In the mid-'80s, Tobe Hooper made a pair of sci-fi movies for the legendary Cannon Films: Lifeforce and a remake of Invaders From Mars. And if either of them had been successful (neither managed to gross even half of their production budgets), perhaps his career would have gone differently. Afterwards he only had a handful of (much smaller budgeted) theatrical releases, and they were all in comfortable territory (a Chainsaw sequel, a Stephen King adaptation, etc). Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars remain his only full blown sci-fi films. Unlike John Carpenter*, Hooper never found it easy to jump into sci-fi or action films, so this "double feature" remains an anomaly. But for what it's worth, Lifeforce was the more "successful" of the two, and certainly the more interesting film.
And if you're like me and you enjoy going through all of the bonus material on your special edition DVD/Blu-rays, you need to set aside a good chunk of your weekend to get through everything on Scream Factory's new release of the film. In addition to the usual commentaries (one by director Tobe Hooper, the other by FX artist Nick Maley) and new interviews (Hooper, Mathilda May and Steve Railsback), there's a 20+ minute featurette originally created for its 1985 release, two very different trailers and a TV spot, which all told will take you five to six hours to go through in its entirety. Additionally, it also has a different cut of the film - the truncated 101 minute one that was released to US theaters, where it promptly tanked in the summer of '85. UK audiences always received what is the default version on the Blu - a 116 minute version (the 101 minute cut is treated as a supplement) that restores the material that was lost. But is it better?
After going through both cuts twice each (a not unpleasant task; the transfer is as gorgeous as Ms. May), I've decided that it's sort of a mixed bag - there are some scenes in the longer cut that absolutely make the film better, but there are some that just pad out stuff that isn't really that important in the grand scheme of things, especially when you consider that even in its shortened form the film feels a bit unwieldy at times, not to mention occasionally dull. So like I did with The Exorcist a while back, I've highlighted all the major changes, along with whether or not they help or hinder the film.
(Note - unlike The Exorcist, there aren't too many full blown scenes added back in or removed - just general sections that have been reworked, for the most part. So the following highlights are more by "sequence" not by "scene," per se. There are also a number of single shots or longer establishing shots or whatever of no significance; those aren't mentioned. Also, the screenshots aren't necessarily "new" to the director's cut, merely taken from *a* version of the scene in question.)
1. Opening credits/explanation - they changed the movie right off the bat! In the US cut, we get an onscreen text window that more or less explains what is given in voiceover in the UK one. The credits are also completely different (probably a necessity since the US version had to make room for an additional credit for Michael Kamen, whose new cues replaced some of original composer Henry Mancini's when the film was recut), and overall the longer one just "fits" better. Personally, whenever I see a text screen at the top of the film, I have traumatic flashbacks to Uwe Boll's Alone in the Dark - avoiding them is always for the best.
2. This carries through for the following scenes of the Churchill shuttle crew (including Railsback's hero character, Carlsen) first discovering the alien ship and then approaching/boarding it. The US version cuts all this stuff to the bare minimum (and intercuts it with the opening credits), giving it a rushed feel that starts the movie off in a very inaccessible way, like we were watching a "previously, on Lifeforce" montage instead of what should be our smooth entry into this world/story. In the UK version, we get more dialogue, more description of the alien ship and more character development from Carlsen that helps explain why he's so determined to investigate it. In short, up until this point, everything about the UK cut is superior.
3. The period of time back on Earth leading up to the Churchill's rediscovery is fleshed out a bit. Watching the UK cut, it's apparent what the US editors were trying to do - give us Cliff's notes of everything that leads up to when the hot naked vampire lady starts wreaking havoc. If that's the only thing about the movie that interests you, then by all means stick with the US cut! For those of you who, like me, enjoy knowing what the hell is going on and letting the story breathe, the UK cut is (so far) the way to go.
4. One of the few full scenes that are missing from the US cut is a discussion between Bukovsky and Fallada about the strange material used to make the "coffins" in which the space vampires were found. No real loss here, it's an interesting little button but it doesn't really matter, since there isn't any subsequent attempt to open them or anything - they just get out of them when they want, and it's never mentioned again anyway.
5. There are some extra bits of Fallada reacting to Bukovsky's attack by the Space Girl, but all they really do is remind us of what we learned a few minutes earlier when Bukovsky saw her attack someone else - the room that they are monitoring her from is way too goddamn far from the actual room, rendering the whole idea of monitoring worthless. By the time they get there (twice!) it's too late. So again, no real loss.
6. A puzzling removal here, with Caine (Peter Firth) learning about the situation from a dazed Bukovsky. Not only does this conversation first tell us about the fact that the Churchill's escape pod was missing (which will be important in a bit), but it clarifies what happens to people in Space Girl's presence. And since Caine is our actual hero (Carlsen is absent for a half hour!), more time spent with him is a good thing, especially when it concerns his role in the proceedings. As I said in my original review, this is sort of like a big budget version of a Hammer movie; specifically, a Quatermass type one. Caine's our Quatermass here - don't cut his bits!
