Posts Tagged ‘The Asphyx’

You could be forgiven for thinking that, back in the late 60s and early 70s, the exclusive rights for the making of low-budget British horror movies resided with Hammer films and their somewhat less-celebrated rivals at Amicus and Tigon. Hammer in particular have such name- and brand-recognition that these days virtually any genre film from this period often gets ascribed to Hammer even by people whom you might expect to know better (it wasn’t that long ago that an acquaintance of mine was casually referring to ‘the Hammer Doctor Who films with Peter Cushing’, for instance).

But other people were having a go as well, and some very distinctive and interesting films were the result. Probably my favourite is the otherwise-obscure Harbour Films’ Theatre of Blood, probably Vincent Price’s magnum opus, but also noteworthy is the 1973 movie The Asphyx (also trading on some releases as Spirit of the Dead or The Horror of Death), made by Glendale Productions and directed by Peter Newbrook.


The movie is bookended by a very brief frame story set in the present day. The police arrive on the scene of a serious car accident, where a man’s body is dragged from between two smashed cars – and yet somehow he still lives. How can this be? Thereby hangs the tale…

The rest of the movie is set in 1875 and concerns the doings of the Cunningham family, a bunch of wealthy, good-natured toffs. Head of the family is Hugo (Robert Stephens), whose surprisingly diverse portfolio of interests include social reform, psychical research, and experimental photography (not as kinky as it sounds). To some extent these hobbies dovetail unexpectedly well, as Hugo’s snaps of people at the point of death seem to show something nebulous and invisible to the naked eye close to their bodies. But what is it?

Hugo’s researches are suspended when his son and wife are killed in a freak punting accident, but when he gets around to developing the cine film he just happened to be shooting at the time it also shows a vague shape close to them – but rather than being the impression of the soul leaving the body, it appears to be moving towards them rather than away…

Working with his ward Giles (Robert Powell), Hugo concludes that his film is picking up an entity he calls an asphyx, which manifests close to a person and enters their body at the moment of death. Further experiments reveal that someone’s asphyx can be controlled and imprisoned, using the right equipment: and if the asphyx is unable to reach its host, the moment of death can be infinitely postponed – that person becomes immortal. Still grieving over the deaths of his own loved ones, Hugo sets out to put this knowledge to practical use, despite the misgivings of his remaining family members…

As you can probably tell, this is not strictly a gothic horror in the classic sense, but it is very clearly a tale of hubris-filled scientists meddling with forces of which man was never meant to know, with the kind of results you might expect. On these terms it is somewhat successful – there’s never any real doubt that things are bound to end badly, and the film works hard to try and make Hugo and Giles’ researches and experiments logical and credible, but the extent to which things keep going wrong does not speak well of standards in mid-Victorian amateur science. One also has to wonder at Hugo’s ability to produce small portable gas chambers and guillotines seemingly out of nowhere at very short notice, and indeed at the fact that no-one in authority seems at all interested in the succession of corpses his failed experiments generate.

To be honest, the film is certainly based on an interesting idea, but that idea is also deeply bizarre. The implication is that, rather like soul-mates, there’s only one asphyx out there for any given person – but why? How is this arranged? Many questions are left hanging. The kind of immortality achieved by banging up your asphyx in a box somewhere is not of the cool, cinematic, I’m-from-planet-Zeist kind. The film clearly shows that while you may not be able to actually die, you don’t stop ageing, nor do you magically become invulnerable. There’s nothing to stop you ageing into a withered old mummy, or being horribly brain-damaged, or finding yourself reduced to a pile of dismembered-but-still-living-pieces. If I ordered immortality from Amazon and that was what turned up, I’d be inclined to send it back and have another go.

The film is all about these kinds of ideas, but the curious thing is that it’s actually not that graphic or gory: it’s nearly as well-behaved as a Hammer movie from ten or fifteen years earlier, in that there’s barely a hint of sex in it, and scarcely any gore. It’s all about ideas, and proper actors in wigs and waistcoats having intense and slightly windy discussions about metaphysics and ethics. Perhaps this is what makes the film feel a bit dry and cheerless these days.

On the other hand, it could just be the subject matter. This, after all, is a film which is actually about the nature and process of death. The themes of it are grief, suffering, death, and suicide, and it handles them with a relentless intensity that’s almost enough to make one concerned for the mental state of the scriptwriters. Compared to a jolly Amicus black comedy portmanteau or a brazen Hammer flesh-and-blood extravaganza from around the same time, The Asphyx is a notably bleak and restrained film, flooded with darkness and despair. Without wishing to spoil the film too much, the climax concerns a battle of wits between two characters, both of whom want to be the first to kill themselves – now that’s a properly gloomy way to finish a film.

Perhaps this why The Asphyx is rather easier to admire than to actually enjoy. The production values, other than the freaky asphyx glove-puppet itself, are decent throughout, and the performances of Stephens and Powell are solid as well. And on first viewing, the concepts involved in the film are weird and intriguing enough to keep you watching – it’s certainly a hard film to predict the exact details of, plot-wise. But once you know the story, and particularly the ending, it’s not really a film which stands up well to return visits. In its own way this is an accomplished film – but as a piece of entertainment, it has its own flavour, which will probably repel many more people than it attracts.


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