Sunday, March 23, 2008

Alien Zombie Chainsaw Crocodiles

This one's a little stranger than I anticipated - and I don't just mean the plot. Tobe Hooper--once legendary director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and Salem's Lot--has fallen on hard times, alright. To go from having your name on the shortlist of greatest horror directors of all time to directing Crocodile for the Sci-fi channel is a long way to fall. His descent into crapdom started pretty much immediately after succeeding with Salem's Lot in 1979. In fact it only took him three years after Texas Chainsaw to make a terrible crocodilian film - it's called Eaten Alive, but you'd have no reason to know that. His excellent follow-up The Funhouse is a film talked about more than seen or appreciated and his bonkers remake of Invaders from Mars somehow never makes it into the pantheon of great 80s horror films. His most ambitious film to date is a movie that few people know about and even fewer have seen and it starts to show the cracks in Tobe's abilities when presented with one too many elements to keep in check. It's entertaining as shit, but it's not hard to see investors forcing him to produce a sequel to Texas Chainsaw after seeing what he made with a million and a half bucks.

by Tobe Hooper

Haley's comet comes to Earth but once every 76 years, so when it streaks by earth, the space station Churchill drops in to check it out. The crew (made up of Americans and Englishmen [yeah, like America would pool resources to explore space. Nice one, O'Bannon!]) spies something a little more interesting by the comet, an Alien space craft. The thing is endless when Colonel Carlsen leads his crew into the bowels of the ship where they discover a room full of winged space-dragons floating like dead goldfish. Things just keep getting interesting for Carlsen; in the middle of the dead-dragon room are three perfectly preserved naked human beings, two men and a woman. He grabs the people and one winged corpse to bring back to the ship for examination. A month later the ship is silent and a rescue team has to be sent up.

The rescue team locates the three naked space folks still lodged in their impenetrable coffins, but the rest of the crew is missing as is the escape pod. Science and the military are collectively stumped. When the female wakes up, they are alarmed to learn that theirs is not a mission of peace and love. She approaches the nearest guard and sucks the soul out of him, turning him into a six foot day of the dead figurine. No one's quite sure what to make of this, but a clue arises when during the examination of the guard's body he wakes up and does the old soul suck on the doctor presiding over the operation. The doctor and the dead guard trade physiques for a split second until the guard is killed and order restored. The scientists begin noticing a trend; it seems the space vampire's kiss turns others into vampires, newly hellbent on stealing the lifeforce of others to survive. Not unlike a zombie, except with a lot more blue light and space noises. In literally no time at all the three space vampires have escaped to suck more life from people.

Just when it seems like all might be lost the escape pod from the Churchill crashes nearby and Colonel Carlsen is retrieved. He seems to have some kind of mental link with the female vampire and they begin tracking her (this move is used to different effect in Slither). He also tells the folks on Earth just what happened before everyone dissappeared (though the revelation that the space vampire's disintegrate after two hours without a bite to eat is a pretty good clue). The reason Carlsen was spared is because the lady vampire seemed to want him for some kind of mental intercourse. Whatever happened it's enough to draw the two together despite the rest of the madness that surrounds them. That madness as they soon discover is quite sprawling indeed. Not only has the spaceship entered Earth's orbit, the other vampires have essentially turned all of london into soul thirsty zombies.

Despite Hooper in the director's chair and Steve Railsback saving the day, this was very much a british production. As El Santo from 1000 Misspent Hours points out Lifeforce's plot is something of a mixture of the three Quartermass movies; and the action feels very british (even if Hooper retreads some Poltergeist effects in the scene at the hospital). Something about watching the mannered horror of the brits is somehow easier for me than any other European country's horror films. I can watch hours of bad british horror (Tower Of Evil, anyone? Frightmare? These are not good movies.) but get bored pretty quickly when watching Jacinto Molina or Dario Argento. Maybe it's the accents, and as for those: Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Peter Firth, Aubrey Morris and other British stage and screen actors round out the cast, which is something of a let-down because with the exception of Firth and the very limited Railsback, none of them is called on to do much more than stroke their beards thoughtfully. The film makes a few other mistakes, Hooper in particular made a couple of very silly decisions (like leaving Matilda May, the female vampire naked for the film's running time. He probably felt he needed some way to keep people interested but it just feels lazy. In fact Hooper's juvenile connection between sex and salvation doesn't really amount to anything except a floating sex-scene between May and Railsback, so the whole theme smells of desparation, which makes is just wrong because nothing else in the film is so haggard), but nothing is so great that it takes away from the fantastic nature of the film. Lifeforce works in spite of its break-neck disregard for common sense. It moves so quickly from one bug-eyed plot point to the next that it's easy to get lost in the story. Tobe Hooper may have fallen from grace, but he's got a few films under his belt to remind everyone why he was so highly regarded at one point; he was a mean story-teller.
The story of course wouldn't have been so charmingly goofy were it not for Dan O'Bannon's script. O'Bannon had had ups and downs at this point; he'd written the most succesful science fiction film in 15 years and also wrote Blue Thunder (the movie and the TV series) and Heavy Metal. Now anime is where I usually draw the line, but Lifeforce does have some things to recommend it. One, it's absolutely crazy (but not in an Italian witch-craft film kind of way), two, it has a riveting plot structure and is paced well enough so that no matter how insane the things you're watching become or how silly they might look, you want to know more. Also Lifeforce has one thing that many 80s zombie film's lack; Peter Firth running around apocalpytic London with a handgun capping crowds of zombies. I admit being way, way excited about the film's conclusion. In what looks like a precursor to 28 Days Later, Firth's blonde-headed Colonel running up and down the streets and alleys with a gun killing zombies is something I wasn't prepared for, but it was what really made the film for me. Not enough Zombie films can tread the line between action and horror, but Hooper pretty much does it perfectly. The zombies in the final act are scary and fast which makes the action unpredictable until the end. That if nothing else made the movie for me.

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