Revisiting Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce – a tribute to the late great horror director
On Saturday 26th August Tobe Hooper died at the age of 74. With that passing we lost one of the great horror directors of that respected elder generation (the same generation as David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis) – a man whose name might not be recognisable among non-horror fans, but whose creative output certainly is.
Hooper is best known for helming Texas Chainsaw Massacre – one of the most influential horror films of all time – and Poltergeist – a collaborative effort between Hooper and Steven Spielberg which still stands as a popular landmark of the genre.
Hooper’s work was prolific and he left behind an extensive oeuvre – almost exclusively remaining loyal to Horror throughout his entire career. Ask any fan what their favourite Hooper work is and they’re likely to go deep. Some might opt for the TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Others might bring up his short segments on Tales from the Crypt, Body Bags or Masters of Horror.
For me, the answer to that question has always been Lifeforce and I’m definitely not alone in that choice. In tribute to Hooper, I explore why.
Expect spoilers for Lifeforce.
In short, it’s the strange but brilliant tale of a space vampire (a bat-like alien in the guise of a beautiful woman who sucks the life out of humans) being found in space. After she is unintentionally unleashed on Earth, her and her brethren wander freely around London, sucking the life out of anyone they choose – leaving only dried, shrivelled corpses behind.
At one point in the film Colonel Colin Kane asks if she’s “a vampire?” and Dr Hans Fallada wonderfully states:
“It could be described that way, yes. I mean, in a sense we’re all vampires – we drain energy from other lifeforms. The difference is one of degree.”
He also explains his philosophy that all living things hold a life force, which continues to exist after death. This – he theorises – is what the girl is draining from people. This is Hooper at his absolute best – bringing us fun, mind-bending horror, but heavily saturated with Science Fiction too.
Mathilda May’s otherworldly beauty
There’s a reason that they chose Mathilda May for this role. Space Girl needed to be a physically perfect female. One capable of inciting an overwhelmingly strong sexual desire in the opposite sex. Beauty was therefore crucial for the role and May brings not only luxurious looks, but also a wonderful wild-eyed deliverance. There’s something about her performance that screams succubus and makes you feel a lethal mix of attraction and fear.
At one point, Space Girl explains why she looks the way she does:
“Our bodies are unimportant. As you and your men approached in your ship, we changed them, for you. We entered your minds and found there new bodies. I took my shape from your mind… I became the woman I found there, in your deepest thoughts – your deepest needs. I am the feminine in your mind, Carlsen.”
Earlier on in the film, Col. Carlsen also gives insight into what it feels like to try to depart from her alluring grasp:
“It was the hardest thing I ever did. No – you don’t understand. Part of me didn’t want to leave. She killed all my friends and I still didn’t want to leave. Leaving her was the hardest thing I ever did.”
And later he goes on to state:
“I was in love on a level you’ve never known.”
Nudity and horror often go hand-in-hand, thanks to the B-movie leanings of the genre (as well as its in-built desire to push boundaries). There’s no denying that that the film has certain draws that would make a teenage boy leap for joy. A very attractive (18-year-old) Mathilda May walks around without a single item of clothing on for a good portion of the film. The two male aliens share the same lack of modesty, but May is the focus.
It’s the B-movie angle that allows the film get away with such overt nudity. That and the seriousness with which it is presented (Steve Railsback stresses on the extras that May was comfortable and everyone involved was respectful). Characters stand open-mouthed, in awe when they see her for the first time, but no lewd or debasing comments follow and many even try to offer her aid, assuming that she’s “not in her right mind” due to her naked state.
Between An American Werewolf in London and Quatermass and the Pit, London (my home) is no stranger to being the setting of wild horror. Often that choice of location comes a very quaint Britishness. There’s something unnervingly close to home about the scene of a crime being Hyde Park, or the “staging area” being located in Blackheath, or the apocalypse going down outside of Chancery Lane underground station. The ship that finds the space vampire’s desolate craft is even called the Churchill.
In modern films an injection of Britishness can sometimes puts me off – hurl some misplaced cockney characters at me and it takes me out of the magic. But in older films like this, the British boot stamp is something very different. There’s still a bit of the informal tongue in there (“I’m not paid to believe ’nuffin, am I?” one guard asks), but on the whole you’ll find the men are true gentlemen – bold and full of poise – and the women are sophisticated beauties.
My favourite British moment is when a helicopter pilot says:
“There’s something you might want to hear, Sir – a special bulletin from the BBC”.
This bulletin then reveals:
“Tonight, London is on the brink of the worst devastation since The Blitz.”
The hammy, old-school-reporter-style voice and the likening of the situation (complete zombie-apocalypse-style mayhem) to The Blitz (which was devastating but no vampire invasion) is rather funny.
What the British component offers is charm. From an older gentleman’s very English guffaw (quickly followed by compassion) when he sees our naked alien, to the presence of Sir Patrick Stewart, the Britishness more than adds to the quality of Hooper’s life-sucking classic.
Delivering great Science Fiction
The most important thing about this Hooper classic is that it works as strong science fiction. Despite the sillier components, it treats itself seriously enough that it comes across as an intelligent genre entry. Right from the film’s opening, as the crew come across Earth’s first encounter with alien life, you feel a refined science fiction vibe.
It’s also rather thought-provoking at times – from Dr Fallada’s musings on life after death to the exploration of the history of these vampiric creatures. The visuals of the film very much lean towards the Hellish; the creatures’ true forms are large demon-like bats – the direct cause of our vampire legends. And when our crew first enter the alien ship, to find alien corpses littering the space around them, it’s like they’ve floated into a circle of Dante’s Hell.
Deep into the film, Dr Fallada theorises:
“It is my belief that the vampires of legend came from creatures such as these. Perhaps even from these very creatures.”
Which leads Carlsen to inform him that they have indeed visited Earth before. In this respect, it has a real Childhood’s End quality about it (the great Arthur C. Clarke novel) – the idea that our collective culture forged the Devil (and here these demons) to look the way he does because of something we’d seen as a species long ago. But unlike Clarke’s aliens, these creatures are very much something to fear.
That’s why Lifeforce is by far my favourite Hooper film and why it’s the film that I’ll remember him for most fondly. Which Hooper film means the most to you? Let us know in the comments section below.
Image credits: Cannon Films, TriStar Pictures