Incredibly Bad Film Show: Lifeforce

Dir: Tobe Hooper
Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay

YouTube video

Lifeforce trailer [NSFW!] Never mind films,
they don’t even make trailers like this any more.

This 1987 adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires was famously disastrous, taking less than half its budget at the US box-office, even after being edited down by fifteen minutes, and was one of a series of flops that pushed Cannon Films to the brink of bankruptcy. At the time, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “About 30 seconds into Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, two things become clear: that this film is going to make no sense, and that Mr. Hooper’s directorial work on Poltergeist may indeed have been heavily influenced by Steven Spielberg.” And when Wilson saw what Cannon had done with his book, he was unimpressed, famously saying: “John Fowles had once told me that the film of The Magus was the worst movie ever made. After seeing Lifeforce I sent him a postcard telling him that I had gone one better.”

That’s being harsh: Lifeforce is by no means a disaster and time has been kind to it; you’ll find a lot of positive reviews online these days. The IMDB currently gives it a score of 5.8 out of ten, which ranks it third-best among the fifteen features Hooper has directed [trailing only Texas Chainsaw and Poltergeist, obviously enough]. Even allowing for Tobe’s often-wretched output, that isn’t bad. It is a classic B-movie romp of aliens, who inspired the vampire legend, and are brought back to the Earth to wreak further havoc on modern-day civilization. Steve Railsback, chewing scenery to good effect, is astronaut Steve Carlsen, the man responsible for bringing the menace back from Halley’s Comet on the spaceship Churchill, and it’s up to him and SAS Colonel Caine (Firth) to stop them, before NATO does a spot of nuclear sanitary work on London.

It feels much like a Hammer film with a budget ($25m, a huge amount at the time) increased enormously from that studio’s norm, and would have worked particularly well as a Professor Quatermass film. I can easily envisage Messrs. Cushing and Lee playing two central characters, albeit ones perhaps more academic and, in Carlsen’s case, less hysterical. It is terribly British in many aspects, with cups of tea and stiff upper lips abounding, even as the capital collapses into anarchy and chaos.

In this setting, Railsback is somewhat of a sore thumb; it may be that his unrestrained looniness, the only American character of significance, was in part responsible for the film’s failures at the box-office there. Firth is admirably tongue-in-cheek, even when faced with Carlsen beating up a nurse believed to be hosting one of the vampires: recommended to leave the room, his po-faced response is “I’m a natural voyeur.” Similarly, the supporting cast, as with Hammer, is full of faces you should recognize, for example Home Secretary Sir Percy Heseltine, played by Aubrey Morris – he was Alex’s parole officer in A Clockwork Orange. Chief among these is probably Patrick Stewart, in his pre-Picard days, as the head of an asylum for the criminally insane. It’s somewhat creepy to see Carlsen impelled to kiss him, though it probably would have been even worse had the role, as originally planned, gone to Sir John Gielgud. Nicholas (Hazell) Ball and Michael Gothard, a villainous henchman from For Your Eyes Only, can also be seen.

And then there’s Mathilda May, who was clearly no bother at all to the costume department for the entire first half of the film, being unencumbered by any clothes at all. This prompts Dr Fallada (Finlay, a role originally offered to Klaus Kinski) to proclaim, with what turns out to be misplaced confidence, “Don’t worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex.” She doesn’t so much perform as exist, and gives perhaps the finest portrayal of a nekkid space vampire in cinematic history: In a long ago printed edition of TC, I made a very complimentary comment about Ms. May’s breasts. Chris, with her superior breasts, has not let me forget this, and nor will I will make that same mistake twice. Though, for the curious, I will point out that if you click on the pic attached to this paragraph, you get the very NSFW version. And we’ll move rapidly on, shall we?

The special effects are a mixed bag. John Dykstra’s outer-space miniature work is impeccable, but some of the body casts on view are less than convincing. There’s one of Stewart which is so bad, it’s difficult to see how it could ever have passed muster, even more than twenty years ago. However, the epic scale of the film really works in its favour towards the finale, when London has been taken over. The feel here is more like a zombie film (co-writer O’Bannon helmed Return of the Living Dead the same year), with Hooper doing a fine job of capturing the anarchy and chaos as Carlsen and Caine try to track down the vampires’ lair. Though, it has to be said, the F-sized beam of light shooting into the sky should probably have given them something of a clue.

