At the recent British Fantasy Convention in Brighton, I was privileged to share a panel on movies with the inimitable Kim Newman, a man who has seen more movies than I’ve had hot meals; which, if you know me at all, means an awful lot of movies.
I can’t pretend to compete with Kim’s encyclopedic knowledge of weird, wonderful SF and fantasy films. But I have been quietly studying some of the great and not so great movies of yesteryear; in particular, alien movies (since aliens are very much the subject of my novel Hell Ship.)
One of the best of this bunch is Lifeforce (1985). Has anyone else seen Lifeforce? It’s not a great film, I admit. It’s too long. It’s unremittingly salacious. But damn it all, it’s fun. It’s vampires in space. It stars Peter Firth, the real star of the BBC series Spooks, in the role that OUGHT to have catapulted him into the A-List of movie actors. It also features Patrick Stewart, in his pre-Picard days, showing that SF is in his blood. It’s a 1980s movie that didn’t achieve the fame or acclaim of Alien or Terminator. But it’s one to be treasured as a home grown SF gem.
Although, admittedly, it’s not an entirely British affair. The story is based on a novel by Brit Colin Wilson, who has written some very eerie stuff about serial killers. The cast, as I’ve mentioned, is awash with Brits. But the screenplay is by co-written by Dan O’Bannon, the special effects whizzo who is also one of the most successful SF screenwriters ever. His student film Dark Star (which he made with director John Carpenter, and in which he played a key role) secured a theatrical release and launched Carpenter’s career. And, using ideas filched from his own first movie, Dan O’Bannon then wrote the screenplay to Alien.
Yes, THAT Dan O’Bannon.
A bitter man, it must be said, after considerable furore over the screenwriting credits for Alien. But let’s gloss over that.
Lifeforce is a movie about space vampires.
Yeah, that is just SO good, isn’t it?
Originally they are found on a space ship by astronauts from Earth; these winged creatures are very eerie, and can be seen here….
When they attack their victims, they drain the bodies and turn them into corpses, thus.
And one of these space vampires, played by Mathilda May, escapes from custody and has no clothes for a considerable part of the film. Hey, this is a B movie after all. A scientist, played by Frank Finlay, correctly guesses that the aliens have the ability to suck ‘lifeforce’ from humans, and speculates they may have come to Earth before. Colonel Caine of the SAS (played by Firth) comes to sort this out, and he’s assisted by Steve Railsback as a surviving astronaut ( an actor later acclaimed for having ‘the scariest eyes in the business’). They track the space vampire to an asylum run by Dr Patrick Stewart, baldy-headed even then; and for reasons I forget, he is drugged and starts talking like a girl.
And then London is aflame! It’s a genuinely exhilarating action finale which merges SF and horror seamfully, but enjoyably.
It’s not well directed, by and large, by Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chain Saw Massacre fame. There’s a fair amount of dead air in the dialogue scenes. But the actors in the film who happen to be genuinely great thespians (including Railsback) know how to make their scenes come alive; Firth and Finlay are electrifying together, and give a masterclass in how gifted actors can take ordinary lines of dialogue and invest them with urgency, rhythm, and screen chemistry.
For me it’s the perfect schlock experience. Enough great moments to make the lame bits forgiveable; a genuinely fab concept; and a bunch of British actors at the top of their game. It’s SUCH a shame Peter Firth never became a movie star; and Finlay was truly one of the greats. Patrick Stewart is the only one of that gang to have broken into the international big league, though only when in his Federation uniform.
And Mathilda May is now officially on my list of Top Ten Best Aliens in Movies, despite being not very scary.
And this is a list I shall be adding to in due course, in future blogs.
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