Tobe Hooper is one of the most interesting horror movie directors. He knew how to get that really gritty and dirty feel with his movies like in his famous entry, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Since then, most of his movies have been laid in a middle ground of absurdity or be moderately scary. Lifeforce, on the other hand, is so out there that it’s a wonder to know Hooper was behind it. This one is a testament to his style of taking a B-movie premise and just flying with it.
The story has so many tone shifts that the entertaining value really comes from how many movie tones it channels. First, it concerns a group of astronauts, aboard a space station called the Churchill, who find a floating craft holding a bunch of well-preserved alien, yet human looking bodies in suspended animation. Three of them are taken aboard and then the astronauts go missing. After the Churchill crashes, a rescue mission finds the alien bodies in tack and takes them in at a research center.
From there, the movie kicks into full gear becoming a part-zombie and part-vampire feature. One of the creatures awakens and starts draining the life energy from scientists. The more life energy it consumes, the younger these creatures get. If the creatures can’t find a fresh host, they explode into a matter of dust. The special effects are highly commendable as one corpse-looking body rejuvenates into a naked woman played by Mathilda May.
In regards to these alien creatures, I guess the correct term to use here is “space vampires.” The scary thing about these monsters is how they have little to no weaknesses outside of killing the head vampire. Lifeforce takes on a lot of the original tropes and cliches of vampire movie mythology, while adding some “fresh blood” to it. Unfortunately, Lifeforce was greatly re-edited in America to avoid any connection to the blood sucking creatures for some weird reason. Thankfully, the International cut restores a great bulk of the vampire references and is currently available in all home media releases.
There is an interesting idea here I really like where one of the Churchill astronauts, played by Steve Railsback, turns up alive and has a strange connection to the head space vampire. Apparently, he has a physic link that causes him to lose control and be used as a Renfield-like ploy. This is handled in a more erotic manner where the guy is seduced to the dark side, while he struggles to fight against the creatures. You can’t tell if he is with the humans or trying to help the space vampires.
There is one scene I have to bring up, because it must be seen to be believed. Patrick Stewart plays the manager of a psychiatric hospital and has the alien trapped in his body. At one point, they hypnotize the alien inside him to talk and he causes the astronaut to make their bond “stronger” by kissing him. Let THAT sink in. Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation has a kissing scene with an actor who played Charles Manson in a 1976 TV miniseries called Helter Skelter. It’s a surreal moment. Again, this too was changed in the US theatrical cut, so it looks like the tortured man is kissing the head vampire instead. This is why I prefer the International cut more when it comes to a movie like this.
The final third of Lifeforce is just downright insane. After channeling Alien with the outer space scenes to a little of The Terminator, everything just goes out of control as it becomes an doomsday apocalypse movie. The alien gets loose and starts affecting everyone in London. Left and right, pedestrians get their lives drain out of them while the movie turns into a zombie movie on acid. It just comes out of nowhere and rockets into an epic finale.
There is nothing else I can say. Lifeforce must be seen to believed. Even Leonard Maltin was speechless giving it a mild recommendation for it’s crazy detours. I do agree with him on how this movie jumps from many different film tones and that’s where most of its charm comes from. It keeps you wondering what direction it will take not knowing how bonkers it will become by the final reel. It maybe inconsistent with the tone its going for, but it results in a lot of entertaining vaule.
Do Uncle Morgan a favor. Buy this movie, invite a lot of friends over for Halloween night, order some pizza, play the full International cut of Lifeforce and get ready for one wild night with space vampires and bewildered viewers. It will make for a great evening full of “what the $%*# am I watching?!?” God…I love this movie…
Invaders from Mars is very much the “poor man’s” version of War of the Worlds. Its ironic as well seeing both Invaders and the 1953 adaption of War of the Worlds came out on the same year while months apart from each other. It follows the general archetype of 1950 science fiction that was in full bloom at the time with cheap looking monsters and cheesy storylines. But to be fair, this movie does have some charm and holds very well but only in the first two thirds.
Child actor Jimmy Hunt plays a kid that grows suspicious of the strange behavior his parents are having. They act like their in a cold and hostile personality and have a strange mark on the back of their necks. A lot of tension is built up to the point where its revealed that his folks are under the mind control of aliens hiding out not too far form his backyard. The way Jimmy’s performance of the character David is very well executed and is what holds this movie together. Its from the perspective of a kid and at the time, not many movies or science fiction stories had children as the protagonists. So I give props for going in a different direction on trying to be innovative in the storytelling.
