Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Lifeforce (1985)

... aka: Fuerza siniesta (Sinister Force)
... aka: L'étoile du mal (The Star of Evil)
... aka: Lifeforce - Die tödliche Bedrohung (Lifeforce: The Deadly Menace)
... aka: Livsfarlig invasion (Deadly Invasion)
... aka: Siła witalna (Vital Force)
... aka: Space Intruders
... aka: Space Vampires
... aka: Tappava yhteys (Deadly Connection)
... aka: Yaşam savaşı - Uzay vampirleri (Battle for Life: Space Vampires)

Directed by:
Tobe Hooper

Despite persistent rumors that producer / co-writer Steven Spielberg actually directed it, or at the very least had a hand in doing so, Poltergeist (1982) marked Hooper's entry into the big time. Made for 10 million dollars, it grossed over 120 million worldwide, became the ninth highest-grossing U.S. release of its year and was nominated for three technical Academy Awards. That became enough of an incentive for someone to throw some major money behind him. Those people ended up being Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of the Cannon Group. They put Hooper under a three picture contract and invested over 40 million bucks in him, only for it to backfire when two of the three films bombed. 

The only successful one of the bunch, and just modestly so at that, was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), which doubled its budget in theaters despite getting ridiculed by critics. Next up was the same year's Invaders from Mars, a remake of the beloved 1953 classic, which attempted to replace the low budget down home charm of the original with expensive updated special effects. The reviews were again terrible and the film only grossed 4.5 million on a budget estimated between 8 to 12 million. At year's end, it ranked #118, lagging behind such films as TROLL, Haunted Honeymoon and My Little Pony: The Movie. And even it wasn't the biggest disaster of all... Meet Lifeforce!

Basically given free reign to do as he pleased on this particular project, Hooper's would-be blockbuster was plagued by numerous script re-writes and went five weeks over-schedule. Despite being one of the widest releases of the year and being promoted as "the cinematic sci-fi event of the 80s," the reviews were dreadful and the film only grossed 11 million dollars domestically on a 25 million budget. For a reference point, the #1 U.S. box office draw of 1986, Back to the Future, grossed nearly 200 million more despite costing 6 million less to produce. Audiences opted instead to get their sci-fi thrills from more heart-warming fare like Cocoon and a re-issue of E.T.. Of course, profit isn't necessarily an indicator of quality, or lack thereof. Great movies bomb and awful movies are hits all the time. Remember that John Carpenter's THE THING (1982), now one of the most popular genre films there is, was also a critical and commercial failure upon release.

Movies like Lifeforce put me in a position where I have to evaluate what positives the inflated budget purchased vs. what positives the primary players brought to the table. We already know this is going to look fantastic and we already know that the expensive special effects are going to be (by the standards of the time) top quality. 

When it comes to technical aspects, I gladly admit to being more lenient with low budget offerings. One of my absolute favorite things about the genre is seeing the various ways talented filmmakers can work around budget limitations, which often force them into a position of being inventive and taking chances. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I place much more emphasis on other things when I'm looking at big budget films. I expect the script, direction and acting to match the quality of the production values. I suppose part of me doesn't want to feel like I'm being 'bought off,' so to speak, by superficial things, but an even larger part of it is that I don't like making excuses for directors who've been given every luxury in the book and then squandered it with uneven / mediocre product when I could be championing underdog films instead.

On the spaceship HMS Churchill, a joint U. S. / British space team are planning to "intercept" and study Halley's Comet. As they near it, their radars pick up something truly bizarre at the head of the comet; a huge foreign object that's approximately 150 miles long in length. It turns out to be some kind of alien spacecraft. Not wanting to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime chance (the comet won't be anywhere near the Earth again until 2061), Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) and three of his men decide to board the ship and have a look around. Inside, they discover thousands of dead, prehistoric-looking alien creatures that resemble giant bats. Exploring even further, they enter a separate chamber to find three perfectly-preserved humans (one woman and two men) in glass cases who seem to be in a state of suspended animation.

