Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Monster Serial: LIFEFORCE, 1985

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


I love you, LIFEFORCE

While horror (and comedy) are often thought “critic-proof” (so appealing that even bad reviews can’t dampen public love), I think that certain films are unfortunately “audience proof.”  No matter how the early audiences respond, once critics weigh in, the  public turns on the movie.  It’s a strange phenomenon, not too common but often very sad.

DUNE is a good example.  Both Cousin Barnabas and I saw DUNE at the same age, thirteen, neither of us had read the books, and both of us understood and loved the movie.  And the same was true for my friends and relatives who saw it early into its run.  Then the reviews seeped into the Zeitgeist, and it became a blight upon the Christmas Season.  Critics can really be the Yancy Street Gang sometimes, and some movies are a beleaguered Ben Grimm -- harassed.  

One of the other early movies with which I recall this happening was LIFEFORCE, perhaps the most enjoyable and unusual romp of 1985.  The film was epic, splashy fun.  I saw it at a packed, mixed-demographic matinee at an average multiplex on the opening Saturday, and I could just feel how much the audience thrilled to it.  Silence, laughs, gasps, lurches -- all of those signs of an engaged crowd and in just the right places.  Listening to the lobby talk and mood, it was clear that this was one of the most unique and appreciated and exciting movies they’d seen all summer.

Then we bothered to read the reviews that had been accumulating over the past few days.


They were bad.  Really, really, really bad.  As if they’d seen an entirely different film.  Within days, you couldn’t mention the film without being drowned out with derisive laughter and appeals to “authority.”  You know what I say to authority?

"Naked Vampire Woman.”

And add, “One from space who sucks out souls to create an army of zombies that burns London to the ground after she arrives by way of a space shuttle mission to Halley’s Comet which found her in a big crystal surrounded by desiccated space bats.”

This, to me, is the bare minimum of what an average film needs to deliver so that I will see it as acceptable entertainment. 

Now, let’s throw in some more elements and drive the fun needle into the red.

John Dykstra special effects.

It’s like a Hammer Quatermass movie with an ILM budget.

Tobe Hooper and Dan O’Bannon team up! 

A wonderfully bizarre cast, including the Guy Who Played Charles Manson That One Time, the Horse-Blinding Kid from EQUUS, Porthos from the good THREE (and FOUR) MUSKETEERS movie, and Patrick Stewart, who talks like a woman at one point.  And none can forget Matilda May as the film’s, well, unforgettable leading lady.

You have a really kickass hero who wears a turtleneck and a leather jacket and a trench coat and shoots on sight.  At the same time.

There’s a storyline that is probably incomprehensible, but it doesn’t matter because of the propulsive characters, shamelessly intense acting, pulpy gravitas, and constant action. 

Under it all is an energetic and rousing score by Henry Mancini at the top of his powers.  Mancini is really the true co-star of the movie.  After doing some dramatic work early on, he wound up pigeon-holed primarily as a writer of comedic and romantic tunes only.  Well, nuts to that.  Summoning what sounds like an army of an orchestra, Mancini delivers a score that pretty much says, “Williams?  Goldsmith?  Yeah, I’m the master of lush romance, and I can write a score that’s every bit as thrilling and exciting as you guys can.  The fact that I pretty much only work for Blake Edwards, now?  You’re welcome.”

The movie takes itself so seriously that you know that the production team was having a good time.  That kind of good time was possible before what I call MST3K* Culture.  That show turned everyone into Statler and Waldorf and made supercharged snark into a fan culture norm.  Back then, I think it was okay to have fun with (not at) Big Stuff That Takes Itself Really Seriously.  I’m sure it still exists, but in 1985, we were more able to take those things on their own terms.

The movie slaps on one wild improbability after another.  Sometimes horror, sometimes a cosmic mystery story, sometimes an erotic thriller, sometimes a zombie movie, sometimes a mythic glimpse into Earth’s secret history, sometimes a gorefest, sometimes an indescribable series of WTFs.  Can it make up its mind about which of those it will be?  No more than could a Sammy Davis Jr. concert decide if it was devoted to singing, dancing, instrumental virtuosity, dead-on impressions or trick shooting.  Do I want all of those in one place?  Yes!

The film has enjoyed Cosmic Justice in the DVD and blu-ray era, receiving lavish editions that would not be produced for films of no merit.  It’s a film like BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.  People always look at me like I’m crazy when I put it on.  By the time it ends, they’re hurriedly ordering it off Amazon and abuzz with the wacky glee it created. 

Critics so often place themselves on the vanguard, guiding the hidebound public toward the more ambitious films that take true risks.  With LIFEFORCE, it’s the other way around. 
*And no, MST3K is not the devil.  I like many, many episodes.  I just wish those it influenced had the same wit and -- most importantly -- timing as the show’s writers.  With the right timing, you can enjoy the movie and their irony.  But it’s a difficult dance.  Looks simple.  Very hard to master.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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