“Lifeforce” and Dan O’Bannon

Sax von Stroheim writes:

Considering the kinds of movies I like (lots of horror, sc-fi, action/adventure), I’m surprised that it took me so long to finally watch “Lifeforce”, a 1985 horror movie directed by Tobe Hooper. I know that I came close to renting it at the video store at least a half a dozen times; what kept me from pulling the trigger was a vague sense that it wasn’t an especially well-loved film. Still, since it’s written by Dan O’Bannon – one of my favorite screenwriters – it was only a matter of time before I finally got around to it (it’s currently available for streaming on Netflix Instant).

I’m glad that I waited: it’s a strange, ambitious movie, and I’m not sure that I would have appreciated all of its idiosyncracies when I was younger. “Lifeforce” is a kind of “everything but the kitchen sink” horror movie. It starts out seeming like it’s going to be a sci-fi horror movie along the lines of “Alien” (also written by O’Bannon)…

…but it comes back to Earth looking more like an update of the “Quatermass” series…

…before touching in on Gothic Horror…

…and the Zombie Apocalypse:

It’s like a catalog of the filmmakers’ favorite sci-fi and horror movie elements. The plot involves a space vampire, preying upon (and taking possession of) various unwitting humans. There’s not much in the way of plot-logic, but Hooper holds everything together through his filmmaking.

Some other things I liked about the movie:

O’Bannon and his co-writer Don Jakoby always zig when you expect them to zag: as the movie shifts through subgenres, it also seemingly shifts protagonists, and it isn’t until the movie is halfway over that we’ve settled into following the guys who turn out to be the movie’s “heroes”. This gives us the sense that the story is really unfolding organically rather than dutifully hitting all of the conventionally required beats.

There are a lot of inventive special effects (the movie cost $25 million and it shows) and the cinematography, by Alan Hume, is terrific throughout.  As an aficionado of lens flare, I really dug images like this:

I also liked that it isn’t a kids/teen movie. That isn’t to say it’s a “grown-up” movie, necessarily, but Hooper handles the material with a kind of integrity and seriousness that gives unexpected emotional weight to the ending. There are a number of legitimately over-the-top moments, but nothing is ever played for camp.

O’Bannon is one of my favorite underknown figures in American movies. He co-wrote “Dark Star”, John Carpenter’s directorial debut, and worked on Jodorowsky’s abandoned “Dune” project – during which time he collaborated with the great French cartoonist Moebius on a comic strip that would end up inspiring the visual design of “Blade Runner”:

He had the biggest success of his career with his screenplay for “Alien” (co-written with Ronald Shusett, and then re-written by Walter Hill and David Giler), but his key movie is “The Return of the Living Dead”, which he also directed. “Return” is the greatest splatterstick movie of all time: a raunchy, irreverent horror comedy seemingly inspired equally by EC’s Horror Comics and Kurtzman’s Mad Magazine.

O’Bannon’s healthy disrespect for authority and suspicion of conventional Hollywood heroic narratives lie at the heart of what makes his work distinctive, and those are elements that seem to be sadly absent from most of today’s fx-driven adventure flicks. It’s instructive to compare the recent remake of “Total Recall”, with a script by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, to the original movie, which O’Bannon wrote with Ronald Shusett: the new movie is the kind of straightforward action movie power fantasy that the earlier movie spent much of its time subverting. I wish there was more room for subversives like O’Bannon in Hollywood today.

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5 Responses to “Lifeforce” and Dan O’Bannon

  1. That was a great, or at least fun, era … I remember “Lifeforce” quite vividly, though I have to admit that my memory of Mathilda May is more vivid than my memory of the film’s action elements. Time for me to catch up with “Return of the Living Dead”!

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  3. Enzo Nakamura says:

    Caught up with this following Saxon’s compelling description. Wow! Reminded me of Neil Marshall’s recent stuff, particularly DOOMSDAY (genre-shifting) and CENTURION (protagonist-switching). It’s also a bit like Carpenter’s better 80s movies, but, while those are generally sexless (THE THING, THEY LIVE) LIFEFORCE has a sort of combo Giallo/Hammer/Jean Rollin thing happening that feels wonderfully unlike American 80s genre stuff. Also, Mathilda May! Holy shit. The special effects are fantastic, and the exterior design of the alien ship trumps any I’ve seen in the CG-era. I wish PROMETHEUS had 1/5 of LIFEFORCE’s, err, vitality.

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  4. Enzo Nakamura says:

    I meant Sax, not Saxon, apologies for mistaking your musicality for Germanic tendencies.

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