Lifeforce (UK - BD RB)
Chris takes an early look at Arrow's new Blu-ray release of this Tobe Hooper film
The year is 1985, and a joint Anglo-American expedition to study Halley's Comet uncovers an unfathomably large alien artefact hidden in the comet's tail. Further investigation leads to the discovery of three humanoids - two males, one female - apparently alive in suspended animation. After returning to Earth the aliens are revealed to be energy vampires that drain the 'life force' from humans, turning them into zombie-like creatures that continue the cycle. The aliens run amok in London, beginning a chain of events that could lead to the extinction of the human race! It's up to the shuttle crew's only survivor, Col. Tom Carlsen, and SAS Col. Colin Caine to stop them...
If all of that sounds pretty far-fetched, it's because it is. The film was originally going to be called Space Vampires (from the book of the same name), which tells you all you really need to know about the tone. You get the feeling that everyone involved thought that they were making a deadly serious science fiction epic, but the end result is one of the most unintentionally hilarious genre films you're likely to see. Many of the performances are stilted at best, while much of the dialogue could be generously described as 'cringe-worthy'. Gems such as 'Don't worry, a naked woman is not going to get out of this complex.', 'She's totally alien to this planet and our life form... and totally dangerous.' and ‘It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.’ are so gloriously bad they almost defy criticism. Basically there’s more ham here than at the deli counters of ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Tesco combined.
Of course there are other things to enjoy. As previously established Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby’s script has its flaws, but it does at least offer up an innovative take on vampirism. The relatively large (for the time) $25,000,000 budget allows for some fantastic production design by John Graysmark ( 2001: A Space Odyssey), with many elaborate sets and miniatures. Star Wars/ Battlestar Galactica/ Star Trek visual effects artist John Dykstra is responsible for crafting the wonderful alien spacecraft and the nightmarish animatronics, while Nick Maley’s special make-up effects convincingly transform people into shrivelled-up zombies. These elements are showcased by Return Of The Jedi lenser Alan Hume’s cinematography, while Henry Mancini provides a memorable, if slightly incongruous, symphonic score that will leave you humming its main theme long after the credits have finished rolling.
Of course no review of Lifeforce would be complete without discussing the principal reason for its enduring popularity: the sheer physical perfection of the eighteen-year-old French ballet-dancing beauty Mathilda May. In what can only be described as a ‘memorable’ appearance, May spends the lion’s share of her on-screen time completely naked, delivering soul-piercing stares and cavorting with various unfortunate victims. If there's one thing that's guaranteed to ensure that a film lives on in the memory of a teenage boy well into adulthood, it’s this. In fact, I’m willing to bet that there are many people around my age who couldn’t tell you what the film is called, but who have the image of Ms May in the buff permanently seared into their brains. Remarkably it’s actually quite an effective performance; she moves with such deliberate, graceful precision that you can’t help but be drawn to her, which really works for the character. May didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived to film her role, so what few lines she has are dubbed, but again this works in her favour and is reminiscent of some of the ‘Brides of Dracula’ characters from the old Hammer films (with which this film shares numerous traits).
Lifeforce is most definitely a cheesy film, but it is at least enjoyable for its interesting premise, impressive special effects, gleefully over-the-top performances and the charms of Mathilda May (and her almost constant nudity). There’s even an early, scene-stealing appearance by Patick Stewart, which is reason enough alone to sit through the sillier bits. In spite of my better judgement it’s been a guilty pleasure of mine since my teenage years and I’m hoping that this Blu-ray release will bring a new generation of fans to this Hammer-esque gothic sci-fi horror.
At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that this Blu-ray release includes both the International (European) version of the film and the domestic US cut, the latter of which was gutted by the distributors, removing many of the scenes aboard the space shuttle and some important exposition. Unlike the US Blu-ray release, which crammed both versions onto one disc as separate encodes, Arrow has sensibly chosen to put the shorter cut of the film onto a separate platter. Hooray for common sense!
We're rarely supplied with finished copies for review purposes, so often miss out on the booklets that accompany 'cult' releases of this nature. In the absence of such a booklet, which often contain useful notes on the source used for the transfer, all I know for sure is that the 2.35:1 (1080/24p AVC) image was transferred from original elements by MGM with supervision by director Tobe Hooper. The result is a pretty darn impressive representation of the film, although there are one or two caveats (more of which later).
