Written by: Christina Beers, Lawrence Beers, and Brian Comport
Directed by: Peter Newbrook
Starring: Robert Powell, Robert Stephens and Jane Lapotaire
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
More than a myth, more than a maybe...
The Aspyhx is a peculiar horror film; arriving just as Hammer was attempting to trash up the joint on the British horror scene, itís a film that wrestles with metaphysics and immortality, distilling each down to their horrific essences in the throes of death. With its ambitious scientists and hoity-toity production design, it probably felt out of place among the emerging Satanic and viscera-soaked horrors. Instead, itís definitely a film you could easily have imagined arriving a decade earlier, and, 40 years after its release, itís revealed to be an intriguing morality play.
At the center of it is Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), a rich Renaissance man type who dabbles in a little bit of everything. Photography is one of his many interests, and he begins to notice strange blurs on the pictures he takes; after a little deductive reasoning, he surmises that they only occur on those photos that were taken just as his subjects expired upon death. Some further investigation and a tragic accident involving his son and fiancee lead him to confirming the existence of the Asphyx, a spirit that the Ancient Greeks believed arrived to whisk people away to death.
This is where the fun begins, as The Asphyx blends high sci-fi and fantasy concepts to chart Cunninghamís obsession with cheating death. There are neat inventions that whiz and hum as he toils away; one of them ends up being a fancy device that can capture moving pictures a good couple of decades before the actual invention of such technology (forget immortality--this guy should have been filing a patent). The other invention is a more imaginative piece of work that projects a spectral beam that allows him to ensnare the Asphyx and slap it into a containment chamber like a 19th century Ghostbuster in order to keep death at bay. Stuff like this would have been right at home in one of Hammerís mad-scientists dramas because The Asphyx is so casually spirited in its perception of science and industry. Nothing can stop Cunningham from achieving all of this stuff--at least until his reach exceeds his grasp and sends The Asphyx spiraling into the dark corners of misappropriated science and ambition.
Aiding him is his adopted son, Giles (Robert Powell), who has also fallen in love with Cunninghamís daughter (Jane Lapotaire), and The Asphyx eventually hands the sins of the father down to his children in a series of fatalistic events. These people are ironically obsessed with immortality, yet go to great lengths to concoct elaborate death traps to coax out their Asphyx, be it an electric chair, guillotine, or a gas chamber. One might lightly argue that their undoing is a perplexing refusal to stick with the one method that actually does manage to work out, but no matter--their retribution for playing god is imminent, and itís appropriate that the best laid plans of these men is undone by the guinea pig through which Cunningham unlocks the secrets of immortality. A hint of tragic fate overhangs from the first scene, which curiously occurs in modern day before we bounce back to the 19th century setting. You will have figured out what that means about halfway through The Asphyx, a film that lays bare its protagonistís foibles before meting out an eternal damnation of guilt and shame.
If that sounds a little broad and theatrical, itís because The Asphyx is just that--an old fashioned, cathartic tragedy with familial bloodshed, played in garish fashion and with the moralizing pathos of medieval drama. Stephens fantastically infuses gravitas into this pulpy play by skirting around the edges of full-blown insanity; he has his blow-ups, but not before he simmers behind a haggard face and worn out eyes that eventually bear the weight of his obsession in escalating fashion. Powell is a nicely wide-eyed counterpoint, at least until heís pushed to a searing moment of muted hysterics.
These characters are mostly surrounded by one giant location in the Cunningham manor, a lavishly adorned and ornate set made all the more austere by Freddie Young's silky photography and Peter Newbrookís steady shooting style. The actual horrors are a bit more understated, save for the unholy cries of the Asphyx and their intended victims as each cling to life in the moment of death. Oddly enough, the film does cause one to ponder the mechanics of this enterprise that makes death impossible without the aid of physical invincibility, a notion thatís captured with a slam-bang final frame that doesnít come without a hint of dark humor to further cast judgment on manís folly.
While Newbrook was a veteran in the film industry, having served on films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Asphyx represents his lone directorial gig, as he bolted from the British film scene shortly afterwards. If this film is any indication, he was just a little too late in arriving since The Asphyx fell between the cracks before going on to achieve a minor cult status. As such, itís received a few home video releases in the last decade, with the best being Redemption and Kinoís newly released Blu-ray that restores the film to a sterling presentation. The cinematography is lively and really leaps off the screen, while the mono PCM track is awesomely robust. While the special features (a trailer and a photo gallery) seem a little light, theyíre accompanied by the extended version of the film that pads in about 13 minutes of additional dialogue and character-building. The footage here is much rougher whenever the additional material is spliced in, but itís still a nice extra thatíll please fans of the film who have clamored for this cut. No matter which version, The Asphyx is a gothic throwback thatís rich in drama, shocks, and an elaborate mounting that gives an improbable dime store story an unexpected heft. Buy it!
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