7. A bit later, there's a brief exchange about vampires. Most of the vampire talk throughout the film was removed from the US cut, and while it doesn't really hurt it overall (especially since the anonymous victims act more like zombies), I always like when mythical monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc) are treated as real world things. In other words, if this were really happening, I would expect SOMEONE to suggest vampires - so this actually grounds the movie in an odd way. I say it should have stayed in, though unlike some of the other cuts I can see their justification: the original title was The Space Vampires (taken from the source novel) and it was changed to avoid sounding too much like a typical cheapo Cannon film, and thus references to vampires were removed in turn.
8. The scene in Hyde Park is longer in the UK cut, but it's unnecessary filler that no one will miss. The point of the scene - that Space Girl is out there (and can seduce females just as well as males) is all we need to know, and we get that from the shorter US version (one could argue that the line "now she has clothes" is important, but by the time we see here again in a robe, an hour later, I highly doubt anyone would be saying "Hey! How'd she get a robe?").
9. Carlsen's reintroduction to the story is fleshed out more in the UK cut; we hear Bukovsky ordering him to London (his escape pod was found in Texas) and see him introduced to Caine, whereas in the US one he's just suddenly there and explaining his story. Even in the longer cut this section feels rushed and a bit alienating (not sure why they didn't script it so that Carlsen was found in a sealed chamber somewhere and recovered along with the vampires so that he was never missing in the first place), so it goes without saying that it's much worse in the US one.
10. Carlsen then explains what happened on the ship via flashback sequence. The UK version of the flashback runs a bit longer, but there's nothing more to gain from it. Another take or leave moment.
11. Another baffling cut follows his flashback, where our heroes learn that the alien ship has entered the Earth's atmosphere, and also where Carlsen/Caine are told about the meeting with the Prime Minister. The latter part is helpful (but not vital) in explaining why they go there later when all hell is breaking loose (it's one of my favorite scenes, in fact), but for the life of me I can't understand why they'd remove the setup for the movie's entire third act. While this movie had a bigger budget ($25m) than most Cannon productions, it still has a lot of things that are skimmed over with a few lines of dialogue rather than being shown (which is why it feels a bit disjointed even in the longer cut), so they just make it worse when they cut out those "tell not show" lines.
12. Some bits of dialogue throughout the scene following Carlsen's dream about the Space Girl; more about how she is possessing a body that still has its host's mind (two minds sharing one body, rather than complete possession), and some more vampire talk. It's helpful, since even in the long cut this possession angle seems half-assed and incomplete - as if May left the movie and they had to figure out a way to explain her absence, or something (like the Oracle in the third Matrix). That doesn't seem to be the case, for the record, but it's a clunky subplot either way.
13. The scene where Carlsen "interrogates" the possessed woman is lengthened a bit, including a completely bizarre aside where he decides the woman is a masochist, and thus that part of her WANTS him to slap her around to get the info the Space Girl is mentally blocking. Uh... whatever, movie.
14. It's worthless, but there's a quick bit where Caine demands some extra shots to inject Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart!), and says that he and Percy (Aubrey Morris) will take responsibility. This is obviously news to Percy, so his reaction shot is worth keeping the otherwise superfluous dialogue exchange intact.
15. No other way to really explain this one - the US cut is kind of homophobic. In the UK cut, we mostly see Patrick Stewart during the interrogation scene, but in the US cut, Mathilda May (whose character is possessing Stewart's) is shown more often, including when Carlsen is overcome by her hypnotic pull and kisses her (him, in the UK one). So it's also confusing, as in the US version it seems that he has actually morphed into her since we barely see him at all.
16. Caine offers a Bond-ian one-liner to the male vampire before dispatching him. I think the US cut was wise to remove it; it's a terrible line with way too much time between the setup and the "punchline", and basically just makes Caine seem like a guy TRYING to be James Bond.
So, overall, the UK one is the way to go. Even the parts where I think the US cut made a good call in shortening/removing them, it's not like those scenes hurt the UK one, they just drag it out a bit. It's a long movie either way, but it's not the same as say, the extended King Kong, taking a movie that needed to be shorter to begin with and just adding even more bloat to it. Personally, I think the sweet spot is somewhere in between (all of this assumes Hooper's original, otherwise unseen 126 (!) minute version is just way too excessive), but until a clever fan who also happens to be a skilled editor comes along and does his thing, I say just stick with the long cut and treat the short one the same way Shout! has on their disc - a supplement for the curious, and nothing else.
*Can you imagine if John Carpenter had been hired to direct a film based on this novel? With his regular actors and (in my opinion) superior filmmaking skills, this could have been up there with Halloween and The Thing when we talk about his classics. It's one of Hooper's best, but mainly by default since so many of his films are rubbish.