Logline: After the accidental boating deaths of his son and lover, melancholy scientist Sir Hugo Cunningham extends his research into immortality. Aided by his futuristic inventions and his adopted son Giles, he begins documenting, capturing, and containing the ancient Greek spirit known as the "Asphyx"--the ghostly, unseen apparition that leads the dying to the underworld. As long as the Asphyx is contained, Sir Hugo discovers, a person will never die. This known, he desires to ensure such a fate for himself and his loved ones, whatever the cost...
Peter Newbrook's 1973 production The Asphyx (his first and only as a director, after a long career as cinematographer and camera operator in England) is an engrossing variation on the Frankenstein mythos. In this version, we see the doctor and his creation blended into one: Sir Hugo becomes his own experiment in the attempt to halt the progress of death. Such an adjustment leads to all sorts of internal pathos as those two aspects of his character battle it out within him. His ambitions lead him to forcing immortality on his family, and when his attempts come to a disastrous end, he both feels and is responsible for the deaths of his loved ones-- simultaneously embodying the narcissistic creature and the mournful creator (or is it the other ways around?). Putting both Frankenstein and his creature into the same body leads to a fascinating conclusion where, in a parallel with the voluntary sojourn to the Arctic, we find the immortal Sir Hugo retreating into poverty and homelessness over the decades, as Victorian London morphs into that of 1972 and he becomes a grotesque yet invisible part of the setting. We read such self-enforced punishment through solitude even more ambivalently here because of Sir Hugo's crystal-clear status as a tragic hero. And although ostensibly a morality picture, the thematic message is also pleasantly murky. We receive a bit of notice for the perils of technology (hammered home by the film's magnificent closing image of Sir Hugo and his immortal guinea pig being crushed (ineffectually) between two cars in a head-on collision), but also for the perils of ambition (Sir Hugo's daughter, Christina, warns that humans "are merely creatures of God, not God," but this is shortly before she volunteers to be mock-guillotined and made immortal, so, perhaps she's not the finest judge).
More importantly, we notice that the film is clearly not totally condemning technology once we observe how much darn fun it has with it. The period setting is rife with anachronistic equipment, luxuriating in Sir Hugo's many steampunk inventions (moving picture cameras and projectors, light boosters, containment units, plus an electric chair and a gas chamber). These elements are absolutely fascinating to observe. For instance, the initial capture and containment of a guinea pig's Asphyx is the film's most gripping sequence and one that we're glad to find the frame lingering on--it's a bit like what we might imagine a Victorian Ghostbusters would resemble. Also neat is the implication that Sir Hugo's many inventions would have been introduced into our society way back in the nineteenth century (and, consequently, altered science and modern existence quite drastically) if not for his downfall. Of course, this realization adds to another theme reinforced by that final image: the sentient, marching progress of dangerous, destructive technology continues even with the truly irresponsible inventors taken out of the equation.
There's a lot to like here. A strong script is bolstered by inordinately good performances from Robert Stephens and Robert Powell (Stephens especially dominates his many later scenes). Set design is impeccable, with Sir Hugo's inventions taking the crown--almost wouldn't have minded if all the film showed was their inner-workings. Moreover, The Asphyx features a peculiar and unique visual style; in almost all instances (excluding a well-filmed fluid P.O.V. shot), the cinematography treats the action in the same flat and static manner as we often see with filmed stage plays. This isn't necessarily a detriment, as the film uses the style to its advantage, allowing us to gaze undisturbed at all those wonderful mechanisms and enlivened performances.
The Blu-ray from Kino Lorber's Redemption label is very nice looking. The print is clean, detail is high, and movement within the frame adds some nice depth. Audio is quite clear but about as unspectacular as these 70s productions go. Sadly, I discovered only after the fact that the disc contains a composite extended cut of the film with over ten minutes of additional material spliced in from a low quality print source. I'll certainly need to revisit this version at a later date.