Type search terms and hit "Enter"
Trailers
From Hell.com

The Asphyx

by Glenn Erickson Jan 24, 2023

Awkwardly plotted but chilling just the same, this beautifully-filmed tale of Victorian experimentation with death has nightmarish qualities that won’t go away. Class actors Robert Stephens, Robert Powell & Jane Lapotaire bring believability to a deadly-serious idea that scores the ‘phantom-trapping’ concept years before Ghostbusters. The cinematographer was Freddie Young; both versions are included, along with a commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones.


The Asphyx
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1972 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 98, 86 min. / Street Date January 31, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Robert Stephens, Robert Powell, Jane Lapotaire, Fiona Walker, Ralph Arliss.
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Production Designer: John Stoll
Costume Design: Evelyn Gibbs
Film Editor: Maxine Julius
Original Music: Bill McGuffie
Written by Brian Comport, from an idea by Christina and Laurence Beers
Produced by John Brittany
Directed by
Peter Newbrook

The Asphyx is a strangely disturbing horror film with a consistently morbid theme. Despite its web of borrowed ideas and forced ironies, the spirit of Poe comes through — mostly stage-oriented cast invests the characters with a terrible fragility. Instead of Vincent Price or Peter Cushing, the leading character is played by the neurotic Robert Stephens, of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The Victorian ‘hobbyist experimenter’ is intrigued by the mystery of life and death, and suggested by mostly bogus 19th-century attempts to use photography to capture images of immortal souls departing dying bodies. Our philanthopist is invested in the anti-capital punishment movement . . . yet ends up using grotesque execution devices for his research.

The Asphyx was for the longest time not really available. Wretched-looking pan-scanned VHS copies have been supplanted by excellent Blu-rays remastered from original Todd-A0 35 materials. The lush images are by none other than the legendary cinematographer Freddie Young. Nobody has recovered the original ‘Super Quadraphonic Sound’ audio track, which may or may not relate to the Quadrophonic lp records of the 1970s. The movie was cut for England yet left full-length for its micro-release in America. Euro London/Kino’s disc has both versions.

 

The director came from camera work and moved into producing, looking to break through with an original horror idea. But the early 1970s were lean times in the English film industry. Hammer Films was no longer doing anything particularly competitive, and The Asphyx offers prestigious actors filmed by one of the best British cameraman of the sixties. The show presents sympathetic upscale characters that engage in civil conversations in drawing rooms, and then risk each others’ lives in awful experiments that we know will go bad. The acting makes a difference, even when the story particulars become far-fetched. Moments in the picture give one sickly tingles up the spine, a horror of irresonsibility to loved ones.

The story takes place in 1875, in an English family of wealthy intellectuals. Scientist and philanthropist Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) has been photographing dying men. He boasts to his ‘psychic society’ that the dark blurs recorded on his negatives are images of the human soul leaving the body at death … physical proof of the existence of the spirit world. Sir Hugo happens to be shooting motion pictures of his son and his own fianceé (Fiona Walker) just as an accident takes their lives. His movies record the blur as well, which moves toward the victims, not away from them.

 

That filmic evidence prompts Sir Hugo to alter his theory: the phenomenon he has recorded is not the soul, but a mythological spirit that appears only at the moment of death to claim the living: The Asphyx. Sir Hugo conducts another experiment at a public hanging, that allows an Asphyx to be seen more clearly. When the man is on the scaffold Sir Hugo finds that he can intervene in the process. A bright blue spotlight beam created by water dripping on ‘special crystals’ paralyzes the hanged man’s Asphyx and prevents it from reaching him. The dangling body shakes in agony for a few seconds, until Sir Hugo shuts down his apparatus. Only then is the Asphyx free to perform its function, and the man dies. Experimental proof for our scientist, and extended moments of excruciating torture for the hanged man.

