Lifebreath (1997): Gasping for Her

Dave takes a look at Luke Perry’s immediate post-90210 career and recommends this little-known thriller framed around cystic fibrosis.

A former asphalt paver from Fredericktown, Ohio, Luke Perry’s breakout role was Dylan McKay: the brooding son of a millionaire in cultural sensation Beverly Hills 90210. By 1995, though, the five-year contracts that many of the show’s leads were tied to were beginning to expire. Shannen Doherty bailed at the end of season four, and Perry was keen to follow suit.

8 Seconds (1994), the real-life story of late rodeo star Lane Frost was a passion project for the young actor, and he’d steer it from script to screen through a host of rejections by Fox and other studios. Upon release, 8 Seconds didn’t set the box office alight — but it proved that Perry was open to accepting interesting roles that allowed him to shed his small screen poster boy image.

Normal Life (1996) came next. A twisted romance helmed by John McNaughton, the film garnered good notices and debuted on HBO before sneaking into a handful of cinemas. Road movie portmanteau American Strays (1996) continued Perry’s determination to be the antithesis of the parts he should be taking. In it, he delivered a quirky performance in the first segment.

LIFEBREATH was shot in New York City just prior to the fall ’96 releases of Normal Life and American Strays. As with the other projects, it’s an fascinating choice by Perry. Part exploitation, part ethical dilemma, the film dances between both extremes with a certain crudity — and yet it remains an utterly compelling thriller.

Chrystie Devoe (Francie Swift) is an illustrator of children’s books suffering from cystic fibrosis. Cursed with a rare blood type, the search for a donor is proving fruitless. Having already exceeded her life expectancy, her schoolteacher husband, Martin (Perry), is compelled to explore every avenue for a suitable match. One arrives in the form of Gale Pullman (Gia Carides), who Martin discovers while working at the Metropolitan Blood Centre. The catch is that Gale is fit and well which presents Martin with a moral quandary: what extreme will he go to in order to preserve the life of his beloved?

There are moments in Lifebreath when you wonder if writers Joel and P.J. Posner (the latter whom also directs) have been affected by the plight of someone with CF. Dips in their fanciful melodrama segue into eye-opening stats on transplants [1] or lend gut-wrenching insight into the day-to-day challenges of those stricken with the condition as they try to deal with the most innocuous of tasks – be it sleeping, walking, or, in one scene, attempting to have sex. With that in mind, the murder plot that fills the last act does seem a little heavy-handed, but the attention the Posners bring to cystic fibrosis is unique, and Perry has rarely been better.

Premiering on 5th June 1997 at the Seattle International Film Festival, Lifebreath was given a brief theatrical run – notably in AMC Theatres in Dallas and Fort Worth – that November. By May ’98 it had landed on U.S. video via A-Pix, albeit with its name changed to ‘Last Breath’. Curiously, during fall of that year, you could choose the title you wanted to watch the film by: it was broadcast on Cinemax and Starz virtually in tandem, as Lifebreath on the former, and as ‘Last Breath’ on the latter.

USA ● 1997 ● Thriller ● 90mins

Luke Perry, Francie Swift, Gia Carides, Gary Basaraba, David Margulies ● Dir. P.J. Posner ● Wri. Joel Posner, P.J. Posner

[1] 50% of Americans are a registered organ donor, but only 10% of lungs are robust enough to be transplanted. Of those, less than 4% are blood type AB which boils down to a 1.76% chance of each donor being a suitable match for a candidate like Chrystie. That’s yet to factor in a person’s shape, size or other such considerations.

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