If any of you have seen the Netflix version of the film you're going to be in fairly familiar territory here, as direct comparison leads me to believe that their stream is based on the new HD master created by MGM in collaboration with Hooper. This would mean that said restoration was completed a while back, as I first watched the Netflix stream many months ago. The Bu-ray presentation further enhances things by virtue of superior compression, which handles the film's often-grainy visuals with greater ease. This is one area in which the Arrow release has a clear advantage over Shout! Factory's, which crams both cuts of the film onto a single BD50 and suffers with compression artefacts, posterisation and softness. Given slightly more room to breathe, Arrow's release is correspondingly more detailed with a more natural grain structure. Arrow also appears to have performed some additional restoration work to eliminate dirt and scratches, to generally good effect.
The use of colour is striking throughout, with some beautifully lush greens and vibrant reds on show when the astronauts board the alien vessel. It is these primaries, along with the ethereal blues that accompany the spreading of the energy 'virus', that really showcase the colour correction and make the DVD release look positively drab by comparison. The actors' complexions are also a little more sanguine than in older versions, although thankfully not to the point of looking like they're wearing too much rouge. Arrow's disc appears to have a slightly warmer appearance than Shout!'s release, as the latter emphasises the colder end of the spectrum, but I actually found this preferable.
As to the caveats, well there’s some obvious image instability (wobble) throughout, but it’s nothing that should have a seriously detrimental effect on your enjoyment. Black levels are generally good, but it is during the darker scenes that grain spikes and flickering are at their most obvious. In spite of Arrow’s additional clean-up work you’ll still see the odd film artefact here and there, but they really aren’t terribly distracting. All of these things are about par for the course when dealing with a film of this vintage though, at least given what I assume to be the relatively modest restoration budget afforded by MGM.
The theatrical cut is also encoded with AVC in 1080p, which is a technical step up from the 1080i, MPEG-2 encoded theatrical cut of the US release. The comments above hold true to this shorter edition to a large extent, although I feel that the theatrical cut is perhaps slightly visually inferior to the director's cut. There's not a whole lot in it though, so you should be more than satisfied whichever your preferred version of the film happens to be. What is certain is that this is currently the best looking version of the film available on a home video format; one that respectfully preserves the original aesthetic. Even taking the few minor issues above into consideration the overall impression is one of a beautifully presented image that sits happily alongside the label's other recent triumphs.
Arrow's release of Lifeforce offers up both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 Stereo audio options. While I'm always overjoyed when a film's original sound mix is included on its Blu-ray release, I decided to try out the multi-channel mix for the purpose of this review in order to see just what had been accomplished with the remix. The track gets off to an extremely strong start with the grandiose sounds of Henry Mancini's score, which is supported by some wonderfully robust bass. Surround activity is also very strong, with plenty of memorable moments aboard the alien spaceship during the opening scenes. This trend continues through to the film's apocalyptic third act, during which all hell breaks loose as London teeters on the brink of total annihilation. The effects sound pretty good for the most part, and although they lack the fidelity of a modern picture it didn't adversely affect my enjoyment of the film. In fact, I was actually quite surprised by just how dynamic the track sounded given the source.
One thing that often gets overwhelmed in modern remixes of catalogue titles is the dialogue, but there's no such problem here. It comes through loud and clear from the opening moments, generally anchored firmly in the centre of the soundstage but occasionally redirected to the other channels for effect. This can be something as innocuous as an ancillary character delivering off-screen exposition, but also includes the booming, heavily-processed voices of the extra-terrestrial vampires. As previously mentioned, bass is potent when called upon, not just as a reinforcement to Mancini's score, but also during the more action-oriented scenes. Speaking of the score, it’s actually a little over-the-top, even for a film of this nature, but I still found it memorable to the point that I am humming it as I write this review.
As with the video, the theatrical cut's audio is also technically superior to the US disc, featuring as it does both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 soundtracks (the US is Dolby Digital 5.1 only). The lossy 5.1 track on the US disc reportedly has a few quality issues – tinny, hollow sound being the common criticism – but the UK disc doesn’t appear to be similarly afflicted. I did find that the surround channels had a much greater tendency to drown out the dialogue than the longer cut of the film, but this could easily be due to the original sound mix. Again, Arrow has improved on the Shout! Release where it matters to deliver a genuinely impressive audio experience that breathes new life into Lifeforce.
