From the early 1970s, when every horror film was worth seeing, comes this highly original slice of nerve-rattling British preposterousness. The unlikely hero is Sir Hugo Cunningham, played in a totally convincing manner by Robert Stephens as a middle-aged, aristocratic ass with faint lisp. The secondary hero is his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell), a rather glum young man who wants to marry his adopted father’s natural daughter (Jane Lapotaire), which I suppose must be legal.
That English rose as intelligent and indulged as a privileged Victorian daughter can be, yet one of the movie’s wise decisions is to refuse to “update” her into the kind of spunky self-willed heroine who plays better with modern audiences. Such strong-willed types indeed existed in that time and place, yet they weren’t as common as most modern movies and books would have us believe. Thus, both her husband and her fiancé are constantly cutting off her inquiries with orders like “Just do as I say,” which causes her to retreat into mouselike acceptance. In fact, her willingness to do as she’s told is a source of the film’s several tragedies.
The most obvious source is Sir Hugo’s sense of entitlement, which allows a hunger that won’t be thwarted until he’s ruined everyone. His obsession is cinematic. He believes his new hobby of photography (and he’s even invented a motion picture camera in the 1870s! and it even cuts in close-ups automatically!) allows him to capture the spirit of death (“the asphyx”) that comes to each individual. This idea is equally amazing for its absurdity as for its originality, and it’s all handled with breathless seriousness. The spirit is presented as a grotesque, bat-like, agonized thing that emits piercing sound effects, and the viewer comes to anticipate each appearance with both dread and excitement.
Presented in widescreen splendor, this is a film whose sense of tragedy and melancholy feels borrowed from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it does sufficient justice to the comparison to deserve its reputation as a cult horror classic, even though several plot conveniences don’t make a lot of sense.