The Asphyx (1973)
Director: Peter Newbrook
review by J.C. Hartley
This is an intriguing little story using the accoutrements of the horror genre for philosophical means; its inconsistencies and occasional
preposterousness do nothing to dilute its considerable atmosphere.
The film opens in the present day of 1973 with the police racing to the scene of a crash. There has been a head-on collision. At least one body,
presumably one of the drivers, is draped over the bonnet of one of the cars, but as the policeman drags another body from under the chassis he
declares with shock that this person is still alive.
Back in what is presumably the 19th century, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes) returns to his estate
bringing his new wife-to-be Anna. He introduces her to his son Clive, daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire), and adopted son Giles (Robert Powell).
He reveals to Anna that he is a member of the Psychical Research Society and has been photographing corpses as part of his research with his friend
Sir Edward Barrett. Sir Hugo and Barrett give a paper at the next meeting of the Society in which the former indicates a curious smudge appearing
on photographs of people close to the point of death. The pair suggests that this smudge is evidence of the soul leaving the body.
Having recently invented a camera capable of taking moving pictures, Sir Hugo spends an afternoon photographing his children and fianc�e punting
on the lake in the grounds of his estate. An accident results in Clive capsizing his boat, and himself and Anna being drowned. Sir Hugo develops
his film and to his amazement sees the smudge from his still photographs in a shot of Clive, only it is moving towards the young man at the point
of his demise.
Sir Edward asks Hugo to record on film an execution by hanging in order to make a case against capital punishment. During the horrific event Hugo's
blue spotlight captures an apparition on the point of merging with the condemned man. Later, Hugo postulates to Giles the existence of an entity,
the Asphyx, a spirit of death, attracted to those about to die by their fear and despair. Giles and Sir Hugo poison a guinea-pig and manage to
capture its Asphyx, in the blue light generated by the passage of water over phosphate crystals, and imprison it in a chamber suffused with the
same blue light.
Attempting to capture the Asphyx of a tuberculosis victim, Sir Hugo is disfigured when the dying man hurls acid at him rather than endure the pain
of his condition. In a further experiment, with the reluctant help of Christina, Giles manages to capture and imprison Sir Hugo's Asphyx, effectively
rendering him immortal. Sir Hugo is insistent that Giles and Christina must be immortalised too. Giles has moved from initial scepticism to an
enthusiasm for Hugo's work and uses Christina's love for him to overcome her fear and uncertainty. In a hideous sequence involving a guillotine,
in order to generate the fear needed to summon the Asphyx, an accident results in Christina's death. A devastated Giles tricks Hugo and sabotages
his own immortalisation, leaving Hugo with the guinea-pig from his first experiment his "only companion in immortality."
In the present day of the 1970s, the camera follows a shuffling tramp, who stops and turns to observe some pigeons basking in the sun, the tramp
is pasty-faced and ancient, caressing a guinea-pig in his hands. Possibly blinded by the sunlight, the tramp then steps off the pavement and between
two oncoming vehicles.
Despite the previously unknown early invention of the movie camera, and the mechanics of the blue crystals and the regular water supply that generates
the imprisoning blue illumination, the pseudo-science here is in the great tradition of Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. It is the tradition
of man tampering with the unknown, in the face of the Almighty, and to their ultimate detriment.
A couple of things only occurred to me subsequent to watching the film. I was very aware at the time, when Sir Hugo and Anna arrive at Hugo's home
that Anna stares out across the lake with a most curious expression. She is, of course, attempting to interpret what must be a premonition of her
death. At the end of the film, the make-up creating the ancient tramp Sir Hugo seems a very amateurish job until you realise that he has come to
resemble the hideous apparition that is the Asphyx. It is then a simple philosophical step to grasp that with Sir Hugo's Asphyx imprisoned, he has
himself become a spirit of death, in fact he may always have been so: two wives, his children, an admittedly condemned man, a TB victim and some
innocent motorists have all died after coming into contact with him.
The three leads perform admirably and while Sir Hugo's descent into obsession isn't always well-served by the script, his paranoid rants at his
friend Sir Edward seem to come out of nowhere, there is some great playing. The middle section of the film dealing with the immortalisation processes
is particularly tense, with great scenes between Stephens and the remarkably beautiful Powell (he would play Jesus of Nazareth for Lou Grade's ITC
in 1977), and Powell and Lapotaire.
This two-disc DVD presentation includes deleted or alternative scenes, trailers, a restoration featurette, and the USA release of The Asphyx
on the second disc.