Driven by misplaced grief over the loss of his loved ones, Sir Hugo embarks on a morbid quest to defy the normal course of nature. He reasons that any person whose Asphyx can be trapped in the light of the blue crystals, will be rendered virtually immortal. He successfully ‘immortalizes’ a Guinea Pig. An attempt to do the same fails with a dying, consumptive pauper (Terry Scully). Undaunted, Sir Hugo makes a bargain with his colleague (and adopted son) Giles (Robert Powell): if Giles helps to immortalize him, Sir Hugo will do the same in turn with Giles and his fianceé Christina (Jane Lapotaire). The Cunninghams could conceivably live forever. But the scheme requires procedures that are both macabre and horribly risky: the Asphyx materializes only when a person is at the brink of death. Sir Hugo sets to building horrible electric chairs and guillotines in his basement laboratory …

 

If one can get past its glaring anachronisms, lapses in logic and skewed ‘science,’ The Asphyx is genuinely chilling. A sense of dread hangs over the entire story. The Cunninghams are progressive and enlightened, and Sir Hugo is exactly the kind of elite optimist whose good intentions pave that proverbial road to Hell. Robert Stephens captures both the exuberance and mania of an upper-class scientist who dares usurp the power of life and death. If Gothic Horror dissects the family unit, as scholars claim, then The Asphyx is about Sir Hugo’s abuse of patriarchal authority, bullying his offspring into subscribing to his obsession. Stage actors Robert Powell and Jane Lapotaire perform with compelling sincerity. We care about these privileged characters and must watch as they destroy themselves in a misguided quest for immortality.

The production appears to use some locations familiar from Hammer films. The tragedy at a boating picnic is reminiscent of Ken Russell’s Women in Love. The convincingly brutal hanging is attended by a mixed mob of bloodthirsty sightseers and anti-death penalty protesters. Sir Hugo’s lab eventually finds room for all the paraphernalia of death: coffins, cages and technological torture devices. Peter Newbrook directs mostly in wide masters. Tasteful art direction and Freddie Young’s superb lighting create a sumptuous period atmosphere, superior to the over-lit interiors seen in the then-recent Young Winston and Nicholas and Alexandra.

 

As many viewers have since pointed out, the method of catching and imprisoning The Asphyx is almost identical to that used twelve years later to snag phantoms in the spook-show comedy Ghostbusters: ‘proton packs’ and ‘laser containment grids.’ When we finally see the glowing green critter, it looks very much like one of the phantoms in Ivan Reitman’s film. But the screams and howls of the imprisoned Asphyx are too unpleasant to be funny, especially when we’re transfixed by the near-death experiences of Sir Hugo’s latest test subject. Overall, the investigation of a formerly unknown ‘thing’ with a role to play in human suffering also has elements in common with William Castle’s The Tingler . . . another wild horror item so interesting that it overcomes gaping gaps in interior logic.

The attempt to immortalize Christina is pure Edgar Allan Poe. Giles coaxes and goads Christina into ‘taking the big step’ to immortality, assuring her that nothing can possibly go wrong. Giles and Sir Hugo don’t repeat the process that has already worked, and instead . . . saying more would be a spoiler. Hubris and ambition are answered with guilt and sorrow that can’t be counteracted. The aftermath of the Christina episode is so grim, and played so well by Robert Powell, that we forget the contrivances that caused it. The sense of regret is overpowering.

 

The Asphyx does express the ‘civilized’ fumblings in undisciplined science. Sir Hugo believes that he can counteract the conservative and religious charge that technical discoveries threaten the spiritual health of man. We’re often told that some primitive cultures believe that photographs ‘trap the soul’ in the same way Sir Hugo’s photo light traps mythological specters. But much creepier ideas are evoked as well. Sir Hugo’s invention can prevent a person from dying even if mangled beyond repair, a grisly thought that brings back memories of the chilling W.W. Jacobs story The Monkey’s Paw: keeping an executed person alive would leave them in unending death agony. The horror concept of living death in torment is a neglected, undeveloped sidebar concern in Tod Browning’s freakish The Devil-Doll, where a hypnotized homunculus suffers in silence. In real life, we’ve read about rare surgeries in which the anasthesia only worked half way — with the patient rendered motionless, but conscious and feeling every slice of the scalpel.

