A would-be blockbuster, Tobe Hooper's 1985 film LIFEFORCE was an attempt on the part of producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to replicate the cash-cow success of STAR WARS. To say they failed is putting it mildly, and at first glance you might be surprised--the film is exceptionally crafted, with a rousing Henry Mancini score, opticals by visual fx guru John Dykstra, and great cinematography by Alan Hume--but once you really look at it, it's a wonder it made any money at all.
Working with a screenplay by ALIEN's Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby, based on Colin Wilson's novel THE SPACE VAMPIRES (yes, I know this is technically a vampire movie, but give me a chance to explain in a bit), LIFEFORCE is purportedly a science fiction story, but its plot shifts gears so often that any potential audience is repeatedly, ahem, alienated.
It's not that the central concept is a bad one--vampiric creatures discovered in space are brought to Earth, who quickly spread a plague of the living dead throughout London--but after starting out like an erotic variant of ALIEN (in the form of Mathilda May, easily the film's best visual) with a healthy dose of mystery and tension, it loses its momentum once it returns to terra firma and becomes a slick, sf-tinged vampire tale (witness the dream sequence in which May visits a slumbering Steve Railsback, a classic succubus scenario if there ever was one).
The vampire element is probably the strongest plot thread, yet its most intriguing aspects are left unexplored. While obviously needing to set up May's spreading of the plague (funny--every single scene of the lovely Ms. May waltzing around nude runs much longer than the rhythm of said scene requires, yet I never really complained), Hooper and his screenwriters concentrate instead on the investigative portion of the event; it gives the film a meandering, dry second act that it never fully recovers from.
Once it finally kicks gears into apocalyptic-horror mode, I was ready to call it quits (as I do every time I watch this film). It's also at this point that Golan and Globus's blockbuster-envy shines through, as it strains itself toward a GHOSTBUSTERS-styled climax--without the demonic dogs, of course. By then the faint heart of its emotional core, the quasi-spiritual/sexual relationship between May and Railsback, is lost beneath an orgy of gee-whiz optical effects. (And I can't help but wonder what this movie would look like in today's CGI wonderland, especially the scene in which blood from Patrick Stewart's unbelievably fake-looking head creates a vision of May.)
As for the zombies . . . while I can't entirely hate a movie that shoehorns them into the story, it's very plainly stated that these creatures are vampires; they're referred to as such, fer cryin' out loud. Yet the monsters running around London, feasting on any available victim, appear to be zombies. They certainly behave like them, and the film presents them in a similar fashion (even foreshadowing films like 28 WEEKS LATER). It's confusing, to say the least, but it's probably part of the producers' need to appeal to every single movie-going demographic.
LIFEFORCE is a wildly uneven film that offers the occasional pay-off, but--at the risk of sounding like a sexist pig--its greatest asset is the inclusion of one of the best naked performances in genre history.