Lifeforce (US - BD RA)
Matt checks out the recent release of Tobe Hooper's sci-fi horror on Blu-ray...
Throughout this review I've included screen captures from the new Scream Factory Blu-ray (top) and a matching screen capture from the MGM Region 1 DVD (bottom) for comparison. More captures follow the review. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of each transfer.
Let me get this out of the way now--I love Lifeforce. I've enjoyed it ever since first seeing it at the drive-in during its initial theatrical run and in all the years since. It's one of only a handful of films I own on VHS, laserdisc, DVD and now Blu-ray. It's always straddled the line between being a "guilty pleasure" or not for me, but over the past several years it's slowly leaned more and more to just simply being a favorite. It's strange and often times feels directionless as it turns from one genre into another repeatedly, and I know it's not a movie for everybody and its initial theatrical run is proof of that. I get that, but it's the insanity of what it delivers and its homages to the horror genre that bring me back to it every so often, and it deserves a second chance from you.
The basic setup is that a mission to investigate Halley's Comet discovers an even stranger phenomenon--a hidden alien spacecraft. Following a deadly confrontation, the aliens travel to Earth, where their seductive leader (Mathilda May) begins a terrifying campaign to drain the life force of everyone she encounters. Her victims, in turn, continue the cycle, and soon the entire planet is in mortal danger. It's left up to the mission's sole survivor, Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), to destroy her, the most charming--and horrifying--being he's ever known.
Admittedly--and this is one of the things I love about it--is that Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby's screenplay, based on Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires, is all over the place from the word go. It starts out as a science fiction adventure, turns into a vampire flick, follows that up by being a police procedural, then an action adventure movie set against a zombie apocalypse with an alien invasion thrown in for good measure before dropping the proverbial mic. The "throw everything at the screen and see what sticks" approach rarely works in film, but when it does--and it does here in spades--it can be a lot of fun. What really helps Lifeforce from becoming too bogged down in it's own amorphous nature is that it never lets up for a minute, racing from one set piece to the next before you can think too much about the wackiness of the plot or the direction in which it's heading.
Another thing that I've loved about Lifeforce over the years is something that I was glad to hear Tim Sullivan also mention during the included Tobe Hooper commentary track, and that is Lifeforce is exactly the type of film that Hammer Films would have been producing by the mid-80s had they still been making movies at that point in time. The easy correlation with Hammer Films would be the Quatermass films made during the '50s and '60s, but there are actually many more connections to be made.
Henry Mancini's lush, majestic and seemingly out of place score is evocative of music from such classics as The Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein for starters, and the largely British cast have a way of making even the most silly lines of dialogue seem believable and all important. In particular, Peter Firth and Frank Finlay seem like they're constantly trying to one up each other in order to see who can spout off the most ludicrous exposition in the same manner in which Peter Cushing would recite many similarly glorious lines throughout his career. Even the later Hammer Films vampire productions such as "The Karnstein Trilogy" ( The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil), Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter are well represented by the seductive and "revealing" Mathilda May in the one performance no one that sees the movie ever forgets. Add in the British locations and the style of the cinematography--complete with even a hint of Mario Bava--and you've got the whole package. With the glut of science fiction still flooding theaters in the heyday of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises you can bet that Hammer would have eventually ventured into a genre mashup of outer space and gothic monsters and the undoubted result would have been something very much like Lifeforce, and it would have been great too.
I'd also be doing the picture a disservice if I didn't mention the special visual and make-up effects work on the picture, courtesy of John Dykstra, Nick Mahey and all of the other talented artists involved. Much of what people remember about the film--besides Mathilda May--revolves around the often grotesque set pieces throughout, and their work on Lifeforce is only comparable to other genre pictures of the day such as John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly and the work done by Rob Bottin and Chris Walas on those respective projects. In an age where many if not all of the effects in Lifeforce would have been done by computers, the results on display feel tangible and more horrifying as a result of their craftsmanship, which even nearly 30-years later still hold up very well.
I really hope that Lifeforce is given a new lease on life with this new release from Shout! Factory. Like many other films that weren't initially successful but have risen to prominence over the years, such as Carpenter's aforementioned The Thing and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, I think Tobe Hooper's movie is vastly underrated, even within his own filmography, and deserves its due. If the last time that you saw it was years ago give it another chance, and if you've never seen it make sure you do.
As you can see from the comparison screen captures throughout this review Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release of Lifeforce offers a substantial upgrade over the nearly 15-year old DVD released by MGM, and if they'd just created a new anamorphic widescreen transfer it would've been good enough. Those who have purchased any of their previous releases already know this, but apparently "good enough" isn't in their vocabulary. Not only have they presented the film in it's first anamorphic transfer, but they've also gotten together with director Tobe Hooper and re-color timed the entire film to better match its original 70mm theatrical presentation. The results of their efforts are outstanding--the AVC encoded 1080p transfer included on this disc is like seeing the movie again for the first time.
