Blu-ray Reviews: THE ASPHYX & MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE

Charlie Hobbs, Contributing Writer
The next two weeks see the continuation of Kino's Redemption Blu-ray series with spine numbers 8 and 9, The Asphyx and Marquis De Sade's Justine. This is the second pair of non-Rollin British genre films titles to come from Redemption, and this batch keeps the quality coming with a pair of fun little films with a lot to offer. The Asphyx is an early 70's Hammer styled Victorian horror film with plenty of goofball fun mixed in with some supernatural/steampunk elements. Marquis De Sade's Justine is one of many adaptations of the Marquis' signature works on film, though perhaps not the most famous of the lot. While the two are divergent in their themes, they share a similar, though not identical period setting which makes them a good pair.

The more classically styled of the two films is Peter Newbrook's The Asphyx. stars Robert Stephens as a science hobbyist who, along with fellow aficionados, has discovered what he believes to be photographic evidence of the soul leaving the body. When he discovers that the image is actually that of the Asphyx, an Egyptian death spirit, he commits himself to capturing the thing and discovers that doing so provides the beneficiary with eternal life. He follows his desire for immortality with the help of his future son-in-law and all hell breaks loose, natch.

I really enjoyed this film more than I'd expected to. I've come across numerous reviews calling The Asphyx dull, but I found it ot be highly entertaining, and if you enjoy late '60s early '70s Hammer/Amicus fare, I think you'll find something to enjoy, too. I would compare it favorably with the recently reviewed Amicus film, The Skull. There is a similar sense of fun about the film, and acknowledgement of its somewhat goofy nature, which lends itself well to having a good time with the film. The setting is perfect, the characters are foppish caricatures of Victorian uprightness, and the mad scientist boils over slowly enough not to be unbelievable.

This is no serious shocker, though it may try at times to fit that bill. The Asphyx works best as a situational chamber horror with occasional moments of riveting tension. There are no jump scares in the film, and I don't think that the director intended any. The film is about the deterioration of the characters' psyches rather than the cheap thrills that were becoming more popular in the early '70s (and which I love, by the way). The only real disappointment with the film comes as some truly amateurish make up effects mar the finale, but by then I've had my fun and it doesn't really affect me all that much. The Asphyx is a great choice and very good addition to the Redemption series.

justineblu.jpgOn the complete other side of the coin thematically is Chris Boger's Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue (Marquis De Sade's Justine). Boger's film is a more or less faithful adaptation of the Marquis's novella surrounding a young girl and her sister descending into lives of lust and licentiousness in spite of Justine's best efforts to claw her way out. This is classic artsploitation, something that Europe was known for in the 1970's, but something that American directors never quite latched onto. As far as I can tell, this is Chris Boger's only film and a passion project, however a deadly serious one, which at times can become tedious in spite of itself.

The story of Justine and her sister Juliette begins when they are orphaned and left in a convent after their parents die. While inside the convent we get some lesbian nun action involving both sisters, a willing and curious Juliette and an incredibly uncomfortable Justine. As Juliette begins to discover her blooming sexuality through an increasing number of strange and depraved encounters with all and sundry, Justine more devoutly seeks shelter from the world and from her sister's urges, which seem to ruin Justine's plans without fail.

Most of the performances in the film are delivered with a straight face, in spite of their clear insanity. Once the sisters arrive at a brothel, the shenanigans ensue in earnest, and the filmmakers make it clear that this film is merely a thin shell created to disguise a skin flick inside of a morality tale. No matter, that's why you watch something called The Misfortunes of Virtue, right? Well, on the sleaze front, Justine delivers. We get plenty of nude nuns, happy hookers, and libidinous lads in the London brothel to make the wheels go 'round. There are extended sequences of Juliette's introduction and education at the hands of the madame and the veteran whores which are worth the price of admission by themselves, including one of the earliest miming of oral sex sequences I've seen as of yet.

The main problem with Justine is that of story. Boger seems content in the first hour to simply string together a series of sleazy sequences contrasting the nymphomaniac Juliette with her fallophobic sister Justine, and the comparisons are remarkably well done. However, in the final forty minutes, Boger seems to decide that he wants to tell an emotionally engaging story, and by that point it's too late. This poor decision turns the final third into something of a chore, but not without its charms. I liked Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue, but it isn't the first one of the pair I'll be revisiting.

The Discs:

As is their practice, Kino/Redemption did not do any extensive clean up on these discs. As a result, both are marked by some print damage, though nothing I couldn't live with, it's certainly better than some of the alternatives. Both films exhibit a healthy amount of film grain and robust colors, especially The Asphyx, which is the better of the two transfers if you ask me. The Asphyx's 2.35:1 scope presentation is far better than I'd expected, while the 1.66:1 image on Justine is a bit dull in comparison. Both films feature uncompressed, and unimpressive, audio tracks in English. They aren't bad, there's just nothing there to blow you away. The dialogue is mixed a bit low on Justine, but it is completely listenable.

Both discs have significant, though not exhaustive, extras to be aware of. The Asphyx presents both the UK release version at 86 minutes, and the 98 minute US version. The extended scenes from the US version are inserted into the UK cut in SD, with a significant drop in image quality. There is a bit of extra exposition in the US cut, but it wasn't mind-blowing enough to suffer through the image disparity. Justine, on the other hand, has two interviews, one with director Boger who explains his affinity for De Sade and his passion for the project, and the other is from script writer Ian Cullen. Both interviews are archival and look like crap in SD, but are informative and worth checking out.

These Redemption discs are fantastic, and I can't wait for the upcoming round of Rollin films next month. I hope they keep these coming for a while!


The Asphyx Special Features:
- Mastered in HD from the 35mm negative
- Standard UK release version (86 Min.) and extended US cut (98 Min.)
- Theatrical trailer
- Photo gallery

Marquis De Sade's Justine Special Features:
- Mastered in HD from the uncensored 35mm negative, previously unreleased
- Interview with director Chris Boger
- Interview with screenwriter Ian Cullen
- Alternate title sequences
- Theatrical trailer
- Photo gallery
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