d. d. Tobe Hooper; pr. Yoram Globus, Menahem Golan; scr. Dan O'Bannon, Don Jakoby; novel. Colin Wilson; ph. Alan Hume; m. Henry Mancini; ed. John Grover; cast. Steve Railsback, Colin Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard (116 mins)
Genre Auteur Tobe Hooper's (Over-) reaction to Claims of Producer Control
It is said that director Tobe Hooper’s one and only enduring classic remains The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a controversial film that angered many uptight critics when the New York Museum of Modern Art decided to add a print of the film to its permanent in-house collection.
Although Hooper made moves to the mainstream with the provocative Funhouse, it was not until his association with Steven Spielberg on Poltergeist that Hooper was actually poised to become a major Hollywood “player”. Although Poltergeist was a success, there were many critics who gloatingly delighted in asserting that Hooper was merely a Spielberg puppet and had little creative control of his own. Perhaps in an effort to prove that he was a director, even auteur in his own right, Hooper subsequently went on to direct two big budget science fiction films, Lifeforce and a remake of the 1950s cult classic Invaders from Mars. However, both of these films flopped with critics and audiences alike and soon Hooper was doing the sequel to his best known film in order to keep himself a viable figure, if now doomed to be on the genre fringes of American film. Despite their relative panning, both of Hooper’s big sci-fi pictures are intriguing works and the bizarre Lifeforce is especially fascinating as a full-blown, distinctly Jungian vision on AIDS-era paranoia reaching apocalyptic proportions. It is Hooper’s most neglected work.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Lifeforce begins as a science fiction and soon segues into intensely paranoid horror. On a mission to study Halley’s Comet a US astronaut crew, led by Steve Railsback, discovers a mysterious spacecraft in the comet’s coma.
They inspect accordingly and find three nude human bodies encased and preserved. They take them on board, though Railsback is soon strangely attracted to the female. Shortly, a retrieval ship must come to their assistance and discovers most of the crew dead. The space bodies are taken to an English research center, headed by a scientist (Frank Finlay) and an SAS officer (Peter Firth). There, the seemingly dead female (Mathilda May) comes alive and soon proves herself a space vampire, capable of sucking out the life energy of her victims. She escapes her confines with ease and is thus loosed in London and surroundings. Study of her victims quickly reveals a budding plague: the drained victim must feed off the lifeforce of another within two hours or perish – thus, an epidemic could be in progress if May is not found. An escape pod returns to Earth containing Railsback, claming a psychic link to May, who teams with Firth to track down May as she moves from body to body. This leads to a hospital for the criminally insane (run by Patrick Stewart). Returning, they find that the plague has spread, turning London into a quarantined war zone. Railsback senses May’s presence and tries to get to her.
Pulp Sci-fi Genius in Sensual, Visceral Depiction of a Vampiric Apocalypse
Although undeniably ridiculous, Lifeforce is directed with such a deliberately comic-bookish sense of relentless pulp energy that it emerges as a fascinating, riveting vision of a kind of vampiric apocalypse.
Its analysis of the vampire myth (something reportedly more sustained and developed in Colin Wilson’s original novel) blends horror and science fiction motifs for a clever variation on the traditional concept of a vampire. Indeed, the film suggests that the vampire is a kind of psychic “other”, a predatory species that can absorb the desires and needs of its victims and correspondingly take shape from their psychic projections. These vampires may have physical form but, confirmed in the case of May, seem to also exist as a disembodied entity that can be transferred from mind to mind and body to body, suggesting even that it is a form of psychological malaise that precedes the descent into physiological despair and transformation. Such a process is also addictive, and hence Railsback admits that he feels invigorated, as if finally close to a truer form of love. The plague thus becomes a metaphor for the notion of a contagious psychosis which in turn is strangely enough rooted in Jungian notions. This provocative idea is one of many such out of the ordinary concepts that are dangled in a film wherein what is most striking concerns the bizarre sexual allegory that develops out of the link between Railsback and May.
The film considers “woman” as a sexual force that cannot be contained nor controlled by patriarchal authority.