The actors and director Peter Newbrook do great work ‘selling’ these extreme horror situations, yet The Asphyx introduces a glaring lapse of logic in almost every scene. Anachronisms abound. Sir Hugo’s handsome wooden movie camera predates cinematography by a full twenty years. The one camera reel that Sir Hugo screens straight out of the developer has a close-up automatically edited in. Not as glaring but equally anachronistic is Sir Hugo’s electric chair. For a man dedicated to nonviolence, why does Sir Hugo contrive such clumsy, erratic ‘near death’ devices?  They put the lives of their precious loved ones at risk without so much as a practice run to eliminate basic errors.

 

It’s good that the acting is of such high quality, as more odd inconsistencies cramp our appreciation of the original storyline. Explaining them in detail would ruin one’s appreciation of the film’s good qualities. When the ‘immortal’ Sir Hugo spends a night sealed in an airtight casket, why isn’t he gasping for air in excruciating torment?  Why don’t his brain cells expire, leaving him an immortal vegetable?  The unexplained ‘science’ we see might as well be magic. What are these incredible — and incredibly convenient — blue crystals that provide limitless perpetual phosphorescence?  How ‘eternal’ can the Asphyx containment vault be, should the plumbing give out or the local water spring dry up?  Especially when Sir Hugo’s previous Rube Goldberg inventions have gone terribly wrong?

Luckily, our fascination with the grisly goings-on outweighs the chaotic experimentation that, it must be admitted, fully express how the plans of good men go awry. Audiences may be underwhelmed by the ghostly puppet form taken by the dreaded Asphyx, but they’re not likely to forget it either. And the present-day wraparound flashback bookends are a little weak. The makeup just isn’t very good, and what might work on a written page (an immortal hamster?) comes off as wanna-be Twilight Zone irony. Would it have been better to stay in the period setting, and simply leave Sir Hugo facing his future, like the forlorn Leo Vincey in Hammer’s She?  The Asphyx is a good candidate for a creative remake, one that irons out some of its glaring inconsistencies. But this original does create its own mood of frisson — even with its flaws it delivers a startling tale of terror.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Asphyx is quite beautiful — Freddie Young’s lighting in the Cunningham house and lab is stunning. The HD scan shows us what original Todd-AO 35 images must have looked like. One shot of a corpse in its casket looks very convincingly dead . . . Edgar Allan would approve. Likewise, the lyrical music score by Bill McGuffie shows that the filmmakers were aiming higher than the average horror exploitation item. The superior acting and presentation override most of the concept flaws in The Asphyx.

U.K. theatrical prints were chopped by a full reel, eliminating dialogues that are greatly missed. These were restored earlier, but not from original materials. A second encoding adds the missing 12 minutes scattered through the film. They are easy to spot because the quality drops quite a bit. We’re grateful each time the pristine images return.

The new audio commentary from Kim Newman and Stephen Jones is attached to the long version. The experts have the full lowdown on the production. They’re impressed by the cast and the high production values, and address the odd non-sequiturs built into the concept — Laurel & Hardy wouldn’t make some of the bonehead mistakes these researchers do, and with their loved one’s life at risk, to boot. When it comes to Brit horror, Kim Newman is an ideal commentator — he can describe most every film’s relation to the genre from multiple directions. The two experts don’t soften their criticisms. Although the rod-puppet Asphyx creature looks like something that might appear in a Victorian illustration, it doesn’t fully satisfy. A literal representation of such an ethereal thing can’t help but disappoint.

Some of the billing suggests that The Asphyx may have been partly originated by its camera craftsmen. Director Peter Newbrook was also a busy producer and cinematographer; he had been a camera operator under the famed Freddie Young for two David Lean epics. For this show Young served as Newbrook’s Director of Photography. Although it’s good to finally have an expert commentary on this unusual picture, mysteries do remain. We don’t know if there ever were “Super Quadraphonic Sound” prints made of The Asphyx.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Asphyx
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good for macabre film fans Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 22, 2023
(6862asph)
CINESAVANT

Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:
cinesavant@gmail.com

Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.