The core idea of The Asphyx is so fascinating that it seems likely someone will eventually revisit the material, if not necessarily by mounting a direct remake then by contriving a more exciting story around the premise. Set in Victorian England, this UK horror picture—which is really more of a Poe-esque psychological drama with macabre elements—concerns a scientist preoccupied with death. More specifically, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is part of a paranormal society that, while taking photographs of people as they die, stumbles across a possible means of capturing on film souls exiting bodies. Yet after Hugo inadvertently records a personal loss on a primitive move camera, he realizes that instead of the soul, he’s been making images of the asphyx of each dying individual. (A concept borrowed from old mythology, the asphyx is a personal demon arriving to claim the soul of one specific being just before the end of life, so each living thing has its own asphyx.) Through morbid experiments, Hugo determines that if he captures the asphyx of any being, then the being gains immortality. As in all genre-fiction stories about mad doctors playing god, things go poorly, with bloodshed and ironic tragedy unfolding around Hugo.
On the plus side, The Asphyx is a handsomely mounted production, with careful costuming, detailed sets, and glossy cinematography. The movie also features several nasty moments, such as the handling of corpses, although the filmmakers almost completely avoid outright gore. Plus, as noted earlier, the asphyx notion is creepy, and the filmic representation of the asphyx—a ghostly form with a skeletal face, visible only in a beam of specially concocted blue light—has a visual kick.
On the minus side, The Asphyx is slow and talky, a problem made worse by the cast’s stiff acting. Stephens has some fun with extreme scenes (notably the bit in which his character voluntarily electrocutes himself), though he’s a poor substitute for, say, Peter Cushing. Similarly, Asphyx director Peter Newbrook assembles scenes tidily but lacks the gusto and luridness of a proper UK horror helmer (think Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker, etc.). Costars Robert Powell (as the scientist’s aide) and Jane Lapotaire (as the aide’s fiancée) are even less interesting than leading man Stephens, though Powell does call to mind the eclectic modern-day British actor Richard E. Grant. The Asphyx offers a fairly intelligent alternative to the usual pulpy delights of ’70s horror, and the script—by Brian Comport, from a story by Christina and Laurence Beers—gives considerable attention to ethical/scientific/philosophical ruminations. The cost of this approach, however, is that The Asphyx feels dry and monotonous except in its biggest moments, but even then, the movie wants for actual jolts.
The Asphyx: FUNKY