The crew of the space shuttle Churchill finds a 150-mile-long spaceship hidden in the coma of Halley's Comet. The crew finds hundreds of dead, shrivelled bat-like creatures and three naked humanoid bodies (two male and one female) in suspended animation within glass containers. The crew recovers the three aliens and begins the return trip to Earth.
During the return journey, mission control loses contact with the shuttle and a rescue mission is launched to investigate. The rescuers discover that the Churchill has been severely damaged by fire, with its internal components destroyed, and the three containers bearing the aliens are all that remain intact. The aliens are taken to the European Space Research Centre in London where they are watched over by Dr. Leonard Bukovski and Dr. Hans Fallada. Prior to an autopsy, the female alien awakens and drains the "life force" out of a guard. The female alien then escapes the research facility and proceeds to drain various other humans of their life force, revealing an ability to shape-shift. It transpires that the aliens are from a race of space vampires that consume the life force of living beings, rather than their blood.
Meanwhile, in Texas, an escape pod from the Churchill is found, with Colonel Tom Carlsen inside. Carlsen is flown to London where he describes the course of events, culminating in the draining of the crew's life force. Carlsen explains that he set fire to the shuttle with the intention of saving Earth from the same fate and escaped in the pod. However, when he is hypnotised, it becomes clear that Carlsen possesses a psychic link to the female alien. Carlsen and SAS Col. Colin Caine trace the alien to a psychiatric hospital in Yorkshire. While in Yorkshire, the two believe they have managed to trap the alien within the heavily sedated body of the hospital's manager, Dr Armstrong; but Carlsen and Caine later learn that they were deceived, as the aliens had wanted to draw the pair out of London.
As Carlsen and Caine are transporting Dr Armstrong in a helicopter back to London, the alien girl breaks free from her sedated host and disappears. When they reach London a "plague" has overtaken the city and martial law has been declared. The two male vampires, previously thought destroyed, have escaped from confinement by shape-shifting into the soldiers guarding them; the pair then transform most of London's population into zombies. After their life force has been drained by the male vampires, the victims seek out other humans to absorb their life force, perpetuating the cycle. The absorbed life forces are channelled by the male vampires to the female vampire, who transmits the accumulated energy to their spaceship in Earth's orbit.
Fallada impales one of the male vampires with an ancient device of "leaded iron". Carlsen admits to Caine that, while on the shuttle, he felt compelled to open the female vampire's container and to share his life force with her. She is later found inside St. Paul's Cathedral, lying upon the altar, transferring the energy to her spaceship. She reveals, much to Carlsen's shock, that they are a part of each other due to the sharing of their life forces, thus their psychic bond.
Caine follows Carlsen into the cathedral and is intercepted by the second male vampire, whom he dispatches. Carlsen impales himself and the female alien simultaneously. The female vampire is only wounded and returns to her ship with Carlsen in tow, releasing a burst of energy that blows open the cupola dome of St. Paul's. The two ascend the column of energy to the spaceship, which then returns to its hiding place within the comet.
Lifeforce was the first film of Tobe Hooper's three-picture deal with Cannon Films, following Poltergeist in 1982, which was a collaboration with producer Steven Spielberg. The other two films are the remake of Invaders from Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
Filming began on 2 February 1984. Before Hooper was finally approved, Michael Winner was offered the chance to direct the film.
The film was originally filmed and promoted under the same title as the Colin Wilson novel. Cannon Films, which reportedly spent nearly $25 million in hopes of creating a blockbuster film, disliked The Space Vampires for sounding too much like another of the studio's typical low budget exploitation films. As a result, the title was changed to Lifeforce, referring to the spiritual energy the space vampires drain from their victims, and it was edited for its US theatrical release by TriStar Pictures into a 101-minute domestic cut that was partially re-scored by Michael Kamen, with a majority of Henry Mancini's original music remaining.
Though seldom recognised, Lifeforce is largely a remake of Hammer Films's Quatermass and the Pit/Five Million Years to Earth. In an interview, Tobe Hooper discussed how Cannon Films gave him $25 million, free rein, and Wilson's book. Hooper then shares how giddy he was. "I thought I'd go back to my roots and make a 70 mm Hammer film."
The screenplay was written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby. Tobe Hooper came up with the idea of using Halley's Comet in the screenplay, rather than the asteroid belt as originally used in the novel, as the comet was going to pass by Earth one year following the film's release. The time settings were also changed from the mid-21st century to the present day.
Colin Wilson was unhappy with the way the film turned out. He wrote of it, "John Fowles had once told me that the film of The Magus was the worst movie ever made. After seeing Lifeforce I sent him a postcard telling him that I had gone one better."
