Guest Post - Lifeforce: Cannon’s Outer Limits
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
We're screening an Uncut 35MM print of LIFEFORCE on Monday 2/7/22 at The Los Feliz 3. Please grab your tickets here, and enjoy this guest article on the wonders of LIFEFORCE from The Cannon Film Guide author Austin Trunick.
Lifeforce: Cannon’s Outer Limits
By Austin Trunick
For many low-budget film companies, space truly was the final frontier. Whenever keeping costs down was of utmost priority, it rarely paid to go to space – not when other fantastic genres could be exploited for pennies on the dollar. In the heyday of the video rental era, a post-apocalyptic wasteland could be brought to life from a bit of open desert and a few junk cars; a world of sword and sorcery could be suggested with a state forest, a cave, colored lights, and a smoke machine. Space, on the other hand – outer space was expensive.
If you dared to attempt space travel on a budget, finding an alien planet was probably the easiest part. If you were fortunate enough to be in Los Angeles, you could do what every other cheapie production did and head out on location at Vasquez Rocks, but pretty much any funky rock formation, cliff face, or foggy beach would do just as well in a pinch. Nor was it all that tough to build a space ship interior: a little bit of stark lighting and a few obtuse-looking control panels could go a long way. Without substantial production dollars backing you up, however, it was near-impossible to send your heroes into space itself. Convincing an audience of zero gravity required wires, cranes, and usually a giant sound stage. Heaven forbid you needed to build, and then hang, a life-size spacecraft for your actors to interact with; nothing killed the illusion quicker than your heroic astronaut accidentally bumping into his shuttle and causing it to swing back and forth like a chandelier on a chain.
Making things worse was that by the 1980s, big-budget studio pictures like 2001 and Alien and the Star Wars and Star Trek films had all but ruined outer space for the little guys. Audiences were trained to know what space travel could and should look like. When the Fox, Warner Bros. and Paramounts of the world had millions to spend on their big-budget space adventures, how could the independents compete?
Competing with the major studios, though, was exactly what The Cannon Group tried to do. Since the moment the company was purchased by a duo of maverick movie moguls in 1979, it churned out a steady stream of low-budget action flicks, fantasy films, raunchy comedies, and erotic dramas that were usually profitable well before the movies were even made, thanks to foreign pre-sales and lucrative cable and video deals. By the mid-1980s, cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had transformed Cannon into a small, movie-making empire, regularly boasting that they were on their way to becoming the seventh major studio . . . which, of course, made them the hoot of Hollywood, taking into consideration that most of their releases were critically-reviled b-movies, and usually starred the likes of Chuck Norris, Lou Ferrigno, and an AARP-eligible Charles Bronson.
But, a pair of runaway hits in 1984 – the POW rescue flick Missing in Action and the dance film Breakin’ – landed them in a position of unexpected credibility. Cannon had proved themselves more than capable of making real money, and were suddenly attracting name brand talent. At long last, they found themselves with the firepower to shoot a project they’d been hyping since the day they bought the company: a big-budget adaptation of Colin Wilson’s science fiction novel, Space Vampires – which, in the United States and a few other territories, would become known as Lifeforce.
In fact, Golan and Globus took out a full-page ad for Space Vampires all the way back in 1979, as part of the initial slate of twenty features to be produced by their newly-acquired Cannon. They’d purchase a two-page spread for it in Variety in 1980, a full half-decade before the movie actually reached theaters. The movie remained the one constant within Cannon’s ever-changing slate for years, even as its attached talent came and went. For a while it was meant to star Klaus Kinski, and briefly it was to be helmed by Death Wish series director Michael Winner. (If you think the movie is crazy now, just try to imagine what it might have been!)
It wasn’t until Cannon found a perfect collaborator in director Tobe Hooper that the project finally got off the ground. The Texan wunderkind who’d broke box office records with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was a hot commodity after the more recent success of Poltergeist (1982), and Cannon was able to lure him into their web with a three-picture deal.
Lifeforce is one of those movies that is best left to speak for itself, as words can’t begin to convey just how unique (and bizarre) this film is. It’s a film whose primary villain is played by a French dancer named Mathilda May, who spends much of her screen time fully nude; where the titular space vampires drive their victims mad with sexual desire before draining them of their life force and leaving behind shriveled husks. It’s a movie where the resultant zombies run amok in London, and explode into dust when they’re prevented from feeding on human lust. This is a movie where Steve Railsback kisses a young, alien-possessed Patrick Stewart in the midst of a psychic energy storm. It’s a wild, wild film, unlike anything else out there.
