Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at a defining moment in Cannon Films canon…
What’s the craziest mo-fo of a film you’ve ever seen? There have been plenty of odd films. The beauty of cinema is in its variety. I’ve written about a slightly more critically acclaimed film Cannon made called Runaway Train. I suggested it may perhaps have been Cannon’s crowning glory. It’s certainly an excellent film and came with the sort of acclaim not often associated with Cannon (and indeed not associated with the film I’m about to discuss).
Cannon have a devout and cult following. Depending on which Cannon corner of fandom you end up on, you’ll see particular Cannon canon, regularly talked up as the best of the group. It could be the Masters of The Universe fans, the Runaway Train fans, the Ninja III: The Domination fans, and a number of other firm favourites that tend to get regularly placed on podium positions. There’s another…it’s about space vampires. It’s got everything good, bad, ugly and infamous you would associate of peak Cannon.
Cannon had this great quality, in their pomp, of making films look in unison, cheap and expensive. In Lifeforce, you have probably the most expensive looking film they produced. There are loads of VFX shots, an array of great old school effects, sets, miniatures, prosthetics and more. On the whole too, most of the VFX in Lifeforce have aged pretty well. Cannon were an anomaly. Their beginnings were in largely ultra low budget trash films and exploitation, before they ploughed more money into bigger and bigger productions, along with the ability to also distribute. Yet there was always a feeling they never lost those exploitative beginnings.
I’ve mentioned before that Cannon had grown in the mid-80’s to have a predilection for cherry picking renowned talent. This didn’t just extend to actors (Stallone did a couple of films, whilst Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris were made synonymous headliners having made their names already) and directors, but other crew talent. ‘Those miniatures in Star Wars look great…’ or ‘Those creature effects look great, who made them?’ They weren’t afraid to invest in good cinematographers, effects crews, composers and everything else in between.
Lifeforce as an example has a cinematographer known for a number of Bond films and Return of the Jedi. It has Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther) composing. Many of these were perhaps old schoolers on the verge of or in the midst of a career downturn, but regardless, Cannon pounced. Then makeup and visual FX crew who had worked on anything from Star Wars to a number of horror classics (Bob Keen for example, a legend in the horror genre) also make up the departments in the film. As a result, with direction from horror icon Tobe Hooper, Lifeforce is a great looking film.
From the opening space set sequences with a crew exploring an alien vessel, masked by a comet, to everything beyond (and a barnstorming finale), this looks a film as big as many of the iconic big budget films of the era. This group of astronauts excavate some artefacts from the alien vessel, including three humanoids who are seemingly either lifeless or comatose (two men and one woman). The ship’s crew are discovered decimated, after an apparent fire, with the three humanoids in tact. Said space vampires are brought back to Earth and, beginning with the woman, escape and begin sapping people of their lifeforce.
There’s one name that’s bound to make a Cannon-ite go red-faced and require an almost immediate cold shower… Mathilda May. I am a Cannon-ite, I’ll be back shortly… yeah, and here’s where Cannon make the film in so unmistakably Cannon a way. May, a French actress, who was 19 at the time, spends pretty much the entirety of the film naked. She’s a space vampire who uses her femininity to entrance men to their doom, draining their life force.
This is not a film that would get greenlit in 2022 that’s for sure, certainly not at this budget level. Among all this cinematographic, visual artistry, that slightly sleazy/trashy side that helped Cannon attain their rise is fully in force. That being said, it’s not without any statement, and those men leering so helplessly over the sight of a naked 19 year old woman, seen as humanoid rather than human, meet their doom.
Ultimately the guy who de-sexualises her and isn’t so transfixed by tits (played by Oscar nominee Peter Firth, with just the faintest hint of ‘what the fuck is this?’) is the one who can defeat the space vampires. At least until he gets to a point where he kind of stands around unable to do anything until a bit of self-sacrifice from someone else saves the day. That said the scale of exploitation to feminist statement certainly tips a lot more favourably into the exploitation side.
Still, even at their most misogynistic, jingoistic, xenophobic or outright goofy, Cannon always had a certain affably cheeky charm (helped by feeling so unmistakably 80’s), if only because they were so unabashedly silly. Lifeforce drifts from scene to scene, continually re-writing the rules of their space vampire concept, never quite settling on a clear idea of who, what, how and why. ‘She’s switched bodies…’ Oh…okay…yeah, I’ll go along with that…
The film is bonkers, but it’s consistently entertaining bonkers. Patrick Stewart gets possessed at one point by the naked space vampire. If you thought the sight of Stewart channelling Famke Janssen in X-Men (whichever one it was) looked daft, you ain’t seen nothing yet. He pulls it off though with the aplomb only a theatrically trained board treading thesp like Stewart could do. His final sequence too, is something to behold with a visual effect at once a bit awesome and a bit shit. Shitsome… it’s a word that should be coined and coined directly for association with Cannon Films.
So if you’re looking to begin an unnatural swooning feeling over Mathilda May, or you want something to make you go ‘wow’ and ‘what the hell?’ in equal measure, then Lifeforce is the film for you. Artistically, there’s so much to admire. So much craft. Then a script with so many hilarious lines (unintentionally) and logic drops that you’ll end the film cross-eyed. A film that will almost de-sensitise you to any kind of feeling of titillation within 10 minutes of beginning because you’ve been bombarded with May’s naked form. Even the opening musical cue will bring a sudden flash back to hundreds of action adventure trailers of the era which reused Henry Mancini’s theme from this.
It may well be the most brilliantly shitsome film ever made.
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