The film marked the fourth project to feature special effects produced by Academy Award winner John Dykstra, who in 1986 was granted with the "Caixa Catalunya Award for Best Special Effects" in the Sitges Film Festival (located in Spain) for his special effects work in Lifeforce. The umbrella-like alien spaceship was modelled after an artichoke, while the model London destroyed in the film was actually the remains of Tucktonia, a model village near Christchurch, United Kingdom, that had closed not long before the shooting of the film. It took a week to film the death scene of the pathologist played by Jerome Willis, and bodycasts of Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart and Aubrey Morris were made by make-up effects supervisor Nick Maley for their death scenes.
One effect near the end of the film involving the column of energy rising from the female alien through the top of St. Paul's Cathedral to the spacecraft was engineered by art director Tony Reading. A column of 3-M material was placed against black velvet and a crew member blew cigar smoke into its bottom. This image was then front projected onto a translucent projection screen behind the actors to create the energy column.
James Horner was first asked to write the film score before Henry Mancini was brought in and produced a score consisting of 90 minutes of an occasionally atonal and ambient music using the London Symphony Orchestra. Mancini had agreed to do the film based on the original concept of a 15-minute essentially dialogue-free opening sequence involving the discovery and exploration of the alien spacecraft and the moving of the three aliens back to the Churchill, for which he composed a tonal "space ballet." As discussed below, this opening section was largely cut from the film.
For the US domestic cut version, Michael Kamen was approved to write the occasional alternative music cues that were partially re-scored and placed in at the last minute for some of the US domestic prints of the film.
The initial cut of Lifeforce as edited by Tobe Hooper was 128 minutes long. This is 12 minutes longer than the final version which had several scenes cut, most of them taking place on the space shuttle Churchill. According to Nicholas Ball, who played the main British astronaut, Derebridge, it was felt that there was too much material in outer space and so the majority of the Churchill scenes were deleted. Also, most of Nicholas Ball's performance ended up on the cutting room floor according to an interview he gave on the UK talk show Wogan in 1985.
According to interviews with Bill Malin, who plays one of the male vampires, the film went over schedule during production. Because of this some important scenes were never shot, and the film was shut down at one time because the studio had simply run out of money.
Despite being credited on the US domestic cut, the following actors were deleted from that cut of the film: John Woodnutt, John Forbes-Robertson and Russell Sommers. The Churchill commanding officer Rawlins, played by Geoffrey Frederick, was British, but in post-production it was decided that Patrick Jordan would dub his voice. Also in the US version, some of Geoffrey Frederick's voiceover heard on the Churchill is dubbed.
On release, the film received negative reviews from American critics. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, "[I]ts style is shrill and fragmented enough to turn Lifeforce into hysterical vampire porn." Michael Wilmington in the Los Angeles Times said the film was "such a peculiar movie that it's difficult to get a handle on it." Jay Carr wrote in The Boston Globe that "it plays like a tap-dancing zombie." John Clute dismissed Lifeforce as a "deeply silly flick". Leonard Maltin called the film "completely crazy" and said it was "ridiculous, but so bizarre, it's fascinating."
On the other hand, science-fiction film authority C. J Henderson praised the film: “Lifeforce is an incredible film, and may by be the most intelligent vampire movie ever made ... [The ideas presented in Lifeforce] are beyond [others vampire movies] beyond all of them, light-years beyond ... the story is what makes this movie hum.... Lifeforce is a true, thinking sci-fi fan's film." Andrew Migliore and John Strysik in their Lurker in the Lobby explain that Colin Wilson wrote The Space Vampires as a consequence of H.P. Lovecraft's publisher August Derleth challenging Wilson (who was critical of Lovecraft's writing) to write a Lovecraftian novel himself (a challenge that resulted in three such novels, The Mind Parasites, The Space Vampires, and The Philosopher's Stone), and they continue, "[Lifeforce] is big, splashy, and ... the scenes of an apocalyptic London are not to be missed. And the film, an obvious tribute to Nigel Kneale's Quatermass, has deep roots in Lovecraft's mythos." Film critic Gene Siskel of Siskel & Ebert called the film a "guilty-pleasure", awarding it 3 out of 4 stars.
As of 26 January 2017, it holds a 67% approval score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 18 reviews.
Lifeforce was released on 21 June 1985 to poor box office returns. The film opened in fourth place, losing a head-to-head battle against Ron Howard's science fiction film, Cocoon. The film earned $11,603,545 at the US box office.
The first release on video in the UK was the heavily edited US "Domestic cut". The full "international cut" was not available until it was released by MGM in the 2000s. The first US release of the "international cut" was MGM/UA's 1994 release on deluxe widescreen letterboxed LaserDisc.
Scream Factory announced they would be releasing Lifeforce in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack on 18 June 2013. This included the US theatrical version, as well as the international cut of the film.
Arrow Video released Lifeforce in the UK as a Steelbook two-disc Blu-ray special edition in October 2013, with the same features as the US Blu-ray release.