Summer of the 80’s: Lifeforce

Summer of the 80′s is a weekly column that will run until the end of August in which I watch a movie released during the summer movie season of the 1980′s that I’ve never seen before.  Every Friday, I’ll write about an 80′s movie that came out on the same day, or near the same day, that correlates with the post here on the site.  So follow me as I travel back in time to discover my lost summer at the movies.

About the movie

Lifeforce was released on June 21, 1985 by Tri-Star Pictures.  It was directed by Tobe Hooper, whose contributions to cinema include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Funhouse and Poltergeist.  The film was written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Blue Thunder) and Don Jakoby (Blue Thunder, Arachnophobia).  The film stars Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart.  The film’s budget is estimated at $25 million.  During its opening weekend, the R-rated film grossed $4.2 million before going on to make $11.6 million in total.  It is currently only available on DVD.


In the blink of an eye, the terror begins.

My thoughts

Right off the bat, Lifeforce kicks off with a rousing score from Harry Mancini, who is probably most famous for his Pink Panther score.  By the sound of the music, I mistook it at first for a score by Basil Poledouris, who did the awesome music for Conan the Barbarian.  I was surprised when Mancini’s name appeared in the credits as it wasn’t something I expected from him (in a good way).  The music gets the blood pumping and implies an adventurous tone for the film.  It injects a great sense of energy into the movie, though it does feel a little out of place at times since Lifeforce is essentially sci-fi schlock and much less of an adventure movie.  The film feels very much like a 50s sci-fi movie with 80s sensibilities.  If the film had been shot in black and white, it would be easy to mistake it for an older sci-fi B-movie in passing.

Lifeforce starts out with astronauts finding an alien ship that appears to be organic in nature.  They discover the ship’s occupants to be large bat creatures (“space bats”) and to all be dead.  They find three naked humanoids in a section of the ship, one female and two male, who seem to be in a hyper sleep encased in glass containers (think glass coffins).  They take the three humanoids in their containers, and one of the dead space bats, onto their ship.  The spacecraft heads back to Earth and once it reaches orbit, the entire crew are discovered to be dead, minus one astronaut named Tom Carlsen who is found in an escape pod in London.  The only other survivors are the three naked humanoids from space.  Pretty soon, the British authorities realize they have some major problems when the humanoids awaken and wreak havoc, revealing themselves to be “space vampires.”  They don’t suck blood, but instead, suck the lifeforce out of people.  This is illustrated in the movie through electric-like energy that shoots out of the eyes and mouth of the victims into the space vampires.  As they do this, the people shrivel up and their bodies dry out (like in the image at the top of the column).  After a two-hour interval, these shriveled victims come back to life looking to suck the lifeforce out of other people.  If they don’t, they explode into dust.  The female vampire escapes and heads out into the London public amassing many victims as the main characters try to figure out how to stop her.

From the very first frame of the film, Lifeforce feels like it is in a hurry, almost as if it’s afraid the audience might get bored if it slows down.  There isn’t really much subtlety or nuance to the film, it keeps a brisk pace with its dialogue and story pacing.  Even the visual effects move like they are in a rush.  I’ve never seen astronauts leave their spaceship, jettison through space in their protective suits and arrive in a foreign spaceship so fast (the sequence literally feels less than a minute long).  This hurried pace is a bit jarring but you get used to it after awhile.  The effects are still cool to see even if they aren’t the most outstanding that have ever been committed to film.  There is a certain fun appeal to them due to their slightly campier nature.  The space visuals looked a little muddy, though that may have something to do with the quality of the DVD transfer which at times seemed to rival the quality of VHS tapes.  I’d be interested in seeing them on blu-ray should Lifeforce ever be released on the format.  The practical effects however are pretty damn cool.  I loved seeing the animatronic puppets of the dried up shriveled victims.  They aren’t terribly realistic but it is incredibly cool to see the artistry in bringing foam and latex to life through various techniques.  Practical effects really do go a long way in terms of enjoyment.

There is an obvious sexual aspect to Lifeforce.  The female space vampire, played by Mathilda May, is pretty much naked top to bottom throughout the whole film.  She is able to entrance men in a sort of sexual sway.  I think that may have something to do with the fact that her boobies and hooha are on display, but that’s just me.  Besides sucking the lifeforce out of people, she apparently likes to be a little physical as she sometimes makes out with some of the men she locks into her trance.  At first, I thought that Lifeforce was starting to look like the pre-cursor to Species.  However, unlike Species, there isn’t any actual sex that occurs.  The story isn’t so much her looking to mate as it seems to be just sucking the lifeforce out of everything possible.  She does have a bit of a connection with the surviving astronaut Carlsen, which seems like more than just the sexual sway she holds, but to call it romantic may be going too far.

The film does lose some steam when the lady space vamp starts to jump into other people’s bodies, one of which happens to be none other than Jean-Luc Picard himself, Patrick Stewart.  But even when Carlsen can plainly see that she now looks like a man, albeit a Starfleet Captain kind of man, it doesn’t stop his attraction to her/him and Carlsen can’t help but lay down a smooch or two on the possessed Mr. Stewart.  Awkward!  I lost a little interest in the film during this second act which seemed like a lot of uninteresting dialogue but I was back into the movie by the end, despite the fact that the actor playing Carlsen feels like he has to YELL ALL HIS LINES!

Lifeforce is bit of an oddity but I did have fun with it.  I thoroughly enjoyed the practical effects, the score and the throwback nature of the film.  It was also kind of fun that they inferred that these space vampires had been to Earth before and that the stories of the vampires of legend (Dracula, etc.) originated because of the encounters they’ve had in the past with the people of earth.  The movie is flawed and there are a lot of things you just have to accept.  Often times, actions or dialogue in the film are simply explained by characters giving reasons for knowing certain things by simply saying, “I just feel it.”  Lifeforce doesn’t ask you to look at it as a film of any depth but simply as a (mostly) fun, alternate take on vampires.  If you enjoy older sci-fi B-movies, then I think you’ll probably enjoy Lifeforce.  I’d definitely watch it again, though I’ll be hoping that when I do, it’ll be out on blu-ray.


The model for the alien spaceship was an artichoke.

Billy Idol was considered for the role of one of the male vampires.

Cannon Films wanted Anthony Hopkins to play Caine but he turned down the offer.  Then the role went out to Terence Stamp but fell through for some reason before it finally went to Peter Firth.

The movie was promoted and filmed under the title, The Space Vampires, the same title as Colin Wilson’s novel upon which it is based. However, Cannon Films felt that the title made it sound like a typical Cannon low budget exploitation film.  The title was changed to Lifeforce and it was released in the United States in an edited version which brought in less than half of its production cost.

In interviews, Patrick Stewart has said he was disappointed with the cuts made to the film.

Over 1,000 actresses were auditioned or interviewed for the role of the female space vampire.

by Ben McBride


5 thoughts on “Summer of the 80’s: Lifeforce

  1. Now this is an interesting choice. I’m glad you named Colin Wilson as the author, and brought up his original title. I’m a huge fan of Wilson’s work, and while the “Space Vampires” was a much better book than the movie, the title was terrible. His classic “The Mind Parasites” is by far better all around (but will never be made into a film).

    I am not a fan of the slasher / horror genre at all, and almost missed Prometheus because of that. But “Lifeforce” an all around better title than Wilson’s stayed under the gore radar well enough for me to enjoy it. And, who wouldn’t enjoy the lady running around like that?

    I own a copy of Lifeforce, and will probably now have to go watch it again, thanks you bringing it to mind.

    As always, really appreciate your posts.


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