Midnight Screenings: Lifeforce

Given the new Texas Chain Saw Massacre film, the latest in a long line of misbegotten diminishments and perplexing variations on director Tobe Hooper’s seminal, genre-defining destruction of American mythologies, I’ve decided to look at one of Hooper’s stranger and more bedeviling films, one of the many that has contributed to his unfortunate reputation as a one-hit-wonder, even a cinematic accident whose career-long death slowly trickled out film after film. Like most of them, 1985’s well-budgeted Lifeforce reveals a director who was less in full command of his talents than one who was willing and receptive to asking how little in control any of us are.

For perhaps the only time in his life, Lifeforce found director Tobe Hooper playing with a leg-up. Having just directed Poltergeist for producer Steven Spielberg, he was for once and only once in Hollywood’s good graces. Even with Hooper’s name somewhat besmirched by critics who simply can’t recognize images, allowing themselves to believe that Poltergeist was, in fact, the result of Steven Spielberg’s directorial eye, producers were still willing to back him to the hilt for another film, before abandoning him yet again when Lifeforce flopped. A far cry from his grotty off-road Americana The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Lifeforce was, fully, a major cinematic production, an attempt to cash-in on the science fiction craze of the 1980s. And this ostensible Alien rip-off had Alien’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon as a co-writer, to boot!

But Hooper just wasn’t going to play ball. Perhaps expectantly giving Hooper’s chaotic and ununified cinematic history, Lifeforce is almost remarkably fugitive to itself, going out of its way to not be a self-same object. Instead of tonal or generic coherence, Hooper’s film invests in its own self-destruction. It feels not only like four movies in one but a film that is defiantly proud of the fact that it shuttles us across often-competing thematic registers and follows strange, alluring tonal energies to its heart’s content. It’s hard to say whether Hooper was a principled self-saboteur who felt that every film needed to travel the path of most resistance, to intervene in its own existence, or whether Hooper was just unlucky and really wanted to make mainstream motion pictures. But, warts and all, Lifeforce feels like it could only have been directed by Hooper.

And like it could only have bene financed at this budget by Cannon Films, the brainchild of the producing duo of Golan-Globus, and only if you recognize those names do you know what you’re getting into. While they’d been traveling around their corner of the cinematic universe rekindling the basest desires of film-viewers – watching strange happenings and unclarifiable engagements unimpeded by narrative logic or psychological cohesion – Lifeforce was Golan-Globus’s swing for the Big Top. They hired all the right people, from cinematographer Alan Hume (who had just done a little film called Return of the Jedi), to legendary composer Henry Mancini, to special effects guru John Dysktra, who had essentially handled all the major science fiction films of the previous few years.

But the ringmaster they chose was, perhaps fatally for their aspirations, Tobe Hooper, a director who had already directed one carnival-set monstrosity in 1981’s phenomenally grimy Funhouse and who would go on, the following year, to exorcise his demons from Lifeforce’s 1985 failure by returning to his most famed film for a sequel one year later: 1986’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Part 2. Rather than doing what any other director might have – saving face by shoring up his credentials and returning to what he knew had already worked for him, tacitly admitting defeat and the futitility of experimentation in the process – Hooper completely and consciously eviscerated his beloved film-child by turning its sequel into a punk-rock Grand Guignol, an absurdist, carnivalesque satire of the slasher genre. Whatever you think of Hooper as a director, he was absolutely not going to usher Lifeforce to Box Office success, let alone corral the various side-show acts in his carnival into one cohesive stage-show. He seemed, perennially, to wish for his films to remain defiantly back-road, out-of-the-way side-shows.  

Indeed, Hooper was both what Lifeforce could not withstand and absolutely what it needed. The film is vaguely a disaster, but it is such a spirited and iconoclastic one that it renders most conventional markers of quality hopelessly unstable, sucked into the film’s whirling black hole along with its internal logic. To be fair, it does look, for a bit, like Lifeforce is merely going to be thoroughly terrific existential slow-cinema sci-fi in the spirit of Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film’s phenomenal opening reel is a terrific slow-drip expedition to a spaceship hidden in the energy disturbances following in the wake of Halley’s Comet. A British-American crew land and, after the film very deliberately soaks in the abyssal mood of an unfathomable space, they locate, and return to Earth with, three naked humanoid beings who have been encased in glass tubes sleeping for who knows how long. Their fetch-quest is complete, but we’re already half-way to a film-length excursion into the melancholic, Lovecraftain sublime, trapped in an impossible space negotiating the limits of human consciousness. Then, as though having reached this limit, the film absolutely collapses and decides to rewrite itself several times.

From there, we’re off to the races, even if the horses aren’t running in nearly the same direction. After the almost Tarkovsy-esque first sequence, space as paralyzing infinity and spaceship as haunted house and dark carnival, we nominally return home only to realize the film left its mind back in the stars. Once we get back to land, we leave astronaut Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) for a full act as a number of scientists, particularly Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) and military attachment Colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth), struggle through a narrative that retains a remarkably uncertain attitude toward words like “protagonist.” Conceptually, technically, and thematically, Lifeforce keeps slipping away, seemingly settling into grooves for half an hour at a time, apparently deciding to find and develop a single wavelength before losing interest or turning the narrative slantwise.