The story logic does leave a little to be desired: as Chris pointed out, if vampire victims automatically resurrect themselves two hours after death, why did this apparently not happen in the month or more it took the Churchill to return to Earth? And I can’t say the vampires’ plan makes a great deal of sense, either, sending one of their number off up to Yorkshire, to hide out in the asylum mentioned above, for reasons best described as murky. Still, as a loony slice of eighties apocalyptic sci-fi horror, it’s probably among the best, and this has to go down as one of the masterpieces of Cannon Films – albeit that both of those are somewhat small fields in number. Hooper certainly hasn’t done anything better since, either. I’ll close with this immortal exchange between Col. Caine and Dr. Fallada:

Colonel Colin Caine: You mean life after death?
Dr. Hans Fallada
: Yes.
Colonel Colin Caine: Is there?
Dr. Hans Fallada
: What?
Colonel Colin Caine: Life after death?
Dr. Hans Fallada: Do you really want to know?
Colonel Colin Caine
: No.
Dr. Hans Fallada
: Well, to answer your question, yes…

Rating: B

Incredibly Bad Film Show – Apocalypse Soon: Left Behind and The Omega Code

Supernatural forces do not want me to review these movies. In the first three minutes, Emily (my step-daughter) came in to show me some Christmas cards, my mother-in-law asked for my help with a recalcitrant water-tap, and Emily then required help in taking her medicine. Given that she is the ultimate actress, capable not just of making a drama out of any crisis, but a three-part miniseries, this was quite a performance, involving weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth appropriate to the end of the world — and that was just me. I came back to find the power cord of my PC mysteriously unplugged. Is this the work of God or the Devil? And were they trying to stop me writing, or merely trying to protect me from a needlessly painful experience?

I’m actually a big fan of religious apocalypse movies, which is a bit of a surprise since I’m certainly no fan of the church – indeed, any church. But the Book of Revelations is a fabulous piece of writing, even if you do have to wonder what the author was on when he wrote it – odds are it was significantly stronger than holy water. If it truly is the word of God, then God must be Timothy Leary. Movies like The Seventh Sign and The Rapture serve to demonstrate that religion is no bar to interesting and thought-provoking cinema, and if Paul Verhoeven ever gets the chance to make his long-planned film on the real life of Christ, I’ll be there for it too. That was originally scheduled to be released this year, but he did Hollow Man instead; perhaps he was thinking he’d signed up for Holy Man

Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, from an Incredibly Bad point of view – most of them fall short of this level of competence, perhaps because they are intended for true believers, rather than sceptics. They take the presence of God as a given, and thus the actions of characters which result from this faith, is usually completely inexplicable by secular standards. I’m pretty much with Sam Goldwyn with regard to the topic of messages in movies – if I want one, I’ll call Western Union – but in the case of religious films, I’m prepared to occasionally make an exception. Here are two samples, one bad, one good…

Left Behind

Dir: Vic Sarin
Star: Kirk Cameron, Brad Johnson, Chelsea Noble, Clarence Gilyard.

The Left Behind books are a publishing phenomena – the latest volume in the series sold 2.3 million in the first week, and the series as a whole is around 15 million. There’s clearly a market for this kind of thing, and it was perhaps inevitable that they would move across into the modern-day Sodom of Hollywood. The production company, Cloud Ten, have previously made a number of Christian-themed movies, with titles such as Tribulation, starring Gary Busey, but Left Behind is easily their biggest production, even at a moderate budget of around $17m. They’ve adopted a somewhat strange technique to promote its theatrical release – put it out on video first, in the hope of building word-of-mouth in advance of its February arrival in cinemas. This explains why there were two money-off coupons in the box. However, I should point out that the last movie with such a religion-inspired campaign was Battlefield Earth.

Left Behind begins in the expectedly po-faced style; even the logo is preachy, depicting a child hesitating before a road which goes in two directions. A man takes the kid’s hand and leads it along the right-hand path, while lighting flashes ominously over the other. Add in an opening voice-over including lines like “We should have known better. But we didn’t…In the end, there’s no denying the truth” and the pious tone is set.

The film proper starts with a surprise Arab attack on Israel, where journalist Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron) is interviewing a scientist in the middle of a wheat field. They take shelter in a nearby village which just happens to conceal the Israeli base of operations – yeah, like they’d really let a random Yankee journo in there without asking any questions – but the Arab planes are smote (smited? smut? smeet?) mysteriously from the sky to the bafflement of everyone. Or, at least, everyone who hasn’t read the video sleeve. Buck sends footage back to his company, beaming his hi-definition – albeit looking suspiciously like 35mm film – footage to his network using a dish the size of a cake-tin, manually perched on a dustbin, as a satellite uplink. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Williams gets a hot tip on the whole smiting thing from paranoid conspiracist Dirk Burton, who blames industrialists Cothran and Stonagal. Initially dismissing the claims as the rantings of a paranoid conspiracist, Williams is forced to re-evaluate them after Burton’s predictions come true (gasp!). So, it’s accurate rantings of a paranoid conspiracist then… At this point, the Rapture occurs, though it’s not until 74 mins in that anyone mentions the R word, which is weird in a supposedly religious movie. For those unfamiliar with Biblical eschatology: the Rapture is when the truest believers are swept up to heaven, thereby avoiding the Tribulation, a rather nasty period on Earth before the second coming.

