’70s horror films are possibly my favorite kind of horror. There was a sensationalism about them and a desire to push the envelope that I find incredibly enjoyable. One of my other favorite horror varieties is the Hammer Film series of British drawing room horror, generally set in Victorian England, with lavish costumes, gloomy air, and posh language. Put both of these sensibilities together and you get Peter Newbrook’s 1972 film, The Asphyx, a film that was not made by Hammer Films, but sticks very close to their style. The Asphyx does not have the best special effects, even for the era, but it does have a compelling and interesting conceit that hasn’t been done much, before or since: that science can isolate the “spirit of the dead” and thereby create immortality. It’s also got one hell of a cool trailer:
In 1875 England, a scientist, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), brings his new bride-to-be, Anna (Fiona Walker), home to meet his adult children, Clive (Ralph Arliss), Christina (Jane Lapotaire), and his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell). Something Hugo has as yet neglected to tell Anna is that he photographs the recently deceased for research purposes. Like ya do. Further, he has of late taken to photographing people right on the brink of death. It is in these photos that he’s noticed a peculiar black smudge near the heads of the subjects once the photos have been developed. Hugo surmises that this is a phenomenon that only exists at the moment of death. Obviously, the first thing you’d think is that there’s a problem with the camera, but oh, no, friends, this happens with every camera he tries! Dun dun DUUUUUUN.
One dreary afternoon, Hugo takes his family out to film them (despite the fact that motion picture cameras hadn’t been invented yet… details) while punting on the nearby river. After filming Giles and Christina (who want to get married, by the way), he films Clive and Anna. Clive’s punt gets stuck in the mud and he doesn’t notice the low-hanging tree branch overhead. He smacks his head and both he and Anna fall into the river and are swept away. They pull Clive’s body out later, but Anna’s is never recovered. After going over his footage he sees, just for an instant, the black smudge on the film just as Clive hits his head on the branch, the moment of his death.
It is at this point that Hugo becomes obsessed with the odd phenomenon. While photographing a condemned man at his hanging, Hugo turns on a light booster just as the hanging commences, and he captures a horrible apparition in the light as the hanged man remains alive and strangling. As soon as he turns off the light, the man dies. Hugo and Giles begin to suspect that this apparition is what the Greeks referred to as “the asphyx,” the ghost of death that can only be freed when the person dies in fear. (It should be noted at the word is pronounced like “ass-fix” which made me laugh, I’m going to say, each and every time they said it.) Through experiments, they learn that they can trap the asphyx in a particular kind of light and as long as it’s trapped, the subject will live forever, regardless of what happens to them. Sicker and sicker experiments follow as Hugo’s obsession with the asphyx and immortality grows.
This movie is pretty nuts and its ideas are way out there, even for ’70s horror. Victorian England and its overcast vistas and castles are ideal for Gothic horror, and a huge strength The Asphyx has going for it is the look. The costumes and sets are marvelous and the elaborate death props are quite good as well. The main special effect in the film is the asphyx itself, which is essentially a sock puppet shot on a special camera and superimposed onto the film frame. It looks a bit dodgy and of its time, but the cast all sell it amazingly well. A plus for this is that the asphyx isn’t the villain of the piece and therefore doesn’t need to interact with anybody, really. The film is more about scientific perversion and the lust for power and knowledge, making Sir Hugo a kind of Dr. Frankenstein character, playing God from a different angle, keeping people alive as opposed to bringing them back to life. This doesn’t stop the word “asphyx” from being uttered probably 50 times during the course of the film. A particular joy is how Hugo keeps saying “when my asphyx appears…” It’s like, dude, put your asphyx away, already.
Stephens and Powell, who have the most scenes together, play off each other quite well, starting first as family, then as partners, then as adversaries. The direction by Newbrook is fine and very typical for the kind of film this is. The cinematography is by 3-time Oscar winner (for Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter) Freddie Young, but it really just looks like any Hammer-era Technicolor horror film. Nothing wrong with it, but certainly not David Lean territory. A strange anomaly is the score by Bill McGuffie, who bucks expectation by having mainly soft, melodic music despite the horrifying subject matter. It’s like the dentist office Muzak of horror scores.
The Asphyx is a low-budget horror film that decides to focus on story more than gore and for the most part succeeds. While not as iconic as the Hammer Horror films it’s trying to emulate, it nevertheless has a place of its own in the oeuvre. So, I suppose to sum up, and to paraphrase the trailer: it is more than a myth, but maybe not more than a maybe. (That was a loooooooong way to go for that wordplay. Asphyx.)