THE ENERGY EATERS
If primitive symbolism is an undeniable staple of the horror movie genre, it’s definitely no stranger to rock ‘n’ roll iconography either. Besides John Sinclair’s attraction to the darker side of human fantasy in the 1972 Guitar Army: Rock and Revolution with the MC5 and the White Panther Party, to this day Iggy Pop still talks about primal forces, and in Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998), it’s definitely no mistake that a wild, moon-bathed wolf bounding through a dark forest glen was superimposed onto a Stooges sequence. Sinclair’s faceless silhouette of everything wrong with our culture is the life sucking vampire, but there are monsters... and then there are monsters.
The vampire in Lifeforce (1985), for example, arguably the single-most brilliant failure ever, directed by Tobe Hooper (of Poltergeist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame), is, by contrast, idealized in the perfect sexual attractiveness of a female nude body. Hooper’s space alien vampire is, in fact, totally naked throughout the movie.
In the late Sixties and early Seventies when Sinclair (the Motor City Five’s manager and voice of consciousness) did most of the writing that would ultimately end up in Guitar Army, he imagined a battle royal of mythic proportions in which progressivism would once and for all vanquish what he described as the “death culture” of “Amerika”. Sinclair’s use of lurid iconography was sharply distinct from the way Heavy Metal took it up afterwards. Whereas latter day punks and metal heads would take on Gothic imagery to ironically self-style themselves as demonic hell-spawn, Sinclair simply considered horror imagery the most direct — if not the most accurate — way to describe what he called the “American way of death”. Take the “barbarian invasion” in the “Preview” section of the book as prime example: As Sinclair envisioned it, the invasion would free “a whole new race of mutants” from the “death-life” of “suburban concentration camps”.
The over-the-top use of dark, cryptic imagery in Guitar Army, was in places so pronounced it could almost have been the inspiration for Hooper’s Lifeforce, or, more accurately, Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires, on which the movie was loosely based. Without the slightest bit of self-conscious hesitation, Sinclair went right for the most primal archetype conceivable, the archetype from which all other archetypes must follow: namely, life against death, where life is clearly meant to lie behind everything that is powerful, wholesome, and good, while conversely, cold, hard death does not lurk too far from all which is evil and impotent. The “life-form of the future” born from rock ‘n’ roll was, according to its zealous author, threatened by nothing less than the “creeps” who seek to control culture by draining out every last drop of energy.
What the collection of political tracts and ruminations inadvertently shares with Lifeforce is the depiction of the antagonist as a villainous life-sucker. Guitar Army and Hooper where both equally concerned with the representation of the monster. Only, Sinclair used the specter of the energy eater more for its ability, as he put it, to “codify and make available” a clearly evil picture of the enemies of his self-described “revolutionary” agenda. By contrast, whatever Lifeforce’s overt political intent was, it’s probably safe to say it was far less lawless and anarchic than Guitar Army’s (as clearly stated in the White Panther Party’s ten point manifesto as anywhere else, the ultimate demands on Sinclair’s list were 1) the legalization of pot 2) of LSD 3) of “fucking in the street”...). Not that Hooper’s take on the energy vampires is any less wicked than Sinclair’s. It’s just that Hooper is more fascinated with the artifice of the monster’s depiction.
Except for the briefest moment, from the first instance we lay eyes on the woman (simply called “Space Girl” in the film script), Hooper chose to portray her as stark naked throughout the film. By figuratively stripping the monster bare of all makeup and artifice and displaying the vampire in the full splendor of her nudity, Hooper easily trumped the more familiar black cape version of the blood sucker and played up the sinful carnality the nocturnal hunter was meant to both represent and warn against. Never mind the taboo of nakedness that still permeates our Christian moral culture, the unembarrassed exposure of genitals becomes the perfect sign for an inhuman consciousness alien to our own sexual repression. It is not that the space vampire’s nudity lacks artifice. After all, the body literally stripped bare only reveals more.
As counter-point, Hooper endows her with a clumsy, almost robotic psychology. At the moment of truth, the overwhelmed, tortured and tormented Colonel Tom Carlson (wonderfully over-acted by Steve Railsback) demands of Space Girl: “Why are you so human, so perfect?” To which she matter-of-factly replies: “Our bodies are unimportant. As you and your men approached in your ship we changed them for you. We entered your mind and found there new bodies. I took my shape from your mind. I took your language. I became there the woman I found in your deepest thoughts and your deepest needs. I am the feminine in your mind Carlson.” And, not surprisingly, the Colonel’s ideal form made real turns out to be the insatiably pornographic (if not misogynistic) fantasy shell of a woman within which the monster finds refuge. As if to say, it is our fantasy fully realized that horrifies, in this case our sexual fantasy objectified that horrifies most.
Hard as it is to imagine a more dreaded primal vision than having one’s life-energy totally sucked out of one’s body, it might come across as a really rare coincidence that a concern sometimes associated with an irrational hang-up about male sexual powerlessness turns out to be the ultimate representation of horror in two such radically different undertakings as Guitar Army and Lifeforce. Nevertheless, both make the connection between repression, maybe our single most prominent psychological feature as human beings, and the idealized image of the monster.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, originally published in Spring Journal #4, special edition, 2004