The Asphyx (Digitally Remastered 2 Disc Special Edition) Review
1972’s The Asphyx inhabits something of a transitional phase in the evolution of the horror film. Whilst on the one hand, British horror powerhouse Hammer were continuing to peddle fairly gentle gothic horror vehicles, such as Dracula AD 1972, there were signs that audiences were eagerly lapping up some exciting, inventive, and often harder-edged subgenre pieces from elsewhere. The same year saw Lucio Fulci’s giallo movie Non si Sevizia un Paperino (Don’t Torture the Duckling), British director Gary Sherman’s gruesome but promising Death Line, Wes Craven’s brutal and shocking The Last House on the Left, and a showcase of Umberto Lenzi’s depressing torture-fest techniques in El Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (Deep River Savages).
It seems fitting, then, that Peter Newbrook’s The Asphyx, originally released by Glendale Productions, should not only sandwich its central gothic setting in-between a modern day introduction and conclusion, but also push to raise the picture above the standard gothic fare by utilising some impressive special effects to deliver a visually rich experience that belies its years. In this new, lovingly remastered edition from Odeon Entertainment, you are afforded the opportunity of experiencing the unfolding gloom in superior quality to previously released versions.
Our cautionary tale documents the aristocratic and cheery Hugo’s (Robert Stephens) discovery in the late 19th century that the ‘smudge’ identified on certain photographs of individuals at the point of death is actually the image of a wretched and tormented spirit. After filming a local hanging, Hugo discovers that he can illuminate the spirit - or 'Asphyx', and soon hypothesises – rightly – that capturing the spirit will result in immortality. Such dalliances with nature itself are rarely well-rewarded, and as Hugo, with the very best of intentions, introduces potential son-in-law Giles (a very young Robert Powell, who also appeared in Asylum in the same year) and much loved daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) into his cursed quest for eternal life, his scientific journey is inevitably a tortured and painful one.
Whilst the picture is a largely humourless portrayal of the tragic story, the serious delivery of the leads (particularly Powell) produces a tense and weighty atmosphere that underscores the gravity of the nature-cheating experimentation. The scientific theme is also lent credence by the camera-work, composition, and framing, which is so precise as to please the most anal of obsessive compulsives. Take, for instance, the 1970’s introduction, where the police car speeds along the road parallel to a train; the camera follows the police car as it falls perfectly into line with the smooth movement of the carriages. Such care and attention to detail continues throughout the film, with characters coming into shot before being painstakingly and perfectly framed by the camera, then followed with steady and consistent flow. When characters are depicted in conversation, their positions are shot with placement that often approaches symmetry. The precise hand captures the lavish and opulent scenery – both interior and external – with beautiful execution.
Whilst this method, alongside the straight and sometimes gloriously overacted performances constructs a convincing sense of the rational scientific endeavour and the distinctly stiff upper lip attitude of the period, the net effect can occasionally feel a little inhuman, and consequently the unfolding tragedy doesn’t strike emotionally as much as one would hope (though some scenes do engage to an impressive degree).
Minor quibbles aside, the picture is a charming watch, and sitting historically amongst a rising tide of newer, often more brutal genre pieces, The Asphyx presents an enjoyable and inventive, if rather rigid, gothic horror yarn.
Let us hope that the rumours of the picture becoming a victim of the relentless remake machine are unfounded.
The 2004 Anchor Bay edition of The Asphyx caused something of a stir from fans upon its release. The presentation, unlike the previous Region 1 release from Allday Entertainment in 1997, was not presented in the original ratio of 2.35:1, but rather 1.78:1. Fans will be glad to know that the Odeon Entertainment release, encoded in Region 2, maintains the 2.35:1 ratio in widescreen and has been sourced from the original negatives. The film has been lovingly remastered by the BBC post-production team, and looks absolutely fantastic, so much so, that it’s difficult to believe the film was shot in the early seventies. Colours are rich and vibrant, and the level of detail captured by Freddy Young’s “Todd-AO 35” (as proudly announced during the opening credits!) is frankly incredible. Thanks to the lavish interiors of the enormous house, there is much detail to be captured, and the newly remastered images will not disappoint. There are very occasional signs of missing frames, but the effect is barely noticeable and given the restoration job done, these would be cruel criticisms.
Here's a shot from the 2004 release of the movie:
Compare it to the remastered version on this 2010 release:
Perhaps the only visual complaint I can really make is that the remastered result is so stunning that any murkiness or atmospheric gloom is almost completely absent amongst the dazzling and glowing colours. Once again, it would be harsh to regard this as a genuine issue, since the presentation is so superior to anything that has come before it.
Note that the release is a 2-disc edition that includes the US version on disc 2. The review package only included the first disc, which is what I have reviewed above.
There aren’t any subtitles.
The audio here is the original mono soundtrack. Well, what did you expect? The classical theme music is well reproduced, with no discernable distortion, and a pleasingly clear and rich sound. There are a couple of moments where levels could perhaps be a little more consistent, and the screech of the asphyx is quite piercing! Tortured spirits, as I understand it, can be rather noisy blighters.
There are a few extras here. There’s the theatrical trailer, and a handful of deleted scenes, which are notable for the immediate contrast with the remastered visuals. It proves what an incredible achievement has been made. The deleted scenes don’t, in truth, add much to our enjoyment of the picture.
There’s a fairly comprehensive stills gallery which presents some interesting press stills, plus “behind the scenes” style shots of the crew in action. You can flick through at your leisure, or use the handy automated facility which will turn the page at 5 second intervals.
The most enjoyable extra is the “Restoration” featurette. In one sense, it’s a little disappointing; there is no narration, nor interviews. Instead, selected scenes play out, and are then contrasted with matching scenes from other releases. On-screen text talks the viewer through the versions, and what has been done on each. Whilst this is a very sketchy approach, the remastering job is so stunning that you can’t help but be impressed. That said, some proper interviews would have been very welcome; it’s a real shame that none have been included.
Finally, there are some great trailers for other movies, some of which are quite long and drawn out. These include Blood on Satan’s Claw, Peter Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show, and the beautiful Raquel Welsh showing the boys how it’s done in the Western Hannie Caulder.
The Asphyx finally gets the treatment UK viewers deserve with this region 2 release from Odeon Entertainment. Beautifully restored and immaculately presented, the enjoyable gothic horror tale can be viewed in newly clear and colourful glory. The extras are limited, but the opportunity to grasp this entertaining 1972 British horror in crystal clear presentation should be reason enough to invest.