It's not every movie that sends me to the dictionary. In this case, I wondered if Lifespan actually was portentous, the first word that sprang to mind during my viewing. As it means "Full of unspecified significance", I am forced to admit it really isn't. In fact, a reviewer doesn't get into trouble until he tries to describe what Lifespan truly is.
Dr. Ben Land (Hiram Keller) arrives in Amsterdam to assist Prof. Linden in his life extension experiments, which doesn't get far when Linden commits suicide the day after Land's arrival. Going through the dead scientist's effects, Land discovers that Linden was apparently successful before his death - a horde of laboratory mice has lived twice as long as their normal span and show no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, Linden's papers have disappeared, and Land is forced to piece together the story behind the discovery with the dubious aid of Linden's young mistress (who has a taste for bondage, a single scene which provided a very marketable hook for the movie), all the while shadowed by Klaus Kinski, which is never a good thing.
Lifespan can be compelling viewing, if one's expectations are not for a sci-fi thriller starring Kinski, as it was frequently marketed. As a mystery, it plays fair with the viewer, as only one scene is played out without the protagonist's participation. Overall, it feels like a giallo murder mystery without the mysterious murderer or elaborate death setpieces.
Land slowly uncovers evidence of Linden's disastrous experiments on human beings, but also finds himself more and more ensnared in Kinski's machinations. This is the stuff of potboiler entertainment, but that is a destination at which Lifespan never arrives, nor does it seem it ever aspired to such (arguably) low depths. Driven by narration and capped by an elliptical ending in which Land is drifting in and out of delirium, producer-writer-director Alexander Whitelaw seems quite content to have his movie remain a purely intellectual exercise. Its major success was on the "arthouse" circuit, where one is fairly certain that, had it not been dubbed into English but been subtitled, it might have met with more lasting success. It has ideas, it presents them rather well, but anyone expecting typical genre entertainment is going to be disappointed.
Far be it for Mondo Macabro to pass up the earlier mentioned market hook: the disc cover features an unfairly unflattering photo of pretty Tina Aumont in her simplified shibari bondage, the ropes replaced by a DNA double helix (as referenced in the movie). The print itself is quite flawless, colorful in a naturalistic 70s way; the sound was never meant to bowl you over, and Terry Riley's droning, almost minimalist keyboard score would not reward sweetening.
A four page text piece by Pete Tombs, About the Movie, puts the movie in proper context and serves as an intro to Whitelaw, who then appears in an edited video Interview. The Audio Commentary takes the form of another interview, this one perhaps conducted by Tombs himself, as the movie unspools. Whitelaw is very literate and well-spoken, though occasionally his comments fall to a low murmur.
There is also a collection of color and black-and-white stills, along with stills from Terry Riley's recording session and a window-boxed trailer in marvelous shape. The usual montage of shocking gore and nudity from other films in the Mondo Macabro library rounds out the package.
Lifespan is not a great movie, and it will have to be left to the individual if it is a good movie. Still, Mondo Macabro, as ever, is to be commended for taking such care with its product. Though I cannot agree with Whitelaw that "...if you liked Eraserhead, you'll like Lifespan," I can give it a very cautious, extremely provisional, recommendation.
Dr. Freex, 3/11/2007