James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
Early 1970s British gothic horror. An upper class landowner's experiments with photography lead him on a quest for immortality - and to personal tragedy
Released in the year that The Exorcist changed horror films forever, The Asphyx almost sank without a trace. It's only available now thanks to some clever detective and restoration work by American DVD producers All Day Entertainment in the late 1990s.
After watching the film, you might be forgiven for wondering why they went to all the trouble. However, if you can see the (admittedly limited) appeal of low-budget, kitsch British gothic, and you're able to bolster up your suspension of disbelief against a few fairly ferocious assaults, this is a pleasurable way to pass an hour and a half.
Sir Hugo Cunningham (Stephens) is a benevolent landlord and man of science with a grisly predilection for taking pictures of the dying. He begins to notice a curious "smudge" on some of his pictures, surmising at first that it is the subjects' souls leaving their bodies.
However, when testing out his new invention - a film camera - (not bad going on Sir Hugo's part since the film is set in 1875, some 20 years before moving pictures were actually invented), he is unlucky enough to film his wife-to-be Anna (Walker) and son Clive (Arliss, who sports an impressive, if anachronistic ,1970s bouffant) just before they drown in a boating accident. Afterwards, he studies the films and realises "the smudge" is moving towards their bodies.
"My researches into psychic phenomena show me that in Greek mythology they referred to the spirit of death. They called it the Asphyx," says Sir Hugo. So that's clear. He decides that "the smudge" is the Asphyx, and that if he can catch it he can prevent death. So, he creates a powerful purple light using some unidentified "crystals" which react with water to trap the Asphyx. He tries out his invention at a public hanging - a nasty set-piece containing the film's most explicit violence - and briefly traps a grey, shadowy figure with lots of teeth.
While the audience can only gasp at the awfulness of the special effects, the enthusiastic Hugo becomes convinced he's found the key to immortality. Soon he's created an immortal guinea pig and delayed the death of a tubercular pauper. The next candidates are himself, his daughter (Lapotaire) and adoptive son (Powell). Unfortunately Hugo is about to get a harsh lesson in the follies of messing around with providence.
Even by the notoriously dubious standards of the genre, The Asphyx is reliant on bad science and credulity-stretching premises. There's a certain enjoyment to be had in spotting the film's many bloopers, and to say more would spoil the fun. But bear in mind that the film's central conceit hinges on the fact that Hugo won't be able to go back on his decision to become immortal because his Asphyx is kept in a room behind a locked door which he doesn't know how to open. Has he never heard of dynamite? Or locksmiths?
Furthermore, it's laughably easy to see disaster coming when Hugo decides to use a guillotine to get his daughter into a position whereby he can capture her Asphyx. As might be expected, the acting is rarely less than histrionic: the only exception being a smooth performance from Robert Powell who gives the distinct impression he's trying not to crack up. The script is farcical and overwrought. The phrase "I tell you my dear there's nothing to be nervous about" is repeated at least ten times.
Still, in spite of its many and blatant faults (and perhaps also because of them), the film does have redeeming features. There are some halfway thoughtful musings on the nature of mortality and the way the power that comes from knowledge can corrupt an otherwise honorable man like Sir Hugo. The cinematography is attractive and the Victorian settings atmospherically rendered. Most importantly, the crucial Asphyx-capturing scenes are tense, nervous affairs, full of foreboding and packing enough macabre punch to make this more than a mere laughing stock.
A daft but curiously appealing British effort with enough dark edges and inadvertent laughs to satisfy most horror junkies.
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