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Lifeforce Remembered

A Tribute to a Summer Movie Classic

Plus: FLY AWAY HOME flies back on DVD

An Aisle Seat Special Edition by Andy Dursin

You always hear about people being nostalgic for the summers of their youth. When it comes to the cinema, it certainly seems that there is something valid about looking at the last few movie seasons we've been having and comparing them to the same period from 15-20 years ago -- something confirmed when you look back on past summers and realize that "all THOSE movies came out then?"

The summer of 1985 may not have been as big as the summers of '82, '83, or '84, but it was still a hot one -- BACK TO THE FUTURE became a phenomenon, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II was a bona-fide blockbuster, COCOON was a sleeper hit, and the "brat pack" scored another success with ST. ELMO'S FIRE. Mel Gibson came back in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, Chris Sarandon proved to be a formidable vamp in FRIGHT NIGHT, Jeff Bridges was on trial in JAGGED EDGE, Val Kilmer lead the teen sci-fi revolution in REAL GENIUS, Joe Dante met with mixed results in EXPLORERS, plus you had THE GOONIES, FLETCH, John Boorman's EMERALD FOREST, and Roger Moore's swan song as 007, A VIEW TO A KILL, all circulating at once. A pair of western revivals didn't burn up the charts, but SILVERADO and PALE RIDER still carry along a pretty good rep these days. Even two costly flops from Disney (RETURN TO OZ, THE BLACK CAULDRON) managed to net a few admirers upon their original release.

One particular movie was also released that June -- a picture that still lives in my mind as the ultimate definition of a "summer movie." I'm talking, of course, about Tobe Hooper's sci- fi extravaganza, LIFEFORCE, which has become something of a cult classic over the years and remains a guilty pleasure shared by many fans around the world.

No other movie in the annals of cinema can boast a naked space vampiress, London burning up in flames, countless outrageously bad performances from noted British thesps, AND a great score by Henry Mancini to round it off. Throw in direction that treats the epic story as if it's a comedy, and you should have an indication why the film's popularity is higher now than it ever was back in 1985.

But before we dive into discussing LIFEFORCE, one must first consider the unique background to this film.

The Cannon Group (the makers of such classics like "Enter the Ninja," "Superman IV" and "King Solomon's Mines" with Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone) spent some $45 million on this adaptation of Colin Wilson's novel "The Space Vampires", hiring Dan O'Bannon ("Alien") and Don Jakoby ("Blue Thunder") to write the script, getting Tobe Hooper (hot off "Poltergeist") to direct and John Dykstra ("Star Wars") to handle the special effects.

LIFEFORCE was, for all practical purposes, Cannon's attempt at a classy special effects picture, an out-of-this-world epic that would contend for the summer box-office crown of '85, and, likewise, make-or-break the studio in their shot at big-time Hollywood respectability.

However, due to their not-so-firm track record at the box-office (and theaters owners' correct assumption that most Cannon films were strictly drive-in fare), producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus sought to find a distributor to release it nationwide.

Tri-Star Pictures became interested in distributing LIFEFORCE, but with the condition that Cannon had to both pay Tri-Star outright for releasing it (unheard of in most Hollywood production deals) and give the studio all distribution rights for "Breakin' 2: Electric Bugaloo," the sequel to a breakdancing film that made over $20 million at the box-office and cost, like most Cannon films, less than a million to produce. Reluctantly, Cannon agreed, and LIFEFORCE went into nationwide release in mid-June of 1985, right up against "Cocoon" and Tri-Star's own "Rambo II."

Well, we all know what happened to The Cannon Group, and their big attempt at box-office glory, but the fact remains that LIFEFORCE is still one of the most unique film experiences of the 1980s. It's lavishly produced but totally incompetent in the prime areas that determine the success of any film -- in a nutshell, LIFEFORCE is a masterpiece, except for the writing, directing and acting.

Fortunately, though, LIFEFORCE is a prime example of a FUN bad movie because the performances are so inept, the writing so ridiculous, and the direction so obvious that you just can't help but laugh. Putting it on the expensive scale that this film takes place on makes it even more enjoyable -- the more excessive the film gets, the funnier it becomes.

Steve Railsback stars as Tom Carlsen, the American leader of an international space-shuttle mission to explore Halley's Comet, which is about to pass near the Earth for the first time in ages. The shuttle radar picks up an immense object situated in the comet, one that turns out to be an alien ship containing the remains of strange bat-like creatures (gross) and three completely naked humans, including French actress Mathilda May (far from gross).

For reasons explained later in the film, Railsback's crew begins to die one-by-one, all of them having been drained of their "life force" by these interstellar vamps. Railsback, despite being drawn to Mathilda's bod (and who in their right mind wouldn't be?), tries to blow up the ship and prevent the creatures from reaching Earth...

...BUT their glass cases protect them from the fire (a surprise plot twist), and the three bad-vamps are brought back to Earth thanks to a rescue mission by the shuttle Columbia. They're put under surveillance in a London Research Laboratory, where head scientist Frank Finlay assures the audience that "there's no way a naked girl is going to get out of this complex." However, we know better, and Mathilda uses her vast powers to overcome the security guards (one of whom tries to stop her by offering up a bite of his biscuit), and walks off to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting London populace.

