Not quite a genre classic, The Asphyx is a mostly intriguing mash-up of Victorian ghost story and steampunk revisionism that occasionally threatens to degenerate into inanity with its strident morality-play storyline and escalating improbability factor. Helmed by Peter Newbrook, who spurns flashy directorial fireworks in favor of a sturdy aesthetic that’s best described as “handsomely mounted,” The Asphyx is performed with aplomb by a game cast led by Robert Stephens (fresh from his turn as a possibly closeted Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) and Robert Powell (years before he scored the lead in Franco Zeffirelli’s TV miniseries “event” Jesus of Nazareth). Stephens, in particular, is delightfully overwrought, especially later in the film as his best laid plans come to naught, delivering the barest of lines like “We’ve failed!” with an expression of such anguish that he’s worth the price of admission alone.
Set in 1875, The Asphyx centers on aristocratic inventor Sir Hugo Cunningham (Stephens), member of the Society for Psychical Research as well as an ardent campaigner against capital punishment. (These pastimes constitute a double-barreled Chekhov’s gun, as it’s clear from the start that both will contribute something to the narrative arc.) Obsessed with a mysterious blur that appears on photographs of the recently deceased, and spurred on by the tragic deaths of his son, Clive, and fiancée, Anna, Sir Hugo discovers the malignant existence of an entity culled from Greek mythology he calls the Asphyx, a shrieking spirit that seizes possession at the moment of demise. As it turns out, everybody’s got their very own Asphyx. Taking snapshots of the apparently paranormal, whether fiction or fact, is far from unheard of (witness Photographing Fairies). Sir Hugo introduces a new twist, though, when he unexpectedly invents the motion-picture camera 20 years ahead of Edison and the Lumiére brothers, filming the boating accident that claims Anna and Clive. What’s more, Sir Hugo also manages to pioneer the close-up along the way. Eat it, D.W. Griffith.
The crackpot science undergirding The Asphyx involves a lot of nebulous prattle about blue crystal sulfides, light boosters, and “aligning the beams” (some kind of Victorian euphemism, no doubt). Sir Hugo and his adopted son, Giles (Powell), concoct a method to isolate and trap an individual’s Asphyx, rendering that person effectively immortal. “Fetch me a guinea pig!” demands Sir Hugo. Who better than the man himself? The anachronistic Hit Parade continues as Sir Hugo jury-rigs an electric chair in his laboratory, all the better to shock himself into an encounter with his personal demon. Subsequent efforts to immortalize Sir Hugo’s daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) fare worse: The death-dealing device, an impromptu guillotine, works all too well. If you’ve noticed a trend here, take yourself a victory lap: Though Sir Hugo has no scruples about photographing a death by hanging, there’s some sort of subterranean critique going on, hand in hand with Sir Hugo’s professed philanthropy. At the time of the film’s release, capital punishment was generally either abandoned as a practice or, as was the case in this country, briefly found to be unconstitutional. I don’t want to push this subtext too far out into the cold light of scrutiny, the poor thing’s tattered and threadbare, but nevertheless there it is. The Asphyx strives after the pathos of a Greek tragedy, even if swaddled in the preachification of the Good Book (everything, good or ill, is “God’s will”), but succeeds only in coming across like a Hammer film teetering uncomfortably atop a soapbox. In the end, Giles’s revenge against the immortal Sir Hugo, in effect committing suicide by gas chamber (completing the capital punishment trifecta), plays as “neat twist” rather than shattering act of retribution.
The Asphyx was Peter Newbrook's first and only outing as director, having worked extensively within the British film industry as cinematographer and camera operator, most famously contributing second unit photography for Lawrence of Arabia. The David Lean connection proves significant because Newbrook tapped Lean's frequent collaborator Freddie Young as cinematographer on The Asphyx. As a result, Young's practiced eye is primarily responsible for the film's most indelible imagery, as well as its vibrant color palette ranging from warm browns (interiors are dominated by heavy wood paneling and shelves of ancient tomes) to garish reds in the darkroom scenes and the light booster's piercing blues. Kino's 1080p/AVC transfer looks far better than expected. Colors are densely saturated, details clean and clear, and black levels impervious to crushing. The LPCM mono soundtrack is likewise solid, generally free of pops and quirks, though there's a bit of hiss now and then. Dialogue is clear and dynamically balanced. Sound effects register strongly, in particular the Asphyx's hideous screech. (Showing some fine-tuned attention to detail, the sound design varies the effect's tone and timbre each time the creature appears.)
The most significant extra on the Kino Blu-ray is their inclusion of an extended cut of the film running 12 minutes longer. Lamentably, the extra scenes comprise "SD footage mastered from a U.S. release print (of inferior quality)." The on-screen disclaimer continues: "As a result, significant shifts in image quality will occur." That's hard to argue. The windowboxed footage looks significantly softer, the colors less vibrant. The scenes themselves contribute substantially more dialogue, which to some extent helps flesh out character motivation—though, to be honest, their absence wouldn't impair anybody's comprehension of The Asphyx in the least. Additionally, there's an HD theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, as well as trailers for other Redemption titles.
Take a picture, why don't you? The Asphyx shrieks its way onto a satisfying, if slender, Blu-ray package from Kino Lorber.