Colors that were once washed out and dirty now just pop off the screen and flesh tones no longer have a pale, pasty look to them. Likewise, contrast and black levels are very well done, detail is very good and I couldn't detect anything wrong with the transfer like blocking, edge enhancement or aliasing that might detract from the picture. The transfer also looks as though it's gone through very little in the way of digital noise reduction as it retains a nice layer of grain throughout, and the new transfer also sports a bit more information along the top and bottom of the frame than the previous DVD. The only thing I could find wrong was the very occasional instance of defects in the source print used popping up, but for a film of this age it's entirely forgivable and not really an issue. Overall this is an unexpectedly excellent video transfer of the film on Blu-ray and a perfect example of how such catalog titles should be treated.
Shout! Factory has included two lossless tracks with Lifeforce on Blu-ray in the form of DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 options, and the results are very good. The 5.1 track contains some nice surround effects, especially during the film's apocalyptic third act, but also in some unexpected places as well such as instances where the vampire's voice overlaps with a possessed human's. Dialogue is perfectly audible from the center channel meaning that you'll never miss a bit of important exposition, and the LFE channel carries along a few surprises of its own. Just as important, I didn't notice any defects in the audio that would detract from the film either. Overall this is an excellent audio presentation on Blu-ray that gets extras points for including the stereo option that most will remember from the picture's original theatrical run.
Once again Shout! Factory scores big with their latest Scream Factory release and the wealth of quality extras included. The biggie here is the inclusion of the 101-minute, U.S. theatrical version of the film in high definition that is included on the Blu-ray disc. It may have been encoded in MPEG-2 and feature Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, but unless you're going over it with a fine-tooth comb you're likely to find that the drop in quality between this version and the longer, European cut is quite small. It's a curious choice to include it here since it's inferior to the Hooper's preferred cut, but the little differences here and there--most notably at the beginning of the film--and the changes to the film's score are interesting. It's a welcome addition to the set, especially seeing as this is the first time that I know of since VHS and early laserdisc printings that it's been available, and certainly never with this level of quality.
Included with the longer cut are two commentary tracks. The first, moderated by Tim Sullivan and featuring Director Tobe Hooper, is an excellent track for those that have always wanted to know more about the making of the film. Hooper lets fly with all sorts of tidbits and anecdotes, and the track is fast paced without a lull in the conversation. The second commentary track, moderated by Michael Felsher and featuring Special Make-Up Effects Designer Nick Maley, focuses more on Maley's career as a whole, but with films such as Star Wars, Superman: The Movie and Krull in his resume that's hardly a knock and makes this track enjoyable and informative in a different way than Hooper and Sullivan's.
Next up are three, newly produced high definition interviews with director Tobe Hooper ("Space Vampires in London with Tobe Hooper", 10 min.), star Steve Railsback ("Carlsen's Curse with Steve Railsback", 7 min.) and star Mathilda May ("Dangerous Beauty with Mathilda May"). Though much of what's covered in Hooper's interview is also covered in the commentary and a bit redundant, the interviews with the film's stars are highly enjoyable and worth a watch as they recount what led them to the film in the different stages of their careers. Also included is a vintage making-of documentary that--to the best of my knowledge--was previously only available on laserdisc along with "The Making of Invaders From Mars", a similar feature made in conjunction with Hooper's 1986 remake of the sci-fi classic. It's very much on the EPK side, but an interesting watch nonetheless if only for the footage of the production and short interviews with others not involved with the new Blu-ray otherwise.
The disc is rounded out with a couple of high definition trailers, a standard definition television commercial and a high definition still gallery. Also included is a DVD copy with the features above included (with the exception of the 101-minute version which is Blu-ray only) and a reversible cover featuring the original key art. Overall this is about as strong a package of extras as anyone would want for the film. I might have liked a short interview with Patrick Stewart or an isolated score included as well (and I'm sure given their track record Shout! Factory tried for these), but I'd rather focus on what the set does have, and what's included is excellent.
Lifeforce is the best release in Shout! Factory's Scream Factory lineup so far, and that's saying something. If you were to ask me the same question tomorrow you might get a different answer, but for today it's definitely Lifeforce. I think. Tobe Hooper's film is an underrated cult classic just waiting to be discovered by a new generation of fans, and this disc is the perfect vehicle to make that happen. The video and audio presentation is outstanding and the extras included in the two-disc set are so excellent I'm hard pressed to find anything that could have been added. Overall, if you're already a fan of the film then it's time to throw away that old non-anamorphic DVD and upgrade to this release, and you should do so even if you haven't made the jump to Blu-ray since the included DVD copy is several times better than the old MGM disc too (seriously, what are you waiting for? Blu-ray's only been around for nearly eight-years). To everyone else I say give this one a shot. The hodgepodge of genres and kitchen sink approach to the story is bound to leave you with something you'll feel was worth watching.
Review by Matt Joseph
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 18th June 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 English (US Theatrical Version)
Extras: Commentary with Director Tobe Hooper, Commentary with Special Make-Up Effects Designer Nick Maley, Vintage Featurette, New Interviews with Tobe Hooper, Steve Railsback and Mathilda May, Theatrical Trailers, TV Spot, Still Gallery, US Theatrical Release, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May
Genre: Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 116 minutes
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