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. 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. The film is newly out on Blu-ray, having not been available in the United States in decades, and it gives the American audience a chance to check out this sadly overlooked film.
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. He’s taken, recently, to photographing people 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. 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, PS), 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 this 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. 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. 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 box makes a point to mention that the cinematography is by 3-time Oscar winner Freddie Young, for Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter, 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.
As for the Blu-ray itself, which was released by Redemption Films, is very vanilla. While the film itself looks fantastic, with a very nice, crisp transfer and rich Mono sound, the extras are almost non-existent. It does contain both the standard UK 86 minute version and the 98 minute US cut of the film, but what was cut out, while it does give a bit more back story and motivation, is not intrinsic to the story at hand and thus watching either version will give you the same result. Three trailers also find their way onto the disc. One is the original theatrical for The Asphyx which shows basically every horrifying moment from the film as well as having the voice over constantly say the film’s title and its amazing tagline: “More than a myth…more than a maybe.” The other two trailers are for Redemption releases Killing Moon and Virgin Witch, two films I’ve never heard of but have fantastic, grindhouse-style trailers which gave me a good chuckle. The final “feature” is a do-people-actually-look-at-these photo gallery.
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. While looking nice, the Blu-ray is a bit too bereft of extras for me to recommend a full buy, but definite Netflix this and see if you like it.