Directed by Peter Newbrook
Starring Robert Stephens, Robert Powell, Jane Lapotaire, Fiona Walker
Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay UK (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), AllDay, Hen's Tooth (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1)
Also known as Spirit of the Dead, this period supernatural chiller hinges on a concept straight out of The Twilight Zone or, more likely, Night Gallery. In turn of the century England, an up and coming scientist (Stephens) discovers through a series of photographs and films the existence of an "asphyx" - an amorphous spirit hovering over people at the moment of death or in situations of mortal peril. With the assistance of Robert Powell (a fine, very intense actor best known as Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth), Stephens manages to capture the asphyx of a guinea pig, thus rendering the animal unable to die. Giddy with the thought of immortality, the two men arrange to capture Stephens's asphyx as well. Naturally, the subsequent events do not go as planned, and several tragic twists ensue.
A real curio, the film boasts first-rate performances from all involved and is truly amazing to look at, with some gorgeously ornate set design and silky photography, which admirably captures the misty feeling of an era gone by. The reason for the film's lack of recognition probably lies in the fact that it can't really be classified. Though it contains elements of horror, fantasy, and period drama, The Asphyx exists in a sort of hazy netherworld between the three. The potentially campy subject matter receives a deadpan and brooding treatment which causes more impatient viewers to dismiss it as talky or boring. Imagine an Amicus horror film crossed with a very cerebral Doctor Who episode (or perhaps a more genteel drawing-room version of The Tingler), and you'll get the idea.
Early video editions of this curio have been a pretty sorry bunch, usually from public domain video labels with scratchy, miserable pan and scan editions that destroy any sense of visual style. The first DVD on the market from AllDay perfectly letterboxes the scope image and reveals of number of imaginative camera setups and lighting schemes impossible to appreciate on past editions. For example, a full five years before Suspiria, note the way Stephens and Powell are often placed within the same frame but lit with completely different colors, bright red and blue respectively. In fact, the obsessive use of blue adds to the chilly, uneasy atmosphere the film creates and has never been presented so strongly as it is here. The only drawback is the soundtrack, which sounds fine on a TV monitor but reveals some unfortunate deterioration and scratchiness when listened to carefully. Also includes the original US pressbook and a scene selection feature. On the surface one would imagine the later Anchor Bay UK would be an improvement, but inexplicably it drops the ball in every respect. The scope framing is chopped down to 1.85:1 (albeit anamorphic), and the 5.1 mix is typically useless. Even worse, this represents the much shorter UK general release print, dropping several key bits of plot information. The only extra is a stills gallery.
Rather surprisingly, The Asphyx rose from the dead again as one of the earliest titles released in a partnership with US label Kino Lorber and the long-standing UK horror specialists at Redemption. The result gives fans the choice of watching the shorter version in pristine HD quality throughout or the extended version with the missing bits slugged in from a much lesser 35mm print source (and presumably originating from standard def). The transfer is a real knockout, a vibrant Victorian feast of lurid Technicolor hues; even if you've seen the film before, you'll find countless little touches in the production design and fine cinematography impossible to appreciate before. Apart from the extended cut, you also get the theatrical trailer and a gallery of stills and promotional artwork.