Saturday 1 October 2022

Star Tracks: Lifeforce

This edition of Star Tracks is suitably spooky for Halloween month with Henry Mancini's score for Lifeforce.

Director Tobe Hooper's (Poltergeist) space vampire movie is an indelible teenage memory and a far cry from Star Wars for which John Dykstra also produced the award-winning special effects.

Nick Smith, our resident US-based media maverick, goes on a dangerous space shuttle mission to Halley’s Comet courtesy of the fine folks at Intrada.

Guest post by Nick Smith

‘With an insatiable hunger, they are coming ... Mankind is their prey.’ Thus warns the tagline of Tobe ‘Poltergeist’ Hooper’s wild sci-fi horror shocker, Lifeforce.

Best known for its comely alien antagonist (Mathilda May) who breakfasts on lustful men, Lifeforce is based on Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires. Hooper was attracted by the ‘gothic opening of the book’ and referenced the Quatermass movies, Giallo and 1950s sci-fi invasion classics. ‘I thought I'd go back to my roots,’ the director said, ‘and make a 70 mm Hammer film.’

With an overall production budget of $25 million to play with, the music for this space-horror tale was intended to match the extravagance of the visuals. After James Horner was considered, Henry Mancini was in the pink to work on a space epic, following in the footsteps of former colleague John Williams (who was the pianist on Mancini’s Peter Gunn TV theme). According to biographer John Caps, Mancini wanted to turn the tale of interstellar vamps into ‘a kind of tone poem.’ The score is performed by the 100-piece London Symphony Orchestra, responsible for the original Star Wars and Superman themes.

‘The original first twenty minutes of the film were like a ballet to me,’ Mancini said in 1987. ‘That’s one of the reasons I was so interested in doing the film—and it was just beautiful.’

Test audiences had other ideas, however, and the film was cut down by 12 minutes and Michael Kamen (The Dead Zone) was brought in to tie the music together and fill in any gaps. The majority of dropped scenes were from the opening, where the Space Shuttle Churchill investigates a mysterious craft concealed by Halley’s Comet.

Fortunately, the original, full soundtrack was preserved by MGM and can now be heard in all its glory on a new Intrada release. The music, edited and mastered from two-track quarter-inch stereo mixes made at Abbey Road Studios, sounds crisp, clean and at times, breathtaking.

Mancini’s score does make this eclectic movie hold together, barely. While most viewers recall the space vampire, there’s a lot more going on – astronauts exploring a spaceship, hypnosis, shapeshifting and a climactic sequence set in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Some of the music would fit snugly into a biblical epic: The Discovery, The Vampire Lives and Anyone for Turns suggest a mythical, cursed tomb being opened.

House of Blue Lights is heavy on choral – Mancini sampled female voices with a Fairlight CMI and combined them with live vocals for an echoing spectral effect. Martial Law is suitably militaristic and Star Wars-y, while Evil Visitation evokes Hooper’s hallowed Hammer films, and The Web of Destiny Part III is lush and powerful with a grand dramatic build-up. There are also moments of sorrow and craving (The Web of Destiny Part I), unnerving, sliding, darkening strings (Carlsen Sleeps) and conventional, heroic sci-fi music (The Web of Destiny Part II).

Mancini wanted his soundtrack to be impressionistic. If he had gone with his original vision, the score could have been composed of atonal sounds. There are hints of this in the stingers and cues included on disc 2, which bring Forbidden Planet’s bleepy-bloppy score to mind. The brief stings are included, ‘simply because they were part of the sessions,’ says Douglass Fake, who produced, edited and mastered the CDs, ‘and are at times eerie, grotesque, outlandish, ethereal and even haunting.’

While an abstract score might have made for a more memorable movie, thankfully the soundtrack presented here is melodic, enjoyable and as imaginative as the film itself. Unlike the majority of American scores, it does not tell you how to think or feel. It is as strange and majestic as an unidentified space object, drenched with dread and perilous adventure.

Special thanks to Roger Feigelson at Intrada for providing a copy for review.

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