One month later, radars pick up the Churchill drifting around close to Earth. It appears the crew set their return coordinates shortly after leaving the comet, but haven't updated them since. A rescue ship, the Columbia, is then sent to retrieve them but, upon entry onto the Churchill, discover all that's left of crew people are shriveled corpses. They appear to have been incinerated, along with the ship's interior. As for the three human-looking specimens they retrieved from the alien spacecraft, they're in as good a shape as ever and don't look like they've even been touched. The Columbia crew retrieve the alien bodies and return to Earth.

Analysis on the findings, headed over by Professor Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) and Dr. Leonard Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) at the European Space Research in Centre in London, reveal the crystal casings are neither metallic nor organic and seem to be made out of a material unknown to man. Furthermore, the female space alien (played by stunning French actress Mathilda May) appears to be alive, though in some sort of comatose state. That all changes when she suddenly opens her eyes, engages the guard in a kiss and sucks out his lifeforce. Not only does this alien possess strong telekinetic abilities, but she also possesses an "overwhelmingly feminine" allure that leaves male victims entranced until she can feed.

After easily taking down several other guards, she escapes the facility... and also happens to be buck naked the entire time and will remain that way through much of the rest of the film. Not that anyone will be complaining. May's face and body are what the phrase "easy on the eyes" was invented for. In addition to her, the two male model-looking aliens (Bill Malin and [Mick's younger brother] Christopher Jagger) also start out the film nude. However, unlike the lingering camera shots showcasing May, the filmmakers go to sometimes hilariously lengths to try to conceal them. There's one hilarious shot of May standing there in all her full-frontal glory while the male alien next to her has blurred out genitalia! After awakening, the male aliens also manage to escape the facility after killing a couple of guards and then inhabiting their bodies to take on their appearance. It appears these life forms have all kinds of amazing powers!

Special Air Service agent Colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth, a very good second male lead) is soon on the case assisting the scientists as bodies begin to turn up, starting with the drained corpse of a lesbian in Hyde Park. Victims who've been infected actually continue to live for a spell even in a drained state but explode into dust if they're not able to get their lifeforce fix. Meanwhile, an escape pod from the Churchill has landed in Texas. Inside is a still-living Colonel Carlsen, who's immediately flown to the UK to join in the investigation, which now also includes parliamentarian Sir Percy (Aubrey Morris).

But how does one go about stopping aliens that not only have formidable powers but can also change their appearance on a whim and are cunning enough to steal just a little lifeforce from certain victims to sustain themselves and not leave an evidence trail of bodies behind? Well, the script has us all covered there with the return of the Carlsen character. He's plagued by red-lit sex nightmares starring the alien girl and, via a hypnosis session, it's revealed he shares a psychic link with her, which enables him to track where she's at and what body she's using at any given time. Even better, he can tell what body the alien is in simply by touching them. What's led Carlsen to gaining these powers is explained later in the film via flashback but it's mostly just a handy plot convenience.

After the alien girl does a bit of Body Snatchers-style body hopping, inhabiting a nurse (Nancy Paul) and then a hospital administrator (Patrick Stewart), our heroes return to London and find it in complete disarray. The 150-mile-long alien craft from Halley's Comet, which (probably not coincidentally) looks like a giant wang, is now hovering above the Earth doing some soul harvesting. Buildings are on fire, people are being turned into zombie-like fiends, who attack and spread the plague to others, and the military are unsuccessfully trying to keep things under control. Can Carlsen overcome the "overwhelmingly feminine" hold the space vampiress has over him in time to save mankind?

If the intent was trying to make me feel like one of the alien's depleted victims by film's end, it has succeeded admirably! I felt like I had the lifeforce sucked out of me trying to keep tabs on this messy plot (which is somehow both confusing and bogged down with exposition) and listening to clunkers like "I am the feminine in your mind" and "The web of destiny carries your blood and soul back to the genesis of my lifeform."

The characters aren't people you give a whit about but instead conduits for relaying / over-explaining various plot points. You may end up just like me and find yourself zoning them completely out while you're waiting for the next fx scene. And then there are the attempts at "deep" meaningful conversation, which all seem like a silly attempt at justify wanting to make a big budget movie about a hot naked alien vampire. All life forms are vampiric in their own way, right? And our life energy is actually our soul and that somehow proves there's life after death or something, ya know? And, well, I really could just keep going here, but I shouldn't, so I won't. This review is already too long as it is.

