me to hurt her!" How he knows this if his space girlfriend isn't inside her is a mystery (or I forget). Maybe it's the David Bowie poster on wall, the harlequin decor like it's her junior college one-bedroom, bespeaking the nature of the nursing profession in the world of socialized medicine. Railsback's abuse of this poor lady, all but 50 Shades of Graying, molesting her right there in her dorm room while Firth looks on, trying to seem more concerned than kinkily turned on ("I'm a natural voyeur") is a true highlight of the genre, highlighted by when Railsback screams in her face, "Are you IN THERE???" - I've seen this movie a dozen times and I'm always in hysterics at that. Not to mention pretty soon he's pumping Patrick Stewart the same way.

7.b. Railsback's make-out sesh with Patrick Stewart, in whom the Space girl is hiding (?) so Caine and Railsback drug him so she can't escape. Wait, so she isn't bound to any one body (?) it doesn't necessarily make sense by then but who cares? Think of this scene as forerunner to when he channels Jean Grey's romantic goodbye to Cyclops in XMEN 2 and you realize old Patrick Stewart is the go-to sci-fi channeler of psychic babes!

8. Headlong Momentum  - with no adamant denial and military bullshit obstructing things (the way Qaatermass and the Pit had to contend with the dogmatic skepticism and paranoia of Col. Breen), no one challenges each others' authority or intelligence; the film posits a very cool boy's club network of brains and quick thinkers, from the astrophysicists flying American astronaut Railsback over to London the minute his capsule touches down in Texas, his partnering up with Caine, the way Gothard's Bukovsky carries the first chunk of the film once we're back on Earth, before Railsback and Firth take over, the first name basis with the boys in Britain, the crew of Aubrey Morris (govt), Railsback (astronautic / witness / the Mina Harker of the crew) and Caine as they jet around in the helicopter makes for some highly amusing and very British business. We're spared all the laggy elements, needing to convince the PM, etc. --yet the pace is never too choppy and forced. I like for example that all of London goes to shit in the time it takes Caine and company to chopper over to the looney bin and back. In other words, like only a handful of other films in its genre, there's a sense that events progress with or without our heroes witnessing it, and faster than they can really control or halt with any effectiveness.

9. Great ensemble of adult males who like to scream a lot: Aubrey Morris (yessss?)! Patrick Stewart! (Arrrgh!) Frank Finlay ("here.. I .... go") --all sublime. The amount of first-rate British male acting muscle here is pretty substantial and I love little bits all over this movie, like Col. Caine's asking of normal questions we might, and the pained but polite answers of Gothard's Bukovsky and death-studying doctor Kulada (Frank Finlay), or the way Aubrey Morris' govt. man just rolls with the weirdness, looking up to these taller actors with a kind of puppyish adoration, trusting their thespian chops to get him out of any bad script scrape and just covering his mouth with a hanky when he starts to 'break' (as in burst out laughing). I love the way their deadpan dialogue is punctuated by screaming hysterics (at least four male actors scream at the top of their lungs for several consecutive breaths - with Stewart and Railsback taking at least two turns). With only two women with speaking parts in the whole cast (one on the space crew is basically an extra), it's very much a story of male sexual panic, but so cloaked in British reserve that the deadpan hilarity magnifies with every new beat, not unlike the ever-accelerated Minerva engine! Scream your heads off, men! Here she comes again!

A rose by any other name would still carry deep post-Giger fallopian resonance
10. The odd mix of super low budget with big budget sequences.  
All the money must have been spent out in space, the effects are all cool if it's a bit slow (and the British-style space suits evoking Kubrick more than Ridley Scott) so that by the time we get to the climax of all the dead hanging around outside London's Carfax Abbey or St. Paulie Girl Cathedral or wherever, London is represented by basically just one big alleyway of writhing extras, all crowded together to seem like all London's going up in smoke- again we get a QUATERMASS AND THE PIT evocation for that film too tore down a small section of London outdoor space to evoke the whole, and in the end, it's tough to tell which side won. I love it for that.

The ship, full of captured souls like a trunk full of groceries, heads off to deep space once more, until the next time Halley runs past, which should be in a mere 41 years!! If I'm still alive, I hope they make a sequel, or if I'm not, that they 'wake' me up!


1 comment:

  1. Just read this-- and have to suppress a giant chuckle. I saw this in multiplexed form myself on opening night --packed in with a bunch of slacker weirdos filling this cramped, draped cube. A very raucous group. Almost as if dropped into a Porky's or Animal House sequel.
    And this was before
    Miss May's assets caused quite a stir; noisy rumblings from rear and a lot of hooting. I absolutely hated the Mancini doing Conti score. Hideous. It would be an interesting double feature with An American Werewolf in London, I think.

    Ensconced in curtained catacomb,


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