Back to IndieWire

5 Things You Might Not Know About Tobe Hooper’s Underseen ‘Lifeforce’

5 Things You Might Not Know About Tobe Hooper's Underseen 'Lifeforce'

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.

It Was Originally Called “The Space Vampires”
“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.

It Was Hooper’s “70 mm Hammer Movie”
“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.

The Female Vampire Was Almost Impossible To Cast
If people remember anything about “Lifeforce” it’s the lead vampire, played by German dancer and actress Mathilda May, who struts around for most of the movie completely naked (and we do mean completely). It’s a great performance, both eerie and erotic, and May shows a kind of fearlessness few actresses could probably embody in this day and age. But finding someone who would perform the role was nearly impossible. May was cast, according to Hooper on the new disc, on “about the 50th screen test.” He described the process as such: “I saw everyone in the U.K. that I could see. There was a problem in the U.K. with the actresses not taking their clothes off. I could not find an actress who stood up to the part.” Hooper says that eventually they started looking elsewhere, although that also proved a source of consternation. “There was a charter plane that brought a lot of actresses from Germany. By the time they got to London they had all unionized and had all talked one another into not doing it,” Hooper explained, still sounding annoyed. “The way the little conspiracy worked out was the young lady that instigated that problem on the plane was the only one who would take her clothes off and test. I had to continue to fly people in.” Finally May auditioned and won the role, with only one previous acting experience under her belt (a part that required her to phonetically learn her English dialogue). “Not only is she a ballerina not only can I use the way that she moves to be disturbing in a strange way, the way her body worked,” Hooper said. May said that while she was initially embarrassed she got used to it but that she wouldn’t do it again. “Today I would never, ever do that,” she says on another documentary on the new disc. May described Hooper as “a very particular character” and went on to detail how her dance experience helped win her the part: “As a dancer I was used to having a special relationship to the body; it was a work instrument. That maybe is the reason why they chose me. I was not using the body in terms of seduction.” Many people since would probably disagree.

Post-Production Was A Nightmare
For some reason the post-production woes of “Lifeforce” were shied away from on the new disc, but there could have probably been an entire Blu-ray filled with behind-the-scenes stories of how tough “Lifeforce” was to get done. Supposedly it began during production, with the shoot falling behind schedule and over-budget. (Cannon wasn’t exactly regulated in the same way the big studios were.) According to one of the actors, this caused major scenes in the script to never be shot and at least partially explains the weirdly disjointed nature of “Lifeforce,” which oddly doesn’t affect the movie negatively but instead adds to its gauzy, dreamlike atmosphere. Production also frequently suffered from technical setbacks afford by its complex effects. “My mechanical effects were not easy to deal with at the time because sometimes they would work and sometimes a cable would break,” Hooper said. From his vantage point the scenes with the effects were often even sillier than what ended up on screen because he could see the 20 or so technicians required operating each puppet. In post-production, though, the film nearly fell apart. While painstaking effects work continued under the supervision of John Dykstra, the wizard who worked on “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” almost everything else broke down. Hooper delivered his initial cut, which ran 128 minutes and again catered to the “epic” sensibilities of the movie. But both Cannon and domestic distributor TriStar were unhappy with the running time and almost a full half hour was trimmed, much to Hooper’s dismay. (Most of the footage came from the Churchill spacecraft stuff at the beginning.) Other bizarre alterations to the final domestic cut (most of which have been reinstated but not at the original 128-minute running time) included cues from the unforgettably spacey score by Henry Mancini being replaced by similar music by “Die Hard” composer Michael Kamen and, in an effort to make the movie “less British,” a handful of the English actors’ voices were replaced by American dubs. Still, a lengthier version has been reinstated but Hooper’s initial 128-minute cut has yet to resurface from the cold recesses of space.

It Was The Last Big Movie Tobe Hooper Would Ever Get To Make
Maybe the most tragic thing about “Lifeforce” isn’t its initial critical and commercial dismissal but the fact that Hooper would never make a movie of its size and scope again. On the special features on the new disc he still sounds giddy about the opportunities “Lifeforce” afforded him: “It can’t get better than this, especially when I burned those streets out. It was awesome to go out to a street that looked absolutely real to me and fire would blow out the windows,” Hooper said. “It was great times.” After his initial smash “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Hooper would go on to make a handful of really wonderful horror movies like “Eaten Alive,” “The Funhouse” (one of the most visually jaw-dropping horror movies ever) and the Steven Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist,” although whether or not Spielberg directed a majority of the movie remains a sorely contentious subject of film nerd debate. But after Hooper’s Cannon-backed three-movie streak, which included a riotous horror-comedy remake/sequel/spoof of ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ Hooper never returned to his former glory. He was never allowed the kind of money that “Lifeforce” gave him, so both the scale and ambition of the movies that followed, shrank dramatically. Even though he had started out making micro-budgeted chillers, his mojo was spent and creatively his post-Cannon movies, things like 1990’s “Spontaneous Combustion” felt antsy and unfocused. By the 2000s he was down to making direct-to-video schlock and filming uneven episodes of the cable anthology series “Masters of Horror.” Even with his depleted mojo, he still remains a Master of Horror, and we hope against hope he’ll be given the opportunity and budget to stage a comeback. Though, it seems about as likely as a spaceship discovering a sideways castle full of vampires.

There are a number of interesting doodles from “Lifeforce” that are explored on this great new Blu-ray, including how Patrick Stewart’s first on-screen kiss was with Steve Railsback, and the circumstances that allowed for Dan O’Bannon to write the screenplay for “Lifeforce” (it goes back to unsung classic “Return of the Living Dead,” which O’Bannon and Hooper were supposed to collaborate on). But what this new edition of “Lifeforce” really does is give you the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate Hooper’s “70 mm Hammer film” in all of its glory. It’s a true horror epic, the kind they just don’t seem to make anymore (and, no, “World War Z” doesn’t count).

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox