The Asphyx (1973)
Diected by Peter Newbrook
Written by Brian Comport from a story by Christina Beers and Laurence Beers
Starring Robert Stephens, Robert Powell, Jane Lapotaire, and Alex Scott
According to the movie, an asphyx is a creature of Greek legend that appears to those about to die in order end its own torment. This is glossed over rather quickly, as the “reality” is somewhat more complex. The true reality, of course, is that there’s no such recorded myth, which is a shame. School children would have been delighted to discover a creature whose name is pronounced like a repair to the posterior.
The Asphyx centers on the activities of Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), who has two preoccupations: the paranormal and the newly developed art of photography. Sir Hugo is quite inventive, creating his own lighting equipment with luminous crystals and dabbling in a slide-based motion camera with accompanying projector. His interests collide when photographs of people at the moment of death (taken by himself and two others) reveal a dark smudge near the body.
He and his colleague, Sir Edward Barrett (Alex Scott, who you may recognize from his roles in Twins of Evil and The Abominable Dr. Phibes), believe these photographs show the departure of the soul. When Sir Edward requests pictures of a hanging to use in efforts to ban executions, Sir Hugo decides to use the opportunity to further test his filming techniques. The light is dim, so he turns on his blue light. To everyone’s horror a hideous creature appears in the light. Even worse, the hanged man doesn’t die. Appalled, Sir Hugo shuts everything down in order to flee. The moment his light is turned off, the strange apparition vanishes and the convict dies.
Here at length is the premise, and it’s a corker! In effect, The Asphyx is an exploration of how Frankenstein might have turned out if the Baron had gone into mad engineering instead of mad surgery. Their goals are identical: to conquer death. Both men are motivated by the tragic loss of loved ones, and both lose everything in their struggle against the inevitable. Only their methods differ. While Baron Frankenstein sought the medical spark of life, Sir Hugo pursues the spiritual cause of death. Death only comes from the arrival of an individual’s asphyx, so by trapping their asphyx a person becomes functionally immortal.
It’s a slow-paced but engaging story, filled with melodrama and the lamentable tragedies of hubris. Also lamentable are the effects, some of which are distractingly bad (I’m looking at you, Old Age Makeup). The plot depends on the asphyx, which looks like a muppet of a Fiji mermaid. They try to hide it in a fluttering projection, but it’s still just a sad puppet with floppy arms.
On the whole, I like this one a lot. The concept is neat, and there’s a terrific comeuppance scene to show Sir Hugo the error of his ways. It’s far from perfect — and there are some horrible contrivances — but it’s a good example of the horror of thought, which has largely given way now to the horror of viscera. I enjoy a good gut-slitting, but the movies that stay with me tend to be the ones that plant ideas in my head.