Our next contributor is science fiction/horror writer and blogger Alister Davison. Alister makes his Halloween Horrors debut veering more towards sci-fi then any of this year’s other contributors. As growing up a sci-fi fan opened the doors to horror for me, I’m always up for a good dose of intergalactic terror.
For his topic character, Alister will be focusing on Colonel Tom Carlsen, as portrayed by Steve Railsback in Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce. Alister not only manages to capture what makes the character so special and personal for him, but also defending what I personally find to be a terrific performance is a generally divisive film.
I’ve always felt sorry for Tom Carlsen.
It stems from long before the film was made, when I was a small boy and wanted to be an astronaut. All my books were about space, I loved sci-fi comics, toys, and even the meagre offerings on TV would captivate me for that hour. Films from decades earlier would thrill and terrify me in equal measure, and I’d often wonder what mankind would eventually find in outer space.
Watching Lifeforce that first time in the mid-1980s, I was almost sixteen, riddled with adolescent doubt and angst. I’d been wearing glasses for a few years and that, combined with a general clumsiness that still shows itself to this day, meant my dream of being a spaceman was long gone. In Carlsen, I saw the astronaut I perhaps could have been, a character who – although in command – is very much part of a team. He’s no James Kirk, giving orders and sleeping with aliens (well, not yet anyway…), and seems somewhat baffled by all the scientific data his crew are spouting as they find the spaceship hidden in the comet. Like Kirk, though, Carlsen is an explorer, and takes charge as the team enter the alien vessel; he’s ready to make first contact with whoever, or whatever, is there.
And then he’s gone, out of the film for a good while, allowing time for all hell to break loose on planet Earth. Lifeforce showcases superb effects for its time, but it would be Mathilda May’s bare breasts that the tabloid newspapers in the UK would latch onto like hungry hounds; admittedly, my teenage self found that appealing too.
When Carlsen does return, he’s welcomed by characters and audience alike. Questions are going to be answered, and the events that took place on the Churchill revealed at last. Sadly, Carlsen is a shadow of his former self. A man damaged – as we will learn later – by his own actions, he’ll remain like this for most of the film, his confusion and bewilderment etched on his face until the last act, when he finally decides what has to be done.
It’s a decision that takes some time to reach, which is understandable. This is what make me see Carlsen as a relatable character; he’s clearly exhausted, yet does everything he can to help. This is no indefatigable action hero in the times of Schwarzenegger and Stallone – there isn’t a rippling muscle in sight – he’s just a normal man facing exceptional and horrific circumstances. A man who, quite possibly, blames himself for all that his happening; he’s tried to stop it, but failed dismally.
Much has been made of Steve Railsback’s performance in Lifeforce, and there’s much criticism of it (and the film as a whole) from some sources, but to me he’s spot on. He looks suitably exhausted and bleary-eyed, a man who’s battling to keep a grasp of his own sanity and seems in a perpetually cold sweat for the rest of the film. His lines are melodramatic and often delivered as such – fitting for a film that wears its heart firmly on its sleeve – but there’s a dark intensity to the character, something he would channel with great effect in The X-Files years later, with his superb portrayal of alien-abductee Duane Barry.
If anything, until that final act, he’s expositional, the Robin to Colonel Caine’s Batman. It’s a shame the duo don’t get to stick together longer: I’d have loved to see a TV series featuring the two of them hunting down the female vampire in all her guises while the world slowly turns for the worse around them. The expressions on their faces when they realise the minister has the virus is priceless, and explains without words the understanding the two of them share. It always makes me chuckle, too.
The climax of Lifeforce still leaves me confused, though. When I watched it again before writing this, my wife – who’d never seen it before – decided to join me for the final ten minutes, then asked me to explain it. I couldn’t, and felt just like Tom Carlsen, unable to give answers to questions that I should know. You see, I get that he goes to the female vampire to kill her, but when we see him with her, it’s certainly not murder that he’s performing. Still, like any good hero, he does rise to the occasion with Caine’s help, sacrificing himself in the process.
Or does he? May’s line “you’re one of us, you always have been” seems to come out of nowhere, barely foreshadowed (if at all) by anything that has preceded it. Then, he’s transported back to the spacecraft, which leaves our planet, hopefully for good.
And that’s it. Film over. I still scratch my head at that ending, always filled with questions, much like Carlsen has been throughout the film. Was he destined to find the spacecraft, his ‘right stuff’ part of some grand design rather than being honed from his own skill and determination? Or has May’s character taken a shine to him after sharing their psychic link for so long, and sees the potential of his human nature mingling with her own, an unknowing herald for the era of the ‘misunderstood’ vampire that was to follow?
Whichever, poor Carlsen is given no choice. He does, in a twisted sense, continue his career as an astronaut and doubtless he will visit other worlds, although certainly not in the way he could ever have expected. Whether he can remain explorer rather than predator is something we’ll never know, and the battle with himself that we witness throughout Lifeforce may be destined to continue for a very long time.
Alister is three years from fifty, and has been writing tales of alien invasion and scary monsters for as long as he can remember. He’s had short stories published and is currently working on a novel that he hopes will chill and entertain his readers. He can be found on the internet as @awdscrawl on Twitter, along with a dusty old website mister-alister.blogspot.com