Sunday, August 17, 2008

Great Moments in Terrible Filmmaking: Lifeforce

The Common Man typically knows when a course action he is on is doomed to failure. He gets a feeling in the pit of his stomach, knowing that he's turned left when he should have turned right, opened his mouth when he should have shut up, or held 'em instead of, um, feld 'em. Like most men, The Common Man is content to continue along, knowing he's headed for disaster, but generally appreciative of his time on the path. He rarely admits his mistake, and hardly ever asks for help (unless there's bleeding involved, somehow).

The Common Man suspects that this trait is endemic to men; that once they get started on a project, they just can't stop themselves until it's royally screwed up. And so, The Common Man wants to honor that stubborn aspect of manhood and manliness by looking at the most visible, and The Common Man's most favorite, medium in which they occur: film. On occasion, then, The Common Man will be profiling a project that went bad, that perhaps had some promise at one point but must have jumped the rails pretty damn quickly.

If flying off course and not hitting the brakes is a manly trait, then Tobe Hooper must be a hell of a man. Hooper, for those unfamiliar with the name (and that probably should be most of you) is credited with reinventing the horror genre in the 1970s, creating the slasher flick with the 1974 classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He also managed to direct the quintessential ghost movie, Poltergeist before totally imploding.

And so, this man, a creative force behind two of the greatest horror films of the bygone age, an inaugural inductee of the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival Hall of Fame, decided to direct Lifeforce, a minor Sci-Fi/Horror film about vampires from outer space. How in God's name did this happen, that a movie whose synopsis should cause you convulse with laughter (according to DirecTV, "A space commander and a Scotland Yard inspector search for a naked space vampire loose in London."), was made by a once respectable filmmaker?

The answer is unclear. Online bios suggest that Hooper was lured away from MGM by a rival production company that ultimately failed. But the time between the release of Poltergeist and Lifeforce (3 years), and one cryptic bio on IMDB that claims "some differences...were resolved by Spielberg himself taking over Hooper's directing duties," suggest that perhaps Hooper was just difficult to deal with.

Anyway, this movie should have seemed like a bad idea from the getgo. Based on a Colin Wilson novel, Space Vampires, Hooper's movie plays the entire scenario straight when some winking was probably appropriate. In the near future, a joint U.S. and British expedition to Haley's Comet find a large spaceship hidden by the coma. Inside, they find the dried husks of bat-like humanoids and three perfectly preserved human beings, including the naked girl mentioned above, asleep in glass casings. Doing the only sensible thing, the crew returns to Earth with their new friends under glass, but along the way everyone dies (except the captain, who uses the escape pod, smart fellow). When the shuttle reaches Earth, the three begin a reign of terror, sucking the lifeforce (hence the title) out of anyone they can, their souls jumping from body to body.

It is all part of a nefarious plan to suck the Earth, or at least London, dry. Along the way, the film teaches that a) these are the vampires of legend and they've been here before, b) you should never trust a naked woman you meet in outer space, c) souls have the ability to blow up large London buildings, and d) Patrick Stewart (seriously slumming here) is so much of a man that even men must be restrained from kissing him.

The end of the film is so confusing that it's impossible to say with any certainty what has resolved the conflict. And it's never explained why the vampires, who allegedly have destroyed worlds in their travels throughout the galaxy, left Earth on their previous visits. Also, most of the special effects, including the blue, flying "lifeforce"s that fly around the screen and back up to the vampires' ship, are lifted directly from Poltergeist.

As much as The Common Man loves terrible movies, he was endlessly amused by this poorly thought-out, overly serious, excruciatingly acted film. If you like bad movies, this is an excellent place to start. Sadly, The Common Man watched this film on Chiller, a channel exclusive to DirecTV, so no nudity made its way past the long, blurry arm of the censors. But the prospect of a naked space vampire played by the enchanting Mathilda May

is more than worth the price of admission or rental. The Common Man just asks you not to giggle the next time you watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre, since Tobe Hooper has the decency not to laugh at you while you stubbornly try to drive home at 20 MPH with an unsecured mattress on your roof.

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