Let's just say there's a good reason Hooper himself flat out admitted the film “lacked a screenplay” and original source author Colin Wilson, on whose novel The Space Vampires the film is based, disowned the film and said it was in contention as being one of the worst ever made. While the script is credited to Dan O'Bannon (ALIEN) and Don Jakoby (Arachnophobia), uncredited re-writes were done by Michael Armstrong and Olaf Pooley at some stage, so this very likely fell victim to the ole “too many cooks...” idiom.

The cast and solid production values do at least ensure this is somewhat watchable. It's well-shot by Alan Hume, with lots of lovely bold colors, features a commanding score from Henry Mancini (performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, no less) and, best of all, is filled with all kinds of fx work. Admittedly, some have dated better than others, but they're all still a lot of fun. Visual effects are from Oscar-winner John Dykstra (Star Wars) and John Gant and the prosthetics / special make-ups were supervised by Nick Maley, but there's an almost comically long scroll of different fx artists in the end credits.

There have been many different VHS (Vestron, Video Treasures), DVD (MGM), laserdisc (Image), Blu-ray (Arrow Films) and even an "Ultra HD Blu-ray" (Scream Factory) releases for this one, which is now - like nearly every other older, big budget movie that was unsuccessful during its original run - being marketed as a "cult film"™.

In 1985, a 21-minute videotaped promotional documentary called The Making of... 'Lifeforce', which featured interviews with Hooper, Dykstra, Railsback, Maley and others, was aired on HBO and is now commonly used as DVD / BR supplemental material. There's also the 70-minute documentary Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce (2013), which features interviews with Hooper, Armstrong, producer Michael J. Kagan, editor John Grover, actors Morris, Nicholas Ball (whose role was cut down to almost nothing in the final cut) and more. A "re-imagining" / remake was announced way back in 2015 but has yet to happen.

Ren she shu (1977)

... aka: 人蛇鼠
... aka: Cobra Girl
... aka: Fangs of the Cobra
... aka: Man, Snake, Rat
... aka: Yan se shi

Directed by:
Chung Sun

Innocent, sheltered teenager Ah-Fen Yang (Yao Hsiao) has spent her entire life in a quiet, remote farming village away from all troubles and worries. Since she has no mother or close human friends, not surprisingly, she's strongly bonded to her favorite pet. Only instead of a dog or a cat, Ah-Fen has opted for a snake. A damn COBRA, no less. Instead of keeping the venomous, deadly, beady-eyed serpent in a cage 24 / 7 where it belongs, Ah-Fen merrily runs through the fields with it, swims with it, plays chase with it, pets it, has conversations with it (which are a bit one-sided as you can imagine), baby talks it and does all kind of other cutesy-creepy things with the serpent while whimsical, lighthearted music plays. When it's time to go home, her scaly BFF, called Xixi, then goes to sleep in a little clay pot outside. Ah-Fen's father (Chih-Ching Yang) frowns upon her keeping the snake as a pet, but she assures him that since she's raised Xixi from birth and the snake has never bitten her or anyone else, there's no reason to start worrying about it now.

While passing through the countryside, Shi-de Tang (Hua Tsung) has car problems, pulls over and is attacked by a den of snakes, which he's forced to beat off with a stick. Ah-Fen happens to wander by soon after, and he's instantly struck by the girl's good looks and sweet demeanor. However, having just finished five year's worth of business studies abroad, Shi-de's is in the area, he hopes, only temporarily to help out at the family farm at his father's request. He's hoping to leave as soon as he can, so there's no time for romance now, right? Besides, the farm isn't easy to run. It's a massive commercial business with separate wings for pigs, chickens and vegetables, plus orchards, greenhouses and fish ponds.

Despite Shi-de's reluctance to be there, his father (Miao Ching) needs him to take care of the financial end of the farm, while adopted son Hu Lin (Hung Wei) will do more of the hands-on, day-to-day managerial work. Mr. Tang is also past ready to become a grandfather and wants his son to marry and start raising kids as soon as possible. He proposes the idea of Shi-de marrying Man-ling (Dana), a business school drop-out who also works on the farm. Little do they know, but Man-ling is already conspiring with Hu Lin (her lover) to seduce and then marry Shi-de so they can get their mitts on the families 30 million dollar business and estate.

