New to the ever expanding Arrow Video Hi-Def pantheon, comes a real treat for British sc-fi/horror lovers. Even though it could be considered somewhat overlooked in general quarters these days; this movie actually connected really well with many of those who saw it at the time. For those that caught it at the cinema (this writer included), it generated a vivid and lasting effect (and I’m not just referring to French newcomer Mathilda May, who spends most of the film very very naked).
Yes, we’re talking about Cannon Films’ big budget, 70mm adaptation of Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel The Space Vampires, co-written by Dan O’Bannon, retitled Lifeforce, and directed by Tobe ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Hooper…..
Yeah, Lifeforce, ring any bells? It’s one of those movies that when someone who is of an age to have seen it back in 1985, says they’ve never heard of it; the person who asked them can’t quite believe what they’re hearing.
The film starred Steve Railsback, the aforementioned Miss May, as well as a host of well known British character actors like Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, the very wonderfully squinty Aubrey Morris, and even a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart for good measure.
As well as it’s large $25 million budget (and remember, in 1985 $25 million was nudging Return of the Jedi territory), Lifeforce is notable for some really top draw crew as well. This includes mega FX maestro John Dykstra, and Return of the Jedi‘s acclaimed cinematographer, Alan Hume, as well as a score by the great Henry Mancini.
All in all, a rather well financed, well cast, well crewed movie, and a very original ‘high concept’ take on both the origins of vampire lore, and certain zombie themes as well. All the ingredients for a bit of an epic blockbuster perhaps.
Well it didn’t quite work out that way, but we’re not really here to muse on those particulars, so lets talk about this release, and maybe i’ll mention a bit more about the movie itself in the conclusion.
So, this new 2 disc release comes packing some very tasty, and generous bonus extras, as well as two whole versions of the film (incidentally, both versions seem to have gone through the same restoration process, so there are no visual compromises to watching either cut), although there are certain other minor limitations, which I’ll mention in my wrap up.
Here are some package details:
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of both the Theatrical (the 101 minute US cut), and International (the 116 minute UK cut) versions, transferred from original elements by MGM with supervision by director Tobe Hooper (let me just chime in here, and say that the 116 minute cut, is by far the preferable way to watch the movie, except for one single line of dialogue in the finale, which is so unbelievably naff, both in writing and delivery, that it made me laugh out loud).
– Optional uncompressed 2.0 Stereo PCM and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround Sound
– Isolated Music and Effects Sound Track
– Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Audio commentary with Tobe Hooper, moderated by filmmaker Tim Sullivan – I have to say, I’m not a fan of Sullivan’s style of over-complimentary moderation, as it borders on the sycophantic. One gets the impression sometimes while listening to it, that Hooper himself would rather he just either shut up and let him talk, or be honest and straight with him about the movie, so they can have a real conversation.
– Audio commentary with Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Douglas Smith, moderated by filmmaker and scholar Howard S. Berger
– Audio commentary with make-up effects artist Nick Maley, moderated by filmmaker Michael Felsher
– Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce – An epic UK-exclusive look at the genesis, production and release of Lifeforce, featuring interviews with Hooper, and many of the main cast and crew – This is the main documentary meat of the package, and runs to an impressive 70 minutes. I found it interesting, thorough, entertaining and very informative. There’s not a great deal you’ll be left wanting to know after you watch this.
– Space Vampires in London: An interview with Tobe Hooper – A 10 minute interview with Hooper, which is happily not just a condensed version of his contributions in the main documentary, but a separate and worthy piece in its own right.
– Dangerous Beauty: An interview with Mathilda May, Lifeforce’s iconic star – This runs to 15 minutes, and Mathilda is engaging and frank about her role, in particular how she felt (and feels to this day), about the extensive nudity in the film.
– Carlsen’s Curse: Star Steve Railsback looks back on Lifeforce and his career – This is a little brief at only 7 minutes, but Railsback reflects in a personable and engaging way.
– Original Theatrical Trailer
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin
– Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by science fiction expert Bill Warren, a new interview with Oscar-winning visual effects artist John Dykstra by Calum Waddell, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
As I mentioned earlier, the really nice thing about the inclusion of both cuts of the movie, is that they have both been subjected to the same restoration and clean-up process. This is actually quite unusual, as standard modus operandi would be to have a single ‘definitive’ cut that has had the restoration, and any alternative cuts included for reference only, and presented as they are. The two versions are separated on disc 1 and 2, so there is no branching between cuts possible, and all three (yes three) commentaries, plus all the other bonus extras are associated with the longer (International) cut on disc 1.
This point is made somewhat moot by the fact that most folks will (quite rightly in my opinion), naturally gravitate towards the longer cut anyway, leaving disc 2 in the box most of the time. In fact, truth be known; you could have dropped the US theatrical altogether, and this Blu-ray package would still be top notch.
It’s fair to say that Lifeforce failed to find its audience in cinemas back in 1985, and was a box office disappointment for Cannon. Moderately successful in the UK and Europe, but not in the US. I guess, despite its epic budget, apocalyptic scope, American director, American star, and a fair few American re-dubbed bit parts; it still had an old fashioned British feel to it, much more akin to Quatermass and the like, than contemporary horror/sci-fi flicks like, say Aliens.
Lifeforce really does have a very British ‘thesp’ BBC1, 6 part drama feel, which could have put our US cousins off seeing it, I’m not sure. It didn’t seem to effect John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London a few years prior. Landis’ film had a similar innate britishness to it (despite American leads etc), yet was a smash. Go figure!
Lifeforce maintained a pulse on home video, and has garnered cult standing in the interim most certainly.
Now, the nice folks at Arrow have spruced it up very gorgeous for the Blu-Ray generation, and loaded it with bonus material. The restoration job is excellent (if not quite class leading), with particular attention being paid to a significant degree of colour correction. My teenage self only wishes Miss May’s incredible introduction had been this perfectly rendered back in the grotty old pan and scan VHS days. Oh how she made us pray for judder-free pause technology. I tell you now, If it turned out that the guy (and it was a guy), who invented A-B Repeat on DVD, saw Mathilda May’s breasts in Lifeforce, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised!
Personally, (as I think you can tell), I loved the movie at the time, and catching up with it now was a true joy. Yes, its special effects are of a vintage that date the film terribly. They are dated in a way that the effects of the aforementioned Aliens seem to successfully avoid even now. But despite that; I really enjoyed it, really got into it, and was left wishing they still made movies like this, ‘cos I miss them. The Blu-Ray package that has been put together is as epic and worthy as any forgotten 80s horror/sci-fi flick could possibly warrant, and will represent great value for money.