Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Lifeforce (1985)

By Brian M. Sammons

Lifeforce (1985). Director: Tobe Hooper. Cast: Steve Railsback, Mathilda May, Peter Firth.

As I travel around this crazy world we share (at least, until the Great Old Ones return), either physically or virtually via the Internet, I have met lots of Lovecraft fans or horrorheads in general. One thing that my brothers, sisters and I love to do is talk about horror movies. When we’re engaging in such discourse, things inevitably turn to the second golden age of horror movies, or what the laymen call the ‘1980s’. If there are any in the discussion that smile knowingly when I work “Fatang!” into a sentence, as I often do, then we’ll start nerding out over Lovecraft flicks. When you combine A (the 80s) with B (HPL movies) the sum is C, or a very few films really worth discussing. Because of the limited number of movies that fall into that category, imagine my surprise when I bring up 1985’s Lifeforce and I get only blank stares or the occasional “huh?” So, in my ongoing effort to raise the world’s awareness of very cool flicks, I present to you: Lifeforce.

Tobe Hooper justly earned the title of “horror master”, if for no other reason than for giving the world the nightmare that was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one of the most original, shocking and daring films of all time. He followed that up with a few okay fright flicks, I always kind of dug The Funhouse and the original Salem’s Lot miniseries, but he only really got a taste of “Big Hollywood” when he directed Poltergeist. Assuming, of course, he did direct that movie and it wasn’t really Stephen Spielberg, as many think (myself included). Whether or not he did hold the reins of that film, its huge success allowed Tobe to not only pick his next project, but get a pretty decent budget for it.

Unfortunately for him, he chose a very weird, genre-bending story from a largely unknown author and, when it came out, the film was widely panned by both critics and audiences alike. It bombed at the box office and even the author of the novel it was based on called it, “The worst film ever made.”

Hmm, shows what he, and the majority of Reagan-era movie-watchers, knew. Simply put, the film is a far bit removed from being the worst film ever made, but I may be getting ahead of myself.

The author in question was Britain’s Colin Wilson. In 1956, he wrote a book called ‘The Outsider‘ that examined various key literary and cultural figures. While the book had nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft’s classic short story of the same name, the odd man from Providence was mentioned but none-too-kindly. Wilson would return to bash Lovecraft in The Strength to Dream and Order of Assassins. The story goes that HPL admirer and champion, August Derleth, got tired of all that and challenged Wilson to try his hand at Lovecraftian horror and see if he could do it better.

Yeah, trying to do “Lovecraftian” horror better than the guy named ‘Lovecraft’. Good luck with that.

But say what you will about Colin Wilson, he didn’t back down from a challenge and he wrote a couple of Mythos-ish books of his own, one having the somewhat silly title of ‘The Space Vampires‘. It was that novel that Hooper based Lifeforce on, even if he did change a few things in doing so.

Oh, and for the record, as someone who has both read the novel and seen the film, I like both, but prefer the movie more. So, take that, Mr. Wilson. But I’m here to talk about the movie, not the book, so let’s get to that.

A joint British-American spaceflight in the space shuttle Churchill is flying out to meet up with and study Halley’s Comet, during one of its infrequent trips into our neck of the woods. So, it is by chance that they find a 150-mile-long alien spacecraft hidden in the comet’s cone. That surprise is further built upon when a group of astronauts goes over to the alien vessel and finds it filled with large, and thankfully dead, bat-like creatures. Not only that, but they soon discover three perfect, beautiful, naked humans sleeping in glass, coffin-ish containers. The sleepers consist of a woman and two men and, after a few surprises I won’t give away here, the trio find their way to earth to be dissected by the typical scientist types.

Naturally, things don’t go that smoothly, or we wouldn’t have a movie to watch.

Once here, the beautiful queen alien, played by Mathilda May, bedazzles everyone, men and woman alike, with her sexiness before literally giving them the kiss of death and sucking their lifeforce out of them. Victims of this life-suck become withered, mummy-like corpses, only to get back up after a few hours and go looking for someone else to suck the life out of. So, on and on it goes until all of London is overrun by lifeforce-hungry, vaguely-zombie-ish vampires. As for the real vamps, the ones from space, well, I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that they’re not only alive and kicking, but have got big plans for the entire planet.

While not based directly on the mythology Lovecraft created, Lifeforce does share many similar themes. Not only does it have the cold, uncaring universe and star-spawned horrors thing going for it, but it does the whole “real secret history that mankind has gotten wrong for so long” thing very well. Furthermore, it takes all the old vampire tropes and looks at them through the lens of science rather than superstition, and tweaks them just enough to make them fresh and interesting again. Changing into bats, stakes through the heart, unearthly sexuality, mind control, and their undying nature are just some of the usual vampire tidbits that get a sci-fi retrofit here.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough to get you geeked to see this flick, keep an eye out for Patrick Stewart, who gets to indulge in some hot, man-on-man smooching action. I swear, has that man always looked the same? Talk about a vampire. Either that, or he has his very own Portrait of Dorian Gray somewhere.

Lifeforce is a Grade A example of 80s horror and a fun ride from start to finish. It’s got cool special effects that run from simply passable to pretty darn good. Decent splatter, lots of nudity, new takes on old monsters, cosmic horror, a heaping helping of originality, end-of-the-world goodness, and more-than-competent direction and acting from all involved are all good reasons to check out this film, if you’ve never done so.

One last thing: to help with both the Lovecraftian and horror bona fides, the screenplay was co-written by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien, wrote and directed Return of the Living Dead, and directed The Resurrected, to name only a few of his credits. If you’re a fan of any of those three films, and you really should be, then you need to give this movie a look.

Final Verdict: Lifeforce does not have Cthulhu, Arkham, the Great Old Ones, the Necronomicon, or any of the usual HPL trappings, but it is chock-full of cosmic horror and things man was not meant to know. You know, “A rose by any other name, blah, blah, blah”? Well, the same goes for the Mythos. This movie is good stuff and very Lovecraftian, even if it has nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft.

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Bio: Brian Sammons is an author and critic of dark things and an all-around troublemaker. Sadly, you can’t follow him on Twitter because he abhors Twitter.