Thursday, September 1, 2011

Weird Science

I, MONSTER (1971)
THE ASPHYX (1973)

The performance of Christopher Lee is the highlight of Milton Subotsky's take on the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story, I, MONSTER.

AMICUS'S I, MONSTER and Glendale's THE ASPHYX are two stylistically-shot early-70s releases which not only centre around warped experiments, but also attempt to adhere to the ever-distinguishing genre of the horror period drama. Set in 1906, I, MONSTER tells of Dr Charles Marlowe (Christopher Lee), a psychologist who rejects the findings of Freud and develops a more immediate treatment which uses character-modifying drugs. Marlowe confides in his solicitor Utterson (Peter Cushing) and friend Dr Lanyon (Richard Hurndall) that his experiments are causing changes in his patients, and rather than continue to subject them to unpredictability, decides to use himself as the test. In the early stages, Marlowe/Blake commits theft and vandalism, but as his addiction increases, his actions escalate to a street knife fight and to the brutal murder of a prostitute.

I, MONSTER was directed by Stephen Weeks on the recommendation of Lee, after the actor had seen the filmmaker's WWI trench warfare featurette for Tigon, 1917 (1970). Weeks only directed four films between 1971 and 1984, yet he demonstrated a visual flair in projects with a fantastic and historical backbone that made him comparable to the much-lamented Michael Reeves (the Utterton's dream sequence is memorable here). In his feature-length article on Amicus in Little Shoppe of Horrors #20 (published in 2008), Philip Nutman is extremely dismissive of Week's filmography, calling GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (1973) "disappointing and muddled," the dream-like cult favourite GHOST STORY (1974) "painful and dull," and SWORD OF THE VALIANT (1984) "truly wretched." Closer to the truth is that the filmmaker suffered numerous distribution problems and behind-the-scenes tinkering on his films. Week's trails with I, MONSTER included a particularly cumbersome Milton Subotsky script ("I was coming home from - oh, some place at the end of the world") and the folly of abandoning an experimental 3D process during shooting (which Subotsky championed after reading an article in New Scientist). 

In THE ASPHYX, Robert Stephens and Robert Powell are enthralled then repelled by imp-like banshees and cursed immortality.

THE ASPHYX is set in 1875, where Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) returns from a trip with his fiancee Anna (Fiona Webster), and informs his children Christina (Jane Lapotaire), Clive (Ralph Arliss) and adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) that he will soon remarry. A photographic specialist, Sir Hugo shows a series of slides to a psychic investigation committee, which show smudges that he believes illustrates the spirit leaving the body at the point of death. One afternoon, Sir Hugo captures on film the deaths of Clive and Anna in a boating accident, which footage shows a black presence which he terms The Asphyx - a Greek mythological term for the spirit of the dead. Stricken with grief, Sir Hugo becomes obsessed in capturing his own Asphyx so he can become immortal, and when Giles asks for his blessing to wed Christina, Sir Hugo withholds his approval until they too agree to become immortal. Things spiral out of control when Christina is accidentally decapitated, and Giles commits suicide in a gas chamber during their Asphyx-inducing stagings.

THE ASPHYX is a truly sumptuous-looking production, a rich canvas brought to live by LAWRENCE OF ARABIA veterans Freddie Young (photography), John Stoll (art direction) and director Peter Newbrook (who acted as second unit cameraman on David Lean's film). The production design envelops a wonderful premise, yet this ashen-faced tale - very loosely based on the exploits of Parisian gynecologist-cum-neurologist Hippolyte Baraduc - falls short by presenting a series of absurdities. Mainly, we have the implausibility of Sir Hugo not only being a photography and psychic phenomena expert, he also invented the motion picture camera (with zoom lens no less) and seems to master electricity for his Asphyx-turn on a home-made electric chair. After uttering the wonderful line "Bring me a guinea pig," the critter remains Sir Hugo's only friend in the aftermath, despite inadvertently setting in motion Christina's demise by chewing through a crucial rubber pipe. The Asphyx itself is portrayed as a rather risible, shrieking, rod-puppet, and Sir Hugo's rubber mask makeup in the film's contemporary climax - which tidies an opening car crash sequence - is horrendous for the wrong reasons.