Although riddled with sexual paranoia (as opposed to misogyny), the film nonetheless stresses the psychic bond between Railsback and May. Indeed May has taken her appearance from Railsback’s own mental image of the ideal woman. This raises the possibility for a Jungian reading of the film in which May is the projected personification of Railsback’s anima. The conflict for dominance between May and Railsback thus becomes an allegorical clash of the anima and animus and the film in turn becomes a weirdly Jungian sexual psychodrama in a field where Freudian analysis still prevails – it is no longer a loosed male id which is monstrous, but a wild anima. This is a rare conceit and done with ferocious aplomb by Hooper. Males react at the prospect of this out-of-control anima with total fear for it represents the potential collapse of their patriarchal order and thus their sexual dominance, hence Railsback’s violent treatment of a woman in the film as a kind of compensation. The film holds that the inability to reconcile the anima and animus will result in the collapse of any social order into violent anarchy and the loss of one’s life essence in a regression to another state of existence that is perhaps even stored in some part of the collective unconscious. The absurdly inventive pseudo-religiosity of this astonishing film is staggering.
Jungian Grotesquerie in Stylized Comic Book Mythology
The transfer features a widescreen letterbox version rather than an anamorphic one but it still for the most part preserves a film that is visually outstanding in its original aspect ratio, perfectly capturing the deliberately stylized blend of darkness and primary colors that makes for a striking, garish comic-book design in its speculative realization of Jungian mythology.
With cleverly surreal effects, the film evidences a strong sense of production values and is a marvel within its genre – Hooper here is unbridled, and at his most ferociously colorful. Using wide angle lenses for added distortion the film nicely charts the explosion of color and energy at night, making the sequences of apocalyptic London some of the most disturbingly realized scenes of mass panic in the horror genre. The frequent sight of the nude May makes for a sense of disturbing sexuality that deliberately allies the male viewer’s desire to the paranoid fear of catching a plague that will decimate the body and the psyche: it is a cleverly calculated use of nudity. Detailed sets and miniatures are well integrated into the narrative as Hooper’s editing rhythms manage to make the film both brooding and relentless, an ambitious stylistic mix that is truly difficult to maintain but fascinating when achieved. The transfer has some problems as blacks look a little murky towards the bottom of the frame: however, few films have linked color and energy so forcefully.
Precipitating the Chaos of Socio-sexual Collapse in Plague Cinema
The sound transfer has been upgraded and enhanced to Dolby Digital 5.1 although some of the enhancement has a rather obvious and somewhat disorienting artificiality.
For the most part, however, it invigorates and updates the original aural design. Ambient details are thus distributed well and there are suspenseful, if decidedly unsubtle, directional sound effects throughout. Transitions between scenes often have a deliberately jarring, even contradictory quality as Hooper likes to build up a soundscape and quickly introduce silence, making for a suspenseful abruptness to his scare tactics. There is a nice distinction to voices in person and over the radio as judicious additional jarring effects contrast quite nicely to natural lulls and contemplative pauses that build to even more intense scenes. Hooper is one of the few masters at the notion of uncontrollably nightmarish propulsion and here structures the loss of control, societal and individual, exceptionally well. Isolated sounds are effective – the cries of the recent vampire-zombies being nicely enhanced for a fuller spatial presence that is suitably unnerving. Likewise, the final chaos of the apocalyptic scenes is a well-sustained auditory experience and immersing directional frenzy, making this a true home theatre spectacular: although, to restate, its enhancements lack subtlety – however, subtlety is never the dominant order of the day in a Hooper film.
Only a Booklet for the DVD Release
For Lifeforce’s original US release, several scenes were removed in order to shorten its running time, although audiences outside America saw the uncut version. This DVD release restores these deleted scenes to the film and thus represents the complete, unedited film as it was originally intended to be seen. The only special feature on the disc is a theatrical trailer although there is an 8-page collector’s booklet that offers information about the making of the film, the special effects, and offers a brief profile of director Hooper.
This film is ripe for re-appraisal for as a Jungian nightmare within its genre parameters there is no other movie the equal of Lifeforce.
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LAST UPDATED: June 7, 2012 15:14