Soul Suckers: Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985) – Blu-ray review
Imagine your lifeforce being sucked dry. Now imagine your ability to stomach terrible 1980s horror being gradually but unceasingly eroded. Same difference, really.
(Tobe Hooper, 1985)
In the early 1970s, when the titular Time Lord was exiled to Earth, Doctor Who specialised in stories about alien invasions of Earth – invariably, for budgetary reasons, focussing on London. Everybody involved knew they were ripping off Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories, so the onus was to make the stories topical by turning them into allegories about business, conservation or the Cold War. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Tobe Hooper was revolutionising horror by bringing raw verite-style camerawork and the unflinching brutality of a generation shaped by Vietnam to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It’s worth making these associations because Lifeforce is Hooper’s attempt to do a 70s-style Who story, albeit he’s arrived in Britain in the 1980s, when whatever social comment Hooper once felt compelled to make is lost amidst a soullessly commercial affair focussed on nudity and exploding corpses. The essence of the story – about a naked lady alien who sucks the lifeforce from the men she dupes – has allegorical potential, especially given that the film was being made as AIDS paranoia was just emerging. Yet, much like the later Species, there is no hint that anybody is interested in such matters beyond the potential to frame Mathilda May’s breasts for maximum voluminousness.
Instead, the resulting film has to rely entirely on plot and atmosphere, neither of which passes muster. An incredibly slow opening prologue – largely cut for the U.S. theatrical edit, included here alongside the longer European version in a typically robust package from Arrow Films – is a beat-for-beat retread of the opening act of Alien, but without Ridley Scott’s ability to create a world through art direction. Once the action arrives in Earth, there are interminable scenes of scientists and soldiers debating what to do next. It’s the kind of film where a key plot twist is recounted over the phone, as if it was just a casual bit of office gossip.
But Hooper fails to get a handle on what, exactly, is going on. The modus operandi of the “space vampires” (as the source novel puts it) is to feed on the lifeforce of victims – something visualised with a very 80s stream of FX-assisted blue light. This is fine until Hooper gets bored with the lack of gore, and turns London into a post-apocalyptic hellhole where generic zombies are feasting on flesh.
The uncertainty gets to the actors. Either this is a classy affair directed by an icon of horror cinema, or it’s a film based on a book called “The Space Vampires.” The casting of Steve Railsback, a go-to guy for genre exploitation pics, suggests the latter but stick him on set with a bunch of Shakespearian actors and he gets delusions of grandeur – there’s a moment where he has to go mental over Patrick Stewart and Railsback gives what can only be described as acting Tourettes: a frenzied but very self-conscious display of tics.
In contrast, British co-star Peter Firth delivers every line with the incredulousness of someone who can’t believe he signed up to this shit. Confronted with a vampire in its natural creature form, he gives a look that is meant to signify fear but looks more like contempt for the prosthetics team. The entire film ends up becoming a competition to see who can give the worst performance. The result: call it a score draw.