Yet another title plucked from relative anonymity courtesy Mondo Macabro, Lifespan (1974) is a modest but unusual and ultimately worthwhile science fiction thriller structured as a mystery. Taking a story repeatedly mined by low-budget producers for decades, the filmmakers' approach is decidedly more adult and intelligent, though the end result doesn't carry a whole lot of weight, either. At a time when British and continental pictures at this budget level usually pandered to the lowest of lowbrow audience expectations, Lifespan aims higher though the results are mixed, comparable to similar, not-quite-successful efforts like The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970).
American post-graduate gerontologist Benjamin Land (Hiram Keller) arrives in Holland with a grant to study under Dr. Paul Linden (Eric Schneider), whose research efforts on antioxidants to slow the aging of cells Ben admires, though Linden's colleagues, especially biologist Professor van Arp (Fons Rademakers), are skeptical. At a medical conference Linden acts strangely after noticing a mysterious man (Klaus Kinski) lurking about, later brushing off Ben's request to meet the following day. "Tomorrow I may be tied up," Linden says. The next day Ben finds him dead - he hung himself.
Ben moves into Linden's apartment and begins looking into the doctor's research, enlisting the aid of van Arp's bookish nephew Pim (Frans Mulder). He also contacts and soon becomes romantically involved with Linden's ex-girlfriend, hairdresser Anna (Tina Aumont, daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont), who may have helped drive Linden to suicide. Meanwhile, Ben and Pim make an amazing discovery: Linden's laboratory mice are all in excellent health yet four years old, twice the lifespan of normal mice.
Despite an incessant and largely unnecessary narration by Ben that redundantly tells us what we already know or can surmise, Lifespan intelligently unfolds in unexpected ways with moody, evocative scenes. (Mild Spoilers) Ben's seduction of Anna (or is it the other war around?), possibly further spurred on by Ben's elderly neighbors, is inter-cut with a late-night party where everyone in Ben's building goes on the roof where Ben's landlady (Lydia Polak) blows on an African horn that, in the darkness, elicits a response from an elephant at an Amsterdam zoo many blocks away.
The film also mediates on such matters as ethical research and sexual obsession - like Linden, Ben gets into the same kind of sexual bondage games, double-helix knots and all, with Anna, and intelligently questions the benefits of immortality in an overpopulated world. A surprising scene was filmed at the Anne Frank museum, the house where her family was famously hidden away, and where Ben recognizes the unstoppable direction of his research in a graphic photo exhibit on Nazi medical experiments. (Warning to animal lovers: in one scene a laboratory mouse is graphically killed on-camera.)
That scientific researchers often throw ethical considerations out the window, or that pharmaceutical companies will happily test their unproven, dangerous product on unsuspecting subjects deemed expendable is no longer surprising, but overall the material is intelligently handled, an adult film made for an adult audience.
There's also the creepily effective score by minimalist/modal composer Terry Riley which adds to what essayist Pete Tombs describes as the film's "oneiric mood." And the picture makes excellent use of its Dutch locales.
The film's biggest drawback, beyond the narration, is model-turned-actor Hiram Keller's performance. He's obviously dubbed by someone else, and both the technical obviousness of this combined with the voice actor's blandness is distracting. Kinski, usually dubbed, isn't here; the mostly Dutch cast all speaks English. The rest of the performances are quite good though, especially Fons Rademakers, whose long career in various capacities would make an interesting book.
Video & Audio
Lifespan is presented in a good if not superb 16:9 transfer at 1.77:1, approximating its original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The film runs 81 minutes and appears complete. The mono English soundtrack is okay, and there are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
The most significant supplement is a good Interview with Sandy Whitelaw, a 20 minute segment in 16:9 format running 20 minutes with the director talking about his career and aims with the film, all of which is quite interesting. About the Film is a good mini-essay by disc producer Pete Tombs.
Tombs and Whitelaw also appear on the Audio Commentary with the Director, which goes into a lot more detail for those who want it. A Trailer is 16:9 but full frame, and doesn't sell the film particularly well anyway. Stills Galleries are divided into three sections: Color, black & white, and from Terry Riley's soundtrack recording session.
Lifespan is no lost masterpiece, but as Tombs states in his essay, is worth a look for those who can enter it with an open mind, and Mondo Macabro's typically excellent presentation of both the film and supplements make this title even more attractive.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.