It has taken nearly 30 years, but it seems that Tobe Hooper’s 1985 sci-fi horror epic, Lifeforce, is finally earning the respect it deserves.
Lifeforce is the movie that pretty much killed Tobe Hooper's mainstream directing career. The first of his three-movie deal with the great Cannon Films, the film recouped less than half of its $25 million budget (which, for Cannon, might as well be Avatar money) upon its theatrical release and made Hooper something of a laughingstock in the process. Maybe because his previous movie, Poltergeist, had been so commercial (which has more to do with Spielberg’s influence than Hooper's), a lot of the audience for Lifeforce assumed Hooper didn't know what he was doing — they concluded that the movie just got away from him. Nope. Tobe Hooper knew exactly the movie he was making. Lifeforce is a crazy movie. It was designed as a crazy movie. It succeeds at being a crazy movie. Had it been released under its original title, Space Vampires, the movie might have been better received. A title like that is a little more upfront about what kind of movie one can expect.
Working from Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel, The Space Vampires, and adapted for the screen by Don Jakoby and the late, great Dan O’Bannon, Tobe Hooper’s biggest, most ambitious film is a celebration of excess. He directs on a scale larger than he had ever worked before or since; it feels massive and expensive, particularly for a Cannon movie. Lifeforce is a film that opens in outer space and ends with London overrun by a zombie apocalypse. It never devolves into camp but has no interest in realism, either — its every element is oversized and bombastic, not so much in air quotes as it is shouted at the top of the lungs. It’s a movie that goes for broke in every single way, from the operatic score to John Dykstra’s spectacular visual effects to even Steve Railsback’s… shall we say… “committed” performance, which can never be accused of being underplayed.
That go-for-broke approach is perhaps the defining characteristic of Hooper as a director — a quality for which he’s rarely given credit. Hooper doesn’t work in half measures, whether it’s the relentless intensity of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the black comedy insanity of its sequel, the gothic dread of Salem’s Lot or the nostalgia-fueled kiddie matinee glee of his Invaders From Mars remake. Yet the reputation of Lifeforce is such that many audiences treat it like some kind of mistake. Movies like this don’t get made on accident. It finds Hooper at the height of his powers both commercially and creatively; the success of Poltergeist gave him the cache to make any movie he wanted using the biggest budget he ever worked with. He took those things and chose to make a movie about space vampires in London. This is why Tobe Hooper is the best.
Nowadays, Lifeforce is remembered only for being the movie in which Mathilda May walks around naked. Okay, sure, that's certainly a selling point (as well as a memorable image), but it's also a bit dismissive — a way of stopping the conversation about the movie before it even starts by reducing it to nothing more than a collection of nude scenes. In reality, Mathilda May's "costume" is just one crazy element in a movie filled with crazy elements. It's also the logical extension of the sexualized image of the female vampire; after decades of pale women gliding across the moors in low-cut, décolletage-revealing nightgowns, Hooper and company just double down and push everything further towards the extreme. Blood is yesterday’s news; the vampires of Lifeforce take your very essence. They don't bury the lede when it comes to seduction and sneak into your bedroom while you sleep. They walk right up to you completely naked and take what they want from you right then and there. Hooper takes the gothic sexuality of Hammer horror and brings it into the ’80s — bigger, more garish and explicit.
Part of the movie's bum rap might have something to do with studio interference back when it was released. Tri-Star cut 15 minutes out of the movie (including some of the sex and violence, because those things never attract an audience) and ditched large pieces of Henry Mancini's score in favor of new music by Michael Kamen for the movie’s American release. Is that what undermined the film’s success? Probably not. Yes, the film should have been released in its original form and Tobe Hooper's vision should have been trusted (after the Poltergeist controversy, having his follow-up taken away by the studio was yet another blow to Hooper's credibility), but chances are that Lifeforce was never going to make a killing in 1985. It's just too crazy.
Thirty years later, though, audiences are more at ease with the kind of postmodern epic Hooper created — a movie that borrows a little from a dozen other influences and blends them together into something wholly original. It’s a movie that is part science fiction and part horror, part ponderous and part pulp, part Hammer horror, part Quatermass and part Romero. It knows exactly what it is and is exactly what it wants to be: a highly sexual apocalyptic space opera on a massive scale. For years, Tobe Hooper has been one of the most underrated of all the original Masters of Horror and Lifeforce is his most underrated film. The tides have finally shifted, in part thanks to Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of the movie in 2013 and in part because genre fans have caught up to it at last. Movies this ahead of their time aren’t often appreciated in their day. Sometimes they take 30 years.