Williams is on a plane when “dozens” of passengers vanish; this is pretty dodgy from a statistical point of view. The Bible is obscure on many things, but it’s damn clear about the number that get raptured: “and no man could learn that song but the hundred [and] forty [and] four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth” [Revelations 14:3]. That may seem like a lot, but it’s barely 0.01% of the Christians on Earth, so the odds are heavily against even a single person being raptured off a Jumbo. Perhaps a package tour of Israeli monks was on board, since the Bible also says those Raptured must be virginal Jews [Revelations 7:4 and 14:4], points strangely ignored here. The film at one stage claims 144 million have vanished i.e. the Bible is out by a factor of a thousand. Suddenly, the Feeding of the, er, Five doesn’t seem so impressive.

Back on the plane, the carefully-considered response of pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) to this catastrophe is…to drop the oxygen masks. This has a strange calming effect on the passengers – maybe they should try it on the ground, where the Soviet leader of the UN, Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), a pawn of Cothran and Stonagal, takes the reins over the panicking world populace. Steele and Williams team up: Steele’s wife and son have been raptured (repeat previous statistical discussion about how unlikely this is, and never mind the bit about being a virginal Jew), leading to a pitiful scene as he sobs over their belongings, though the most pitiful thing about it is the over-acting on view. Blaming his wife’s religious beliefs, he hurls a bible at the mirror. but then, of course, starts reading it…

Williams finds Dirk Smith murdered (yes, I know he was Dirk Burton earlier in the film, but the computer screen definitely says Dirk Smith – his email address is, if you want to send him some), and is shot at himself while examining computer files. Meanwhile the newly-born again Steele links up with the local priest, helping the latter to refind his faith. I drift on the edge of finding sleep, since it’s painfully obvious where this is all heading. When Chloe gets down her “Teen Devotional Bible” and starts reading it, my worst fears are confirmed – this is truly the stuff of nightmares, albeit perhaps not in the way that the makers intended.

Williams and Steele discover that Burton had decoded the prophecies in the Bible, revealing the Cothran-Stenagal plan. Williams gets into the UN, helped by a former air-hostess whom Steele had been screwing – obviously, before he found God and stopped doing that kind of thing. He reveals the conspiracy to Carpathia, and even turns to prayer. But, oops, Carpathia is the Anti-Christ: all lit from below (right) and with his Russian accent becoming thicker by the syllable. He shoots Cothran and Stenagal and takes over the world, simple as that. It’s a really weird and downbeat climax, despite a desperate attempt to make the ending uplifting, with a closing voice-over which goes, “Our only hope is to join together and trust God. I don’t have all the answers; but for now, faith is enough.” It doesn’t work. I know there’s another half-dozen books to go, but the impact on someone like me who hasn’t read the series, is that Satan has won, and God hates everyone, especially Christians – I don’t think this was the desired effect, but I confess to finding it oddly gratifying…

The Omega Code

Dir: Rob Marcarelli
Star: Casper Van Dien, Michael York, Catherine Oxenberg, Michael Ironside.

This didn’t exactly start in the most promising of ways: the DVD mis-spelled the leading man’s name on his bio, it’s a production of ‘Good Times Entertainment’ (wince), preceded by a trailer for – “the intersection of faith and life” – and the first scene (once again, in Jerusalem) has Michael Ironside looking utterly mortified, disguised as a Hassidic Jew assassin complete with hat and extremely fake beard. Meanwhile, motivational speaker Dr. Lane (Van Dien) gets the exposition out of the way on a TV show hosted by Cassandra Barris (Oxenberg). A code hidden in the Torah predicts the future – as well as, incidentally, Princess Diana’s death in a Paris tunnel. Guess God had a bit of space to fill at the bottom of a page. I presume Lane is supposed to be immensely irritating, like all motivational speakers, coming out with phrases like “we are the higher power,” early signs that he’ll undergo a conversion somewhere between here and Damascus.