What it wasn’t, was cheap. Most sources report a budget for Lifeforce of around $24 million, although these numbers were typically inflated by Cannon in order to make their movies sound more expensive (and to skew their profit margins for tax purposes.) Even if you were to cut that number by a quarter, Lifeforce was far and away the most expensive movie Cannon had yet produced – more than double what they’d spent on any single movie to that point.
Forgoing big-name stars in favor of esteemed British thespians, all of that money wound up on screen. Lifeforce shot at the massive Elstree Studios, former home of The Shining, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, with effects by Academy Award-winner John Dykstra (Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and makeup and animatronics by Nick Maley, one of the designers behind Yoda and the creatures of Mos Eisley’s cantina band. Art direction and production design came courtesy of Robert Cartwright and John Graysmark, veterans of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The script was adapted by Don Jakoby and Dan O’Bannon, the latter of whom penned Alien. The score came from four-time Oscar winner Henry Mancini. With this much behind-the-scenes talent, it must have seemed to Cannon like a prospect that couldn’t fail.
Alas, Lifeforce was perhaps too strange to succeed. Rather than being “The Sci-Fi Event of the 1980s” – as Cannon repeatedly promised it would be – the movie failed to make back even half its claimed budget at the box office, and was mostly derided by critics along the way. It’s since gone on to earn wider, long-deserved appreciation as a cult classic – a grandiose, visually arresting throwback to Hammer’s Quatermass pictures – but its immediate failure to become the next Star Wars was a resounding disappointment to Cannon at the time.
We’re here to talk about space travel, though, and whether you think the movie is an overlooked masterpiece, utterly ridiculous, or some combination of both, we can all agree that Lifeforce’s interpretation of space is absolutely stunning. The movie opens with the crew of the international space shuttle Churchill closing in on the target of its mission: the tail of Halley’s Comet, making its closest orbit to Earth in 75 years. Hiding in its coma is an awe-inspiring find: a needle-shaped craft more than 150 miles in width. Because they’ve lost radio contact with their headquarters – and because, you know, this is a horror film – they head inside the vessel, finding it full of giant, freeze-dried bat monsters and what appear to be three perfectly-preserved, super-attractive humans trapped inside crystal coffins. Realizing the scientific significance of their discovery – and because, again, this is a horror movie – they bring the coffins onto their ship and set a course back to Earth.
Obviously, all hell breaks loose.
The ominous, visually extraordinary opening was achieved with a smorgasbord of practical effects, including miniatures, matte paintings, wires, and massive sets assembled on sound stages – there’s no green screen to be found anywhere. Its use of color is particularly effective, full of eerie greens ripped straight from a Technicolor nightmare. Sadly, we never got to see all of it. In the film’s original cut, nearly the first 35 minutes were set in outer space, much of which was cut from theatrical versions. In the United States, the movie was trimmed even further at the request of Tri-Mark, the film’s domestic distributor.
With the failure of Lifeforce – and the company’s increasingly precarious financial standings – Cannon mostly avoided outer space from here on out, perhaps realizing it was more cost-effective to bring space to Earth in the form of alien-centric movies such as Invaders from Mars (1986), Masters of the Universe (1987), Doin’ Time on Planet Earth (1988), and The Borrower (1991).
The most notable exception to Cannon keeping their feet grounded on Planet Earth post-Lifeforce was the franchise-killing Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), which opens with Superman saving a cadre of cosmonauts from rogue space debris, and has the Man of Steel trading blows with the mullet-coiffed Nuclear Man on the surface of the moon. Unfortunately for everyone involved in this movie, Cannon had blown all of the money earmarked for their 1987 slate on real estate and production facilities. Superman IV’s budget was slashed to pieces, and the most obvious penny-pinching can be seen in the movie’s laughably terrible special effects. The series’ famous tagline – “You’ll believe a man can fly!” – no longer applied once Cannon took over.
Middle-era Cannon under Golan and Globus – which I’d loosely define as 1985 through 1987 – was embodied by bigger, more expensive movies than Cannon probably had any business making. Overspending on flops, rather than continuing to pump out the low-budget money-makers upon which their empire was built, was one of numerous factors that led to Cannon’s downfall. What came next was Cannon’s “dark” period, made up of an endless stream of direct-to-video sequels and increasingly cheap Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff thrillers. Lifeforce is largely unique within Cannon’s ‘80s catalog: it’s one of the few times they spent a lot of money on a movie and didn’t run out before shooting was finished. Whether you love it or laugh at it, Lifeforce is a film that only Cannon could have made.
Austin Trunick is the author of The Cannon Film Guide, Vol. I: 1980-1984. Follow him at @CannonFilmGuide or facebook.com/CannonFilmGuide.