Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Light spoilers ahead for Lifeforce. Proceed at your own risk!
In the annals of the horror world, when you speak the name of Tobe Hooper, most people are going to think of the timeless Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or possibly the strangely whimsical Poltergeist. There’s also Salem’s Lot, Invaders From Mars, and the baffling but charming Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. We also have cult classics like Eaten Alive and the late in his career misstep The Mangler. Hooper might have an uneven career, but he’s undoubtedly had a diverse career, and certainly wasn’t afraid to venture outside of what people expected him to do. And the best example of Hooper pushing boundaries wasn’t his masterpiece TCM. Rather, Hooper’s masterpiece of the weird was the 1986 cult classic Lifeforce.
Now, let me be clear: Lifeforce is not Hooper’s best film. As I’ve said dozens of times before, that honor goes to TCM, which I also believe is objectively the greatest horror film of all time. But, Lifeforce is without a doubt Hooper’s most daring film, and also his strangest. His TCM films are, at the end of the day, slasher films. Salem’s Lot is amazing but it’s a vampire film. Poltergeist is incredible but ultimately, it’s another haunted house film. Lifeforce isn’t nearly so easy to pin down. Not only that, but making this film while coming off the tails of Poltergeist was a bold choice. Hooper was on the verge of becoming New Hollywood royalty after working with Spielberg to create a critically acclaimed horror film, and instead of going further in that direction he chose to sign a three-picture deal with Cannon Films, the first of which was Lifeforce.
While the other two films included in this deal were arguably more or less straightforward horror films (albeit TCM 2 at times ventures into the realm of slapstick) Lifeforce was instead a weird amalgamation of a whole host of subgenres of fiction. Based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, Lifeforce is a story about how a joint expedition of British and American astronauts on a research expedition to Halley’s Comet discover a massive alien ship in the comets wake. The ship is filled with thousands of horrifying mummified bat-like creatures…and three pristine seemingly human bodies, two male and one female. Soon, all contact is lost with the shuttle, and a rescue expedition finds the shuttle abandoned. The seemingly human looking aliens are brought back to Earth, and that’s when it’s revealed that they’re actually a species of psychic vampires who drain people of their life force, turning them into ghastly shriveled creatures that require infusions of said life force or else they violently explode.
Soon it’s a race against time to stop these creatures from overrunning England as the female vampire (played by the ethereally gorgeous Matilda May) flits from victim to victim throughout rural England in different bodies, leaving a trail of shriveled corpses that soon begin attacking anyone they see in order to drain them of their essence. Oh, and also the true form of the seemingly human vampires is horrific bat monsters and it’s alluded that they visit Earth every time Halley’s Comet orbits near us and thus are the genesis of the vampire legend.
From the gate, this film is much broader in scale than much of Hooper’s work. Unlike TCM, Eaten Alive, The Funhouse, Poltergeist, or Salem’s Lot, the action in Lifeforce isn’t confined to a largely singular location. Rather a small town, or a single-family home, or a…single family home in the backwaters of Texas, Lifeforce combines an outer space adventure with something akin to a globe hopping spy film. Locales as distant as England are exotic compared to the settings of most of his films, let alone locations such as an alien spaceship and Halley’s Comet.
The action of the film jumps all over the place, from outer space to rural England to downtown London and briefly over rural Texas. It’s also not a single family or unit of friends that are in peril but rather the entire world that is in danger. Instead of a small group of people seeking to escape some kind of danger, we have a small group of people trying to stop an evil from spreading further. I think the closest that Hooper comes to this otherwise is Salem’s Lot.
Lifeforce is also far more effects laden than Hooper’s prior work. To be fair, most of his filmography doesn’t really rely much on special effects. Poltergeist has a goodish amount of visual effects, as does Invaders From Mars, but those are nothing compared to what we see in Lifeforce. The entire sequence in outer space puts Poltergeist to shame, and that’s before the crew even enters the alien ship. Much of the action in the film uses a ton of different visual effects, from matte paintings and models for outer space to puppetry for the horrifying wizened corpses that come back to life and the vampiric bat monsters. Where the film really stands out however is with the effects of the titular life forces. The climax of the film takes place in a downtown London that is teeming with the bloodthirsty victims of the space vampires, who are frantically chasing down and attacking any uninfected people they can find. Every time a new person is infected, their life force escapes and is sent to the center of the outbreak where the female vampire lies in state sending the collected life force up to the ship in space. This life force is visually represented by vivid ribbons of colored light shooting through the air. Sure, it looks extremely dated watching it now, but compared to films like TCM and Salem’s Lot, it comes close to feeling garish. Hooper’s visual style can hardly be called restrained, but with Lifeforce it feels like he’s truly embracing a visual aspect not seen in any of his prior films.
