The Asphyx (1972)
"Immortality...what would you sacrifice for it?"
In 1875, Sir Hugo Cunningham uses his interest in photography to study the dying. As he notices strange blurs only on the pictures he takes near the moment of death, Cunningham theorises that what he can see Is the Asphyx, a spirit that the Ancient Greeks believed came to claim the soul as it departed the body. Cunningham discovers he can trap the Asphyx in the beam of a phosphate lamp and that by imprisoning it in the light, he can halt death and achieve immortality.
The Asphyx is a little-known effort from the Hammer-dominated Anglo-horror cycle which originated back in the late 1950s and was now in its swansong in the 70s. Conceptually a very Edgar Allan Poe-esque psychological thriller but with a dark, macabre edge, The Asphyx is head and shoulders above the Frankenstein, vampire, mummy and demonic possession films that Hammer, Amicus and their competitors had been churning out for years, with a classy sci-fi orientated story that many found a little too dull and dreary, leading to its obscurity over the past two decades. Perhaps being made about fifteen years too late, The Asphyx lacked the gore, boobs and general ante-upping that the horror genre had begun to receive - you've only got to look at The Last House on the Left being released in the same year, Night of the Living Dead a whole four years before, The Exorcist following in 1973 and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre coming down the line in '74 to realise that this style of horror was not going to cut it anymore. Thankfully, it's received a bit more appreciation over the years as fans of old school have finally started discovering it.
Take the hokeyness on display with a pinch of salt as there’s too much shoulder shrugging with plot holes to worry about the contrivances and coincidences and just sit back and soak up the sheer morbid sense of dread on offer in The Asphyx. You’ve just got to accept what you’re seeing is reasonable and logical and come to the same conclusions as the characters, which is fairly easy to do given how well and convincing the film portrays the whole notion of death. It’s almost an oxymoron for me to describe the film as ‘intelligent’ given what I’ve just said but the story treats its subject material with a lot of respect. The Asphyx is slow-moving, sluggishly paced at times, but never boring as the scientists slowly develop their plans for capturing the asphyx and put this into practice. You just know it’s not going to end well for someone as there’s always a bitter twist at the end for bold scientists trying to play God and here is no exception. The journey to that point is what makes this film work so well as there’s a consistently sinister undercurrent throughout – everything may look and appear to be very tame and under control but the tension is building to a head as to what will eventually happen.
Director by Peter Newbrook in his only directorial outing (he was in charge of second unit photography on Lawrence of Arabia so he had a good pedigree when it came to lining up shots), The Asphyx’s production values don’t give any indication of the low budget – a lavishly-decorated laboratory that Dr Frankenstein himself would be fond of is the focal point for much of the film’s running time, with steampunk-like contraptions and devices all being used by the scientists to try and trap the asphyx. Without looking at the date it was made, you could quite easily mistake The Asphyx for one of Hammer’s glorious Technicolour period pieces from the late 50s/early 60s, such is the attention to detail. Being set in the Victorian era allows the filmmakers the opportunity to explore the advances in science and technology that were beginning to come through at the time, creating a nice mix between modern scientific research and old-school obsession with the occult and supernatural which works well with the story.
The scenes of the ghostly asphyx struggling to escape from the blue phosphate beam, wailing and shrieking away, are genuinely unsettling. It’s clearly just a cheap-looking hand puppet but the way it’s presented is very ethereal and memorable. It’s great that the film doesn’t need to resort to grisly set pieces to shock its audience, though there are a few moments where you think if this had been Hammer, they’d have gone a bit further on-screen. It’s also worth noting that the method for catching and containing the asphyx, the blue light containment system, is virtually the same one that Ghostbusters used in 1984.
Performances are top notch across the board, but the credit needs to go to Robert Stephens as Cunningham, a man slowly driven mad by his obsession with immortality. It’s the classic Frankenstein/Dr Jekyll-like descent into madness that doesn’t see Stephens crossover into the realms of overacting, though one sequence involving him being electrocuted does push the boundaries a bit too far. I could have imagined Christopher Lee taking on this role, someone with a bit more of a sharp, sinister edge to his on-screen personas to really draw out the dual morality of the character, but Stephens does admirable work as it stands.
Intelligent and thought-provoking but sadly not finding an audience upon it’s release, The Asphyx is a great obscurity which is now receiving more critical acclaim having finally been released on blu-ray for the first time. One of the most underrated British horror films made, it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it’s different and varied approach will keep you hooked until the finale.
Director(s): Peter Newbrook
Writer(s): Christina Beers (story), Laurence Beers (story), Brian Comport
Actor(s): Robert Powell, Robert Stephens, Jane Lapotaire, Alex Scott, Ralph Arliss, Fiona Walker
Duration: 99 mins