Meanwhile, intelligence expert Peter Firth teams with our intergalactic doofus Railsback to try to track Mathilda down (she apparently started some sort of fling with Steve while on the shuttle -- God only knows why she picked him), which leads the two to an encounter with a possessed, pre-"Star Trek" Patrick Stewart (who disintegrates into a blob of blood in a military helicopter during one of the film's funniest scenes) and a climax which seems to have been taken right out of an Irwin Allen movie.

London is in flames as the population turns into zombies! Buildings blow up right and left! Big special effects fill the screen! Mathilda still walks around naked! The dialogue is even dumber than before! (As Firth and Railsback walk in sweating to a last-minute meeting with the Prime Minister -- trying to come up with a last-ditch attempt at saving the world -- his secretary calmly asks if they "would like a cup of tea?").

If you haven't seen LIFEFORCE, I think I've made it clear by now why this film holds so much entertainment value for those of us who treasure this sort of thing. Co-writer Don Jakoby later blasted Tobe Hooper, claiming he mis-directed the entire film and that he edited sequences as if they were comedic -- a charge that nearly every frame of the movie could be used as evidence to support.

It's a '50s "B" sci-fi movie blown up to epic proportions, and as Jakoby stated, it's played so TOTALLY straight it threatens to veer into self-parody throughout.

In fact, not only does the film boast excellent special FX, but it also contains atmospheric photography from Alan Hume (a vet of many fine British films, including several James Bond pictures), expensive sets by John Graysmark, and a gorgeously bombastic, melodic music score by Henry Mancini that's rightfully regarded as one of the finest of the 1980s.

While it is, admittedly, sort of sad to see such talent being wasted on a film like this, you can't help but enjoy it all while watching it.

When LIFEFORCE was released theatrically back in '85, it ran in a 102-minute version prepared by Tri-Star, with re-cut opening credits and various, re-scored music cues written by Michael Kamen and James Guthrie (who shared on-screen credit with Mancini). The new, heavily-synthesized cues were composed to cover over various edits in the shorter U.S. release print, but they're vastly inferior to the Mancini compositions and detracted from the overall soundtrack.

Subsequently, fans of LIFEFORCE were thrilled when MGM/UA, back in 1995, decided to release a 116-minute "Extended International Version" on laserdisc -- an expanded edition that was comprised of Hooper's original cut for Cannon. This edition appropriately opens with Mancini's thunderous "Lifeforce Theme," adds introductory narration by John Larroquette (who performed a similar function on Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), and restores Mancini's original cues to their intended form (Kamen's involvement is eliminated from this print).

It also, happily, adds even more hilarious dialogue: my favorite is Peter Firth's exchange with one of the head male vampires at the end. When the vile villain brags that "it'll be a lot less terrifying if you'd just come to me," Firth gathers his magical sword, grins and boasts, "I'LL DO JUST THAT!" (This version, however, is regrettably missing a priceless bit featuring a vampified- jogger combing through a garbage can).

The expanded edition was released on DVD by MGM a few years ago. While the DVD transfer isn't 16:9 enhanced, it IS a solid presentation, looking less grainy and more vibrant than the laserdisc. The studio even added a new 5.1 Dolby Digital mix of the soundtrack, and for a 1985 film, you won't find many mixes quite as potent as LIFEFORCE sounds here.

You can't say that LIFEFORCE is a good movie, but it's impossible not to get caught up in the fun of it. I've shown the movie to a bunch of friends over the years, and all of them got a major kick out of it -- it's simply too unusual, too incredible not to.

With the biggest effects to be seen this side of "Star Wars," some of the most unintentionally funny dialogue of the '80s, and the worst acting by competent actors you may ever see (although Mathilda scores a 10 for her "performance"), LIFEFORCE throws in everything but the kitchen sink in an effort to make the picture enormously entertaining.

And entertaining it is -- right down to the last shots of Firth watching as the ship of extraterrestrial vamps flies away from Earth at the very last minute. We're all saved, and a veritable B-movie classic comes to a fitting, perfect end.

Late news: "DrEldon" reports that LIFEFORCE will be screening at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on Wednesday, August 15th with Steve Railsback scheduled to appear. Check out www.americancinematheque.com for more info. For those who can't attend the screening, MGM's DVD has been newly re-priced to a bargain $15 (even lower in most retail outlets). By all means check it out!


New on DVD

Columbia's Special Edition of FLY AWAY HOME (****, Columbia, $24.98, due Tuesday) will prove to be a must for fans of the film, but if one is purchasing the disc solely for Mark Isham's marvelous score being isolated, be prepared for a disappointment.

Carroll Ballard's 1996 film is a gorgeously photographed, moving picture almost on a par with his superlative, earlier "family" film THE BLACK STALLION. However, branding the movie as a picture strictly for children isn't accurately describing how eloquently handled the entire film is. Ballard veers away from saccharine sentimentality, and instead takes a low-key and yet enormously affecting approach to the material from the opening frames.