Hooper’s films can often be summed up quickly and succinctly: a woman fights for survival against a clan of backwoods cannibals. A typical American family struggles with co-habiting with ghosts in their suburban home. A ragtag band of townsfolk fight against an infestation of vampires. A laundry machine becomes possessed by an evil spirit. Lifeforce, however, is way weirder than any of those films: an astronaut, the sole survivor of a disastrous expedition to Halley’s Comet, is psychically connected to a female alien vampire that he found in a spaceship hidden behind the comet and now she’s spreading a plague throughout England and turning people into ravenous shriveled monsters. It’s a very strange film and a far cry from Hooper’s usual fare, and not just visually. A lot of the weirdness of the movie can be chalked up to the source material, the very straightforwardly named The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson, an English writer and philosopher. Wilson, despite vocally despising Lovecraft as a person, belonged to a school of fiction that is deeply rooted in ideas that lay at the heart of Lovecraft’s fiction, as embodied by stories such as The Space Vampires and “The Return Of The Lloigor”, a story about a race bodiless beings who had once attacked the mythical island continent of Mu and to this day plot against mankind. So…yeah. That’s the background of where this story comes from. There are a few minor changes from the novel, but even with those changes it’s still an extremely weird movie. Hooper’s films are typically streamlined and lean, with the viewer largely understanding what they’re saying (albeit through a lens of shock and horror much of the time), but Lifeforce isn’t quite that easy to pin down.
Whether it’s Patrick Stewart vomiting up blood that then takes the shape of a screaming woman, or a naked man turning into a giant bat-creature after being impaled with a spear, or a mummified corpse howling in agony before rushing at a group of soldiers and exploding into dust, Lifeforce is packed with absolutely bizarre shit. Even the premise, that the legends of vampires on earth are the depiction of ancient visitations by a race of aliens that live in a spaceship that follows Halley’s Comet, is so much more out there than what Hooper’s other films are about. While the rest of Hooper’s catalog seems more or less obsessed with the dirt and grime and the physical of this planet (even when dealing with invading aliens in Invaders From Mars)Lifeforce instead looks not just to the stars for its action but also focuses on a plane of existence beyond the physical. Poltergeist is definitely immersed in the idea of a “next realm”, but for much of the film we don’t really see much of what’s going on in that realm. Lifeforce, on the other hand, is laden with images of this other plane. The last act of the film is filled with images of the titular lifeforce. The scenes in which the victims of the vampires are draining their own victims isn’t a messy bloody affair like in traditional vampire films, but instead are rife with crackling electricity and bright vivid images of spiritual energy that represent how the film is focused on the intangible just as much as it is with the physical plane.
Ultimately, even though Lifeforce is something of a departure from Hooper’s usual style, I think it’s an example of what makes him a truly great filmmaker. TCM 2’s biggest flaw wasn’t bad set design, or excessive gore, or over the top acting, but rather that for all its sound and fury it was just a rehash of the first film. It’s certainly a fun film, but it’s not one of Hooper’s strongest offerings and that’s mostly because it doesn’t really try and go out of its comfort zone. It makes a few smart decisions creatively (having Leatherface be more or less a lackey to his brother Chop Top) but it doesn’t really go far enough with them. In Lifeforce, however, Hooper dumps gas right into the engine and supercharges the strange, breaking out of his usual routine and creating something that is, if nothing else, visually fascinating. It proves that Hooper is capable of making a film as raw and minimalist as TCM and as family friendly and poignant as Poltergeist and also able to make a film that is a perfect blend of horror and science fiction and literal batshit insanity. There’s an occasional critique of Hooper being a one trick pony, but I think that Lifeforce proves he was more than capable of making a variety of different horror films stylistically.