This week, DVD boutique label Shout Factory, through their Scream Factory imprint, released a new deluxe Blu-ray edition of Tobe Hooper’s “Lifeforce.” A hugely budgeted cult oddity that concerns a European spaceship that encounters a terrifying alien craft in the tail of Halley’s Comet, it has everything a growing horror freak needs: extreme violence, tons of nudity, vampires, mummies, and apocalyptic bedlam. The movie is slyer and smarter than people give it credit for, and absolutely gorgeous-looking (it was shot by a longtime Bond veteran). It was Hooper, who is best known for his immortal classic “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the Steven Spielberg-assisted haunted house modernization “Poltergeist,” at his grandest and most playful. Had “Lifeforce” been a hit, Hooper would have probably been canonized as one of the horror greats, a household name that doesn’t even need introduction. But thanks to its failure (every bit as spectacular as the movie itself), Hooper began a slow crawl into obscurity. For most, this new disc will be the first time that they see “Lifeforce,” a revelatory experience no doubt, but for “Lifeforce” fanatics, it will open up the vaults and let some surprises spill out. In the spirit of the movie, we’ve traveled to the abandoned spaceship of “Lifeforce” to uncovered five things you might not know about this cult classic.
“Lifeforce” was based on a novel by prolific British author and essayist Colin Wilson called “The Space Vampires,” which, on the awesome cover of the paperback novel, featured a completely nude woman tied to the outside of a space capsule. The rights were acquired by Cannon Films co-heads Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, a pair of eccentric Israeli businessmen, and the adaptation was set to become the first movie in a lucrative three-picture pact with Hooper (the other two movies being “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” and a remake of “Invaders from Mars”). For a while, at least, the original title stuck too. Not that anybody was happy about it. "There was an allergic reaction to the title 'Space Vampires,’ ” Hooper says on one of the documentaries on the new Blu-ray. He said that people started to question it right off the bat: “Does this sound like an Italian film of 10 years ago?” (We think the movie Hooper is referring to is Mario Bava’s largely overlooked but deeply impressive “Planet of the Vampires” from 1965, whose S&M-inspired space suits would later go on to form the basis of the superheroes’ costumes in Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” movies.) The problem was that the “Lifeforce” title, a reference to the energy that the vampires suck out of human beings, was too nebulously undefined. At least you know what you’re getting with a movie called “The Space Vampires.” Still, Hooper says that the essence of the title remained in the piece. “The spirit of it was 'Space Vampires,' " Hooper said.
“Lifeforce” baffled most critics and audiences upon its initial release – and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a crazy mishmash of genres and sensibilities, a large scale British epic (many of its principle crewmembers performed similar duties on the Bond movies of the time) designed for optimum mindless entertainment helmed by a laidback Texan who had to make everything he did fiercely subversive and political. For Hooper it was an opportunity to return to the kind of movies he loved as a kid, but on an incredibly large canvas. (According to lead actor Steve Railsback, the production spanned “the Bond stage” at Pinewood Studios in England “plus three other stages.”) “It was able to say different things with a larger budget,” Hooper says on the new release. “I thought I'd go back to my roots and make a 70 mm Hammer film. There's something very cool about that for me.” And true to form, he really did: the movie’s cast is stocked with impressive British actors (people like Peter Firth, Patrick Stewart and Frank Finlay) who add a sense of rarified sophistication to a movie that, as previously stated, was once called “The Space Vampires.” Also, the “70 mm Hammer film” aesthetic was maintained by the art department, who were urged to shy away from any H.R. Giger/”Alien” influence because that would have been, according to Hooper, “sinful.” Instead, Hooper said, for the look of the derelict spacecraft the European spaceship comes across, he wanted something far more classical: “The look of the ship in my head was Dracula's castle but in some strange configuration.” The monsters and mummies that populate “Lifeforce” also bring to mind the classic Hammer movies in the sense that they were both silly and scary, the rubbery stuff of nightmares.