Anna Paquin, in one of her first post-PIANO parts, plays a young girl who moves in with her quirky dad (Jeff Daniels) after her mother dies in an auto accident. She ultimately bonds with her father while they attempt to nurse a wounded Canada geese and a show an entire flock of the birds the proper migration route from Canada to Virginia.

Caleb Deschanel's gorgeous cinematography is one of the chief assets to the film, and looks stunning in Columbia's new, 1.85 widescreen anamorphic transfer. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is notably effective, featuring one of Mark Isham's finest film scores.

Columbia's new DVD features a handful of excellent new supplements, including audio commentary from Deschanel and Ballard, an HBO Making Of, a new featurette, trailers, and a 50- minute documentary on Bill Lishman -- the real-life Canadian artist whose life and work with migration routes formed the basis for the film. (Lishman was featured on an episode of "20/20" in 1993). Featuring actual footage of Lishman with the geese, this is a fascinating look at the actual events that inspired the movie, and seems to have been independently produced several years ago (there's no tie-in with the film).

As I mentioned, the lone caveat with the DVD is the "isolated score with composer's commentary" track, which features Mark Isham discussing his music -- OVER his music. Isham's comments ARE insightful, but seeing that there has never been any official soundtrack release of his highly acclaimed score, it will be quite disappointing for some prospective buyers that the track is essentially useless as an isolated score track (Isham talks over the front credits, end credits, during the climax, and over most all of his cues!).

That aside, the Special Edition of FLY AWAY HOME corrects the pan-and-scan only, bare-bones earlier DVD release with a strong transfer and fine supplements. Needless to say this outstanding movie comes highly recommended for viewers of all ages.


MIMIC 2 (*, Buena Vista, $26.98): Direct-to-video sequels have not yielded a whole lot of successes over the years. "Tremors 2" is one of the rare instances of a direct-to-video genre sequel being a worthy follow-up to its predecessor ("Tremors 3," incidentally, is due out in October), but such cases are few and far between.

The original "Mimic" was a modestly entertaining bug thriller that Dimension Films hoped would make a big splash at the box-office several years ago. It didn't -- the movie barely recouped its budget -- but that didn't stop Dimension from commissioning this tepid follow-up which the studio wisely opted to send straight to the small screen.

Alix Koromzay reprises her role from the original as biologist Remy (if you're like me, you're probably scratching your head trying to remember anything about this character), who once again has to battle the genetically enhanced "Judas Project" cockroaches now mimicking their human creators.

This being a low-budget affair, the effects and make-up designs are strictly pedestrian, and the story by B-movie specialist Joel Soisson ("Dracula 2000") isn't especially compelling, either. Jean de Segonzac's direction is quite claustrophobic, too often making the viewer feel like they're watching a shoddy, stripped-down version of the original, minus anything that made it somewhat distinctive.

Buena Vista's DVD looks nice (1.85 transfer), sounds good (5.1 Digital mix), and features a handful of interesting little featurettes on the production. But, even on the level of a mindless creature feature, MIMIC 2 is a gooey, pointless rehash with little to recommend it.


DOUBLE TAKE (**, Buena Vista, $26.98): George Gallo's resume lists screenwriter for the terrific "Midnight Run" and both the writer and director of the underrated, marvelous comedy-drama "29th Street" with Danny Aiello and Anthony LaPaglia.

His first movie since "Trapped in Paradise" (a forgettable 1994 holiday flop with Nicolas Cage) is this caper-comedy with Orlando Jones as a Wall Street banker who hightails it to Mexico after being accused of a murder he didn't commit. Eddie Griffin (hilarious as Rob Schneider's pimp in "Deuce Bigalow") plays a street-smart hustler who helps Jones dodge police, corrupt FBI agents, and cocaine traffickers on the way to sorting out the whole mess south of the border.

Co-produced by Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour"), DOUBLE TAKE would like to be an African-American variation on "Midnight Run," but despite enthusiastic performances from Jones and Griffin, Gallo's script isn't on a par with the 1988 Robert DeNiro-Charles Grodin hit. The first half is appreciably more entertaining than the second, exploiting the comic skills of both leads with a few brisk action sequences mixed in for good measure. But once the convoluted plot kicks into gear, the laughs subside and the usual cliches -- explosions, shoot 'em ups, and car chases -- pop up in abundance.

It all boils down to a forgettable action-comedy that's not the worst way to kill 88 minutes of your time IF you're a fan of either performer.

Buena Vista's DVD features a solid 2.35 transfer and a vibrant 5.1 soundtrack (in both DTS and Dolby Digital), containing a jokey score by Graeme Revell. There are also a handful of special features, including commentary, deleted/extended scenes, and an interesting, 30- minute "Director's Diary," comprised of camcorder footage taken during various stages of the production. For some, the featurette will prove more watchable than the actual film.


NEXT WEEK: Back to the theaters with THE OTHERS and AMERICAN PIE 2, plus Paramount dips back into the John Wayne well with new DVDs. Remember to send all comments and questions to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next week!


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