The bulk of the extras found on this release are lifted directly from Shout! Factory's region A-locked Blu-ray disc, the only exception being the UK-exclusive documentary. This replaces the vintage documentary included on the US disc, which is a shame as I'd like to have seen it for comparison purposes (I'm a real sucker for a good vintage piece). Still, the overall package is extremely comprehensive and I have a feeling that the newly-commissioned documentary is more in-depth than the older one. Here’s a quick break-down of the bonus content:
- Audio commentary with director Tobe Hooper moderated by Tim Sullivan
- Audio commentary with visual effects artist Douglas Smith, moderated by filmmaker and scholar Howard S. Berger
- Audio commentary with make-up effects artist Nick Maley
- Isolated music and effects tracks
- Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce
- Space Vampires in London
- Carlsen’s Curse
- Dangerous Beauty
- Tristar trailer
- Cannon trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin
- Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by science fiction expert Bill Warren, a new interview with Oscar-winning visual effects artist John Dykstra by Calum Waddell, illustrated with original archive stills and posters
As you can see, it’s a pretty respectable collection of extras. The three commentary tracks complement one another perfectly, offering a good balance between anecdotal recollections and more technical discussion about the filmmaking process. The second commentary is also exclusive to this UK release, which is another feature in Arrow’s cap. Both cuts of the film feature isolated score and effects tracks, which is pretty useful when comparing the musical differences between the theatrical and director's cuts (Michael Kamen was drafted in to create additional cues for the shorter version of the film).
However, the clear stand-out here is the UK-exclusive documentary, which runs for over an hour and features interviews with many of the people who worked in front of and behind the camera. It's packed full of interesting recollections about the film's genesis, production and release, with some particularly enlightening comments about Cannon Films (specifically Golan and Globus). Along with Hooper there are interviews with producer Michael J. Kagan, editor John Grover, actors Aubrey Morris and Nicholas Ball, makeup artist Sandra Exelby, screenwriter Michael Armstrong, sound designer Vernon Messenger, artistic designers Tom Adams and Douglas Smith and effects artist John Schoonraad. The participants aren't afraid to tell it like it is, especially when it comes to Hooper's drug-taking, and it should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that almost every red-blooded male involved in the production tried to sneak onto set whenever Mademoiselle May was filming her scenes!
The three interviews – Space Vampires in London, Carlsen’s Curse and Dangerous Beauty – focus on Tobe Hooper, Steve Railsback and Mathilda May respectively. Each recalls some interesting facts about their time on the film, but it is May’s interview that is the most, ahem, revealing. Oh, and those of you concerned about having your childhood fantasies shattered by the sight of an almost fifty-year-old Mathilda May should rest easy, because she's still stunning. The disc also includes two different theatrical trailers, one from Tristar and another from Cannon. As I only had access to check discs for the review I can’t claim first-hand experience of the reversible sleeve and booklet, but from the images I’ve seen they appear to be up to Arrow’s usual standards.
After all of these years I still have conflicted feelings towards Lifeforce. I find myself simultaneously repulsed by, and attracted to, its camp tone and unintentionally hilarious dialogue. Then I remember that I also own a Blu-ray boxed set of Steven Seagal films, which puts things firmly into perspective. If you go into the film in the full knowledge that it is a little bit daft you should have a great time.
As for the Blu-ray release, well Arrow has improved upon the Shout! Factory release is every way, delivering a superior audio-visual experience and a wider variety of bonus material. I’ve been critical of some of the labels previous releases – rightly so I might add – but their output over the last twelve months has been much improved and they are now one of my favourite distributors. The lavish packages they put together for these niche titles put high-profile releases from most major studios to shame, which can only be a good thing for the Blu-ray market. I’d love for them to get their hands on the licences for old favourites like Fright Night (and its sequel), Krull and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, as I think they’re one of the few distributors who would bother to do them justice. But I digress… I’m sure you want to know whether Lifeforce is worthy of your hard-earned? Well if it isn’t obvious from the rest of the review the answer is a resounding ‘yes’!
* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 30th September 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, LPCM 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentaries, Isolated Scores, Documentary, Interviews, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard, Aubrey Morris
Genre: Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 116 minutes
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