Initially, various combinations of the aforementioned men study the science behind these dead or sleeping naked bodies until they begin to wake up and drain the psychic life energy from nearby humans, which Hooper, Hume, and Dysktra visualize as a kind of sexual transmission that evacuates the titular lifeforce from the body. This plasmatic transfer, bodies reanimating and de-animating (the vampires need consistent satiation lest they turn back into husks) and souls transferring between bodies repeatedly ultimately animates the film, providing a kind of fluid template that feels like a glass negative of some more complete artistic work. Indeed, just when we’ve begun to latch onto a plot, the film transitions again, this time to a Hammer-esque countryside horror (Hooper’s stated intent making this film) set in a psychiatric institution. Once we’re (still not quite) comfortable with that, the film then shifts gears one final time for a lurid, apocalyptic finale. Here, the film attempts to explain itself (suggesting that these aliens visit Earth each time Halley’s Comet passes by the planet’s orbit and, in addition, were the origin of human vampire mythology) and completely jettisons any rhyme or reason. While Golan and Globus almost certainly were attracted to the Alien-rip-off angle of the film, the resulting film, either via Hooper’s doing or not, is far more invested in troubling its own wavelengths, distorting its rhythms.

This, mind you, is before the film turns fully apocalyptic, a gesture which doesn’t (like most films) register as the crumbling of a center so much as the film simply recognizing how lacking a center it always was. By the time one character’s blood flies out of his insides through his mouth, nostrils, and eyes and temporarily congeals to form the life-energy of the vampire queen, the film has so fully asked us to defray our rationalism and our sense of humans as atomistic “selves” that we’re really only left with two choices: accept the film’s elan vital, its all-encompassing cosmic, vital force transferring between and around bodies that are revealed as temporary waystations for world-currents, or die resisting. As a horror film, if it maintains any consistent anxiety, it’s around uncontrollable biological urges, the body letting loose energy that ultimately destroys the individual mind and turns it into matter for consumption by others. These are very much the same concerns that animated Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, as well as far too many horror films to name, up to and including Lifeforce’s same-era companions Nightmare on Elm Street, with its concerns about dream energy as both imaginative refuge and invasive species, and Cronenberg’s The Fly, where the desire to transcend space-time through teleportation leads to interspecies melding and the decimation of selfhood.

Compared to those films, though, Lifeforce seems so fundamentally uninterested in its human characters that it’s positively giddy to abandon them for a more free-wheeling, non-atomistic narrative sensibility, moving between locations, characters, and sub-genres with a relatively free-hand much like the vampires themselves. Rather than fear (which the narrative tells us we should feel), the film’s form finds effusive liberation from the notion of a film as a self-same coherent object. In the hands of Hooper, Lifeforce is much more likely to unleash the energy that troubles it, to let go and give way to its possibilities, rather than think about.

This liberatory strangeness, for better and worse, often made Hooper the ugly duckling among the same-era masters he is often compared to. George Romero’s films tend to coalesce around concerns about consumer capitalism and a similar tone of cunning, paranoid absurdism, so they’re relatively easy to parse as a coherent unity. John Carpenter’s interests in collective shop-work tended to produce tighter, leaner, nastier cuts of cinematic meat. This made him comparatively easy to appreciate as a straightforward cinematic craftsperson in the footsteps of Howard Hawks, the director not as mad visionary but as thoughtful upholsterer mending and working easily within given constraints, momentarily hybridizing with the mindset of each film and leaving at the end of the day confident he’d done his best day’s work. Wes Craven, the philosopher filmmaker, always seemed more invested in sharing ideas via cinema rather than thinking about cinema as a means to explore ideas. Tellingly, his first film was a Bergman riff, and like the earlier, pre-Seventh Seal Bergman, Craven always felt like cinema was only incidentally his medium, and that he’d be just as content writing books or painting.

Hooper, among the others, is much more difficult to summarize, and hasn’t been reclaimed in quite the same way, except in the more out-of-the-way corners of the internet. One gets the sense that Hooper was more invested in tone, texture, and tempo than theme, that his mind thought visually rather than conceptually, that he enjoyed the energies his narratives let loose and was ultimately more interested in inhabiting them than explaining them. His earlier films, namely The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive, and Funhouse, thoroughly gnaw into American mythologies and expose the festering corpses and rotting flesh that subtend dreams of unity, progress, and togetherness. And his underappreciated later film The Mangler allegorizes the vital force of capitalism as America’s dark, Janus-faced demon, nominally offering dynamism and creativity but ultimately investing technology and machinery with psychic and spiritual energies that churn and eat alive the working class. But what units them and Lifeforce is less a theme than a sensibility or a suspicion, namely that the body, human or cinematic, might be that much more fragile than we admit, that much more ready and willing to collapse into dust, that much more susceptible to the many uncertain forces populating the world, ready to use us all, and all of Hooper’s films, for good or ill in a way that is largely beyond our control.

Score: 8/10

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