Alas, Shi-de just can't forget about his brief encounter with the poor, sweet, pretty farm girl. He tracks Ah-Fen down and, with her father's blessing, she accompanies him around the area as a guide. The two get carjacked by three thugs, who tie them up, take them deep into the woods and throw them inside a house with metal doors and barred windows. The whole scheme was part of a (really idiotic) plan devised by Hu Lin and Man-ling, only Man-ling was supposed to be the girl in the car with him that day, not Ah-Fen. The goal was that the kidnapping scenario would force Shi-de to spend some quality time with Man-ling in a "love shack" so she could work her seductive charms on him.

Even though Shi-de and Ah-Fen don't lay a hand on one another during their night alone, it's enough for Shi-de to propose marriage to her. Naturally, Man-ling and Hu Lin are furious and continue to plot against them, but they're not the only ones who are angry. Did you forget about poor 'lil Xixi (pronounced "She-She") the cobra? When Ah-Fen tells her she's set to be married and will no longer be able to see her every day, Xixi slithers back down into her pot to pout. Yes, this snake can understand some English and will bob up and down, or sway left and right, to answer "yes" or "no" (!) to questions. When it comes to the prospect of being separated from her pal, Xixi is all sways. Nope. Not gonna happen.

On the big day, Man-ling and Hu Lin attempt to blow up the bridal car transporting Ah-Fen and her father to the wedding but Xixi manages to save the day but turning up in the floorboards, forcing the driver to pull over and everyone to jump out and run right before the car explodes. At the wedding ceremony, Xixi turns up yet again under the bed covers. While this causes some friction between the newlywed couple (Shi-de hates all snakes because his mother was killed by one), they have bigger problems to deal with after Hu Lin gets caught embezzling money from the company and hires some thugs to terrorize Shi-de and a now-pregnant Ah-Fen. Xixi, who's been stalking the couple the entire time and serving as a guardian angel of sorts (whether the snake-hating husband likes it or not!) then steps in to help.

So what we have here is a film that aspires to please everybody but turns into such an oddball misfire that it's not likely to please anyone. Thrown into the pot are heated soap opera melodrama, lots of long, lingering shots of nice outdoor scenery, three long soft-core sex scenes (the specialty of co-star Dana), a couple of martial arts scenes, plentiful snake attack scenes, hokey romantic interludes complete with syrupy love ballads ("Just like a dreeeeammmm, only sweeeeeter...") and a gazillion wardrobe changes to show off the hottest duds of 1977 ("fashion films" were popular in Asia at the time). This was pretty much standard operating procedure for Shaw Brothers at the time, though. They were so busy with their internationally successful martial arts flicks in the 70s that they just kitchen sinked the hell out of most of their other genre stuff and called it a day.

Now what this film did do somewhat successfully is make me, an avowed snake hater, actually kind of like Xixi. It doesn't hurt that most of the human characters are either unlikable or outright trash, but it's basically impossible not to be in the snake's corner the entire time and also respect her dedication to her friend. The relationship between Ah-Fen and Xixi over the years is completely ridiculous yet oddly touching in a few scenes, like when she introduces the snake to her newborn baby. Props must also go to actress Yao Hsiao for constantly grabbing, handling, petting and having face-to-face conversations with her cobra co-star. Obviously the snake's fangs have been removed so she didn't have to die while making this, but I sure as hell wouldn't have been able to play her part! On the down side, some real snakes are killed here and there's also a bloody cobra vs. mongoose fight.

The Taiwanese-born director, who helped to bring modern camera technology such as the Steadicam to HK cinema, mostly made martial arts films but did dip his feet in the genre a couple of other times with the wuxia The Devil's Mirror (1972), Revenge of the Corpse (1981) and Human Lanterns (1982). There was a Hong Kong DVD release in 2007 on the Intercontinental Video Lt. Label that comes with English subtitles. Also an extremely rare English-dubbed version exists, which was released on VHS in Greece.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...