Elsewhere, in a laboratory populated with whizzy graphics work-stations, some Russian-sounding dudes are decoding the Torah and coming up with convenient one-sentence summaries which punctuate much of the film like intertitles from the silent era. Stone Alexander (Michael York), a “media mogul turned political dynamo” is now leader of the European Union. Lane wants to speak to him, but is dissuaded by Stone’s personal assistant/bodyguard/part-time Hassidic hit-man Dominic (Ironside). Instead, he has a vision in which one of Alexander’s horses goes all glowy-eyed and berserk. This is just one in a series: as someone asks him, “What kind of visions?”, to which the reply is, “I dunno – weird ones.”. He’s undergoing a divorce, and given his separated and whiny wife, it’s no surprise his small daughter appears to have picked up the Immensely Irritating gene.

The Russians take action to make sure their latest decryption comes true. In another strange echo of Left Behind, a reporter is conveniently right on the scene for the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, as the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem (or a 1/12-scale model thereof) blows up. Lane assists Alexander’s efforts to keep the peace; “We need an archetypal figure to embody the message,” he says, and signs up as Alexander’s Minister of Information. Alexander proposes a global currency (another common cornerstone of the apocalyptic brigade, tying in with bar-codes as the Mark of the Beast), and Lane is contacted by a defector from the decryption program. Memo to self: if I ever become the Anti-Christ, instruct staff to shoot traitors before they hand over incriminating sheets of paper to my enemies, not just after.

From this point, you can pretty much tick off the Common or Garden Interpretations of Revelations: a seven-year peace treaty between Israel and Arabs; the rebuilding of King Solomon’s temple; miracle food and water technology from Alexander; a global government under ten heads. Skip forward three years, and Lane is still having visions, though he’s not mentioned them to anyone in the meantime. He discovers Alexander’s plotting, as he and Dominic prepare to initiate Phase 2. The latter is miffed to discover Lane is slated as the prophet for Alexander’s vision and tries in a fit of whiny pique to shoot Lane; Alexander takes the bullet, but Lane is blamed for the assassination and is forced on the run. However, Alexander comes back to life, to everyone’s surprise – not least, Dominic’s…

This is where the movie really kicks in; you’re used to seeing Michael Ironside as a bad guy, but Michael York as the Anti-Christ is so delightfully against type that it works completely, and is huge fun. Plagued by voices, “painful yet sweet”, he takes over as world leader. Lane links up with two prophets who have been causing trouble, and tries to spread the not-so-good word about Alexander, but is blocked at every turn. His helpful prophets give him the final code, which Cassandra steals from him – yes, Catherine Oxenburg is evil too! Is nothing sacred? As she says, “Even Satan comes as an angel of light.”

After Alexander’s coronation, he goes totally out into left field: “I have become king and God,” he says, which doesn’t go over very well. Oblivious, he shoots the prophets, following up with, “I want these reprobates put on display. And guarded.” This seems a little excessive, given they’re dead, but in this film, the scythe-wielder is more Slightly Inconvenient Reaper than anywhere near Grim, so you can see his point. Other omens start cropping up, and it turns out the code Lane got wasn’t the proper one. As digital planes fly overhead on their way to a nuclear strike, Lane has another vision, and finds that prayer makes the gates to his cell fly open. The prophets are indeed resurrected – score one for the Anti-Christ – and take their wrath on Dominic. Lane tries to shoot Alexander, but is forced to surrender the final code…

Which is where I’ll stop, less for fear of spoiling the end, more because I wouldn’t be prepared to swear to the veracity of my vision. Watching this on New Year’s Day 2001, the only thing I could think of was, “My God, it’s full of stars.” It certainly is an ending, but precisely what it means is something I leave to you. Still, it’s a damn sight better than Left Behind, on a number of levels. Firstly, and most importantly, the religious stuff is actually kept well in the background; the hero never really converts as I expected, and the writers eschew over-zealous attachment to the Bible. If it doesn’t fit in, it gets dumped – there is no mention of the Rapture at all, and it’s much more self-contained, whizzing through the entire Apocalypse in 100 minutes. The presence of decent actors like York and Ironside is an undeniable plus too, and overall, this is not a religious film. Nor is it even really a film about religion, because Christianity is never allowed to get in the way of entertainment, and that realisation by the producers may have been the most important code to crack of all.

It proved a surprising success at the box-office, despite only having a few hundred prints to cover all the cinemas. Opening the same week as Fight Club, The Omega Code grossed more per screen, and also outlasted Messrs. Pitt and Norton, inhabiting the top twenty for seven weeks to gross a respectable $12.6m. As a result of this success, a sequel, Megiddo, is now in post-production, and is due to open in autumn 2001. York and Ironside return, and are joined by cult heroes Udo Kier, Michael Biehn and Franco Nero. With Brian Trenchard-Smith (Leprechaun 4: In Space) directing, it’s safe to say that Incredibly Bad Film Show correspondents are keenly awaiting its arrival…