Monday, June 23, 2008

The Final Girl Film Club: Tobe Hooper's LIFEFORCE

The long-standing rumor of whether or not Steven Spielberg took over direction of POLTERGEIST from Tobe Hooper is one that remains with us to this day, and if you read around or talk to people who were there, then things don't really sound too good for Mr. Hooper's reputation. Hooper's earlier work, fine as some of it was, didn't suggest the polished professionalism of POLTERGEIST and the finished product certainly reeks of Spielberg (those of you expecting a Spielberg dis job can look elsewhere, as POLTERGEIST remains one of my favorite horror films), but no matter what actually happened on that set, I can tell you that whoever directed POLTERGEIST sure as hell could have also directed LIFEFORCE. You could argue that Hooper learned to direct like Spielberg from watching him, but the fact of the matter is that he made a picture that like the best of those early Spielberg films, holds up as a hell of a great piece of entertainment and is also an insane and sometimes inspired work of genre filmmaking. In a lot of ways, Hooper has never made anything this fun before or since.

I'd like to get it out of the way now and admit that LIFEFORCE is as silly as hell. Space vampires arriving via Haley's Comet? The nude vampire chick? Steve Railsback? How many actors rejected them before they got to Steve Railsback? Never mind about that, because Railsback blends in perfectly with these insane surroundings, but you've got to admire any mainstream movie, especially one that cost a hell of a lot of money to make ($25 million in 1985), that so fearlessly throws conventional logic out the window, screams "Fuck it!", and goes forth on a sci-fi cinematic cocaine bender like this. We look back on the cheesy sci-fi/horror films of the 50s and 60s with a lot of fondness because they were so much of their time, a more innocent era where the films also reflected the socio-political essence of the times. LIFEFORCE is very much like that, just without the socio-political essence, the innocence or anything else except tossing everything into the mix, throwing a lot of money at it and hoping that audiences will take to it, which was very much the style of the time. It's the 1941 of sci-fi/horror films, and like that film, it works mainly because it's so over the place that even though it doesn't make a lick of sense it's so much of a trip to watch that you're pleased by just how nutty it is. What were they thinking? You know something, I don't really care.

All that said, I think there's some really great stuff in here. For starters, LIFEFORCE is a picture that moves, and moves fast and lean for much of its running time, so even though you may not know what the hell is going on, you're caught up enough to just go with it. Many of the action and horror set pieces are pretty effective and there's enough excitement to keep the tension palpable. There are also a few great individual scenes, like the one where Patrick Stewart's all drugged up, that earn your respect out of their legitimate quality but don't make you think, "Man, if only the rest of the movie wasn't so silly". And you can't discuss LIFEFORCE without talking about Henry Mancini's superb score, with a fantastic march that remains one of my favorites. Mancini did indeed come across as a strange choice to score the film (he had done thrillers, but never any outright sci-fi or horror), and yet he delivered one of his best scores, although I've got to wonder just what the hell it is he thought of the movie itself. When the film was cut by Tri-Star, its U.S. distributor, it was re-scored with some new music by Michael Kamen, but thankfully MGM's 1995 laserdisc release (and the subsequent DVD, still in print) retained the original director's cut and Mancini score . LIFEFORCE was pretty out there at 101 minutes, but now at 118 it's even crazier and even better, and thank goodness MGM also struck a new 35mm print of this version (which I saw at QT Fest in 2001), making it the only one they lend out for theatrical engagements. All is well with the world.

I think Hooper understood that he had something to prove with LIFEFORCE and he honestly did give it his all and delivered the best picture he could. Sure, the movie's batshit insane, but it's the best kind of batshit insane movie you can possibly have and I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for it. After THE APPLE, it's my favorite Cannon movie.

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