Once we get the reason behind his parent’s odd actions, we go underground to find Earth is to be invaded by some very cheap looking Martians. The design alone looks very laughable on first sight. I understand this was all before anamatronics and CGI but even for back then this looked hilarious. Apparently, David is menaced by green-pajama monsters with buggy eyes and a leader who looks like a head in a jar with cheap tentacles sticking out. Its just downright laughable. On the upside, the scenes in the underground Martian tunnels do have a strange surreal quality to it. Almost like its the dream of a child and his interpretation of things. In that way, it works but I still feel let down considering how much tension is built around this kid trying to evade his brainwashed parents.
Even stranger is the ending which uses the “it was dream or is it” motif and feels really tagged on for a cheap scare. Oddly enough, the ending had to be re-filmed when it was being released in Britain because of the many objections the UK distributor had with it. In that version, its a straight forward conclusion and even so it still feels a bit tagged on. Even more interesting are a few extra scenes added in like a planetarium sequence with more charts and pictures and odd enough are moments when Jimmy Hunt appears to have grown a few inches with more hair. Its obvious these scenes where shot after the film’s release in the US.
Overall, I don’t think its the best invaders film to exist but it does have an iconic look and feel to it. Right down to the idea of having a young protagonist is clever enough because it puts you in that mind set when you were young and had a presence to the world. I still say the last third is unfortunately laughable when you consider the amount of stock footage used and the cheapness starts to show. And its as shame seeing how engaging it feels up to its big moment when you see the Invaders. Its an ok movie that was in need of improvements.
Now here is where the Tobe Hooper remake comes in and its a very different movie. Even right down to the tone, its easy to say its vastly improved and surprisingly darker than its cheaper predecessor. The story is very much the same with a lot of differences. Hunter Carson plays David, a kid with a crazy imagination and Hunter’s acting is surprisingly good. He really puts you in that time when we were kids and our imaginations would just run wild. You really start to root for him from beginning to end and is easily likable from the start.
The way his parents act after being brainwashed is a huge step up and far creepier. In the original, they acted melodramatic and cold while the remake really pushes it. Not only they have a robotic quality but goes as far to have strange quirks like cook and eat bacon that burned all the way to black without questioning its taste. The remake also adds a new character which raises the stakes. Louise Fletcher plays a teacher that acts like a teacher with a grouchy attitude but slowly you start to realize she’s not only brainwashed by the aliens but succeeds in being the teacher from Hell. This is the person we love to hate. She seeks after David like a bounty hunter and feels like a huge threat. Even in one scene we see her devour a frog in such disgust that this review simply can’t do justice to describe.
Of course, the Martians are going to easily the biggest thing to get improved. Here, creature effects were done by Stan Winston and John Dykstra who succeed in making an alien design that not only absurd but frightening and memorable. I like the idea of how it resembles a big head with arms and legs but that’s not the interesting part. According to an issue of Cinefantastique that did a feature article, it required two people in the heavy monster suits and they had walk backwards. But it gets better. It required someone with the strength of a bodybuilder to move the giant puppet and a little man inside the mouth area to move the jaws up and down. I am dead serious about this. The thought of having a big hulking guy with a small person strapped to him walking backwards is just strange yet humorous to me. But it shows just how much creativity and effort it took to bring such amazing monsters to life.
The lead of the Martians is giving a huge upgrade as he goes from a squid head to a giant brain. Its an obvious and generic choice but what works is the design. It almost reminds me of Krang from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and I like how it has small flippers for hands in the front. Again the creature effects are a big highlight and huge upgrade from the original film. Its nice to see a practical effect in an era before computer effects start to show a cheaper way to do monsters.
While I appreciate the remake more for improving the special effects and increasing the tension in a good way, I will say its a movie that’s not for everyone. There’s some dumb moments here and there like the idea that the alien’s weapons are coin-operated that might turn some people off. I will say first and for most that if a B-movie is what you want, its what you get. The 1986 remake is meant to be over-the-top and out of control but still maintains that childhood charm of how something so simple like a tree outside your window can be scary at night. Director Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame knew what he was clearly doing. He wasn’t going to rehash the same movie again but create a version that reflects the era its in as well as do something different. Both movies are decent but I feel the remake is a vast improvement. Its edgier, darker and great funhouse ride that I can’t help but have a soft spot for. But for those who want a remake of an alien movie with sophistication and “higher class,” come back tomorrow because you will be in for a treat…