Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Asphyx (1973)

Country: UK

The Horror of Death
Spirit of the Dead

The Asphyx is a film that would have seemed quaint and harmless at the time of its release. It is one of a handful of films that represented the last dying stutters of the British cycle of gothic horror. At this point in time Hammer’s gothic milieu was playing second fiddle to nudity and lesbianism, but this subtle and affecting drama is refreshing in its total disavowal of the exploitation elements that were dominating British horror at the time. It also differs in its richness of imagery and its stateliness. The perceived slowness of the film, its lack of star appeal, and its lack of violence and nudity doomed the film to a life buried deep in a cobweb strewn vault. But thanks to the recent efforts of Odeon Entertainment The Asphyx can now be enjoyed in all its visual glory, and it emerges as a touching, literate, and at times lyrical horror film.

The film documents the efforts of Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) in his bid to gain immortality via the entrapment of The Asphyx. The Asphyx only comes into existence at the moment of death, so this affords the film a number of interesting sequences such as Cunningham electrifying himself to the point of death. The Asphyx itself is a piece of mystical nonsense, but its importance lies in propelling the narrative forward. It functions in much the same way as an Hitchcockian MacGuffin. The film isn’t really about The Asphyx but instead about one man’s efforts to control life and death, to gain power through the manipulation and control of nature. Cunningham’s initial motivations are powered by an objective desire to ensure that society advances in a progressive and liberal fashion (his outrage at a public hanging is evidence of this). Unfortunately the objective appeal of immortality soon makes way for a series of highly subjective decisions which lead to death and tragedy. Cunningham is a tragic but driven scientist who has buried one wife, and watched his son and fiancé perish in a boating accident. His zealous determination to continue the Cunningham line and immortalise his daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) and his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) soon takes over any benevolent motivations that Cunningham may once have harboured.

The accidental death of Christina plunges Cunningham and Giles into a dilemma which is violently resolved with the suicide of Giles. The cold and implacable performance of Robert Powell makes this scene something of a surprise, and its place in the narrative seems somewhat contrived and inappropriate. With his Asphyx safely away behind a combination lock, the digits of which died with Giles, Cunningham faces a life of tortured immortality. The morality of most films that deal with immortality is that the condition is a curse rather than a utopian ideal. Cunningham is punished for playing god and belongs to a long line of well to do scientists who ultimately lack the maturity to deal with the forces they have unleashed. The 1872 Victorian setting places the film firmly into the Age of Reason and the modernism that was embraced in the name of this cause. Its attitude to science and technology is a cautious one - offering brilliance and hope in the shape of Cunningham’s moving pictures, but tragedy and death in the shape of the trapped Asphyx.

The film is book ended by two sequences in modern day London. They add very little to the proceedings, apart from an absurd final image of the hideously aged Cunningham being crushed between two oncoming vehicles. But even these tacked on moments are invested with emotion and pathos by the gerbil (the first creature made immortal by Cunningham) being the only thing to which Cunningham as an emotional attachment. The film is perhaps a little philosophically weak and fails to follow through the metaphysical issues it raises, but credit must go to Brian Comport for a screenplay overflowing with ideas. The cinematography by celebrated DOP Freddie Young is outstanding at times, and it is essential that the film is enjoyed in its original aspect ratio and in a sufficiently decent print. If you can handle the deliberate and measured pace of the film and are interested in ideas rather than actions then there will be much in The Asphyx of interest.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. I came across this movie more or less by accident a while back and was also pleasantly surprised.

  2. I love it. 'The Cunningham line will go on forever!'

  3. one of the most original and best horror films ever made, despite the limited budget.

  4. This is one I must seek out, Shawn my boy. A very good write up indeed. I like it when you elucidate upon "idea" pictures such as this one. One of the best things about gothic horror and sci-fi is that they often function as platforms by which their makers can tackle some bold concepts.

    And I'd like to see more of Robert Powell's work. Hands down, he's version of Christ in Fronco Zeffirelli's JESUS OF NAZARETH is by far the most haunting put to screen. And believe it or not, I think I've seen most of them, even Pier Paolo Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATHEW, a experience no sum of cash could ever force me to endure again! No, but it's Powell's version of Christ that has stuck with me since I was young. That and the always underrated Stacy Keach as Barabbas! Even before I knew who Stacy Keach was, I remember being a kid, going: "Now that motherfucker CAN act!"

    The only other thing off hand that I can remember seeing Powell in was TOMMY. He played a fine Mr. Walker, yes, but he'll always be Jesus to me! Cheers. - G.

  5. I'd forgotten I'd reviewed this one! You continue to dredge up forgotten gems from my formative and early days travelling this highway. When/if you get around to investing in a blu-ray player Greg you can now pick this film up in HD, but otherwise I imagine its very easy to locate online.

    Yes Robert Powell did indeed make an excellent Jesus Christ, in a film which seemed to be screened every single Easter when I was growing up as a kid. Ziefirelli's is the most haunting screen version of the life of Christ I think, and probably the only one I would actually recommend or choose to watch.

    Yeah Robert Powell is a much more renowned and recognised figure here in the UK, he has spent much of his long career working in British television, and his film roles have been very infrequent, but here is a few others that might appeal too you;

    ASYLUM (1972) - An Amicus horror anthology
    MAHLER (1974) - A typically audacious biopic from controversial director Ken Russell.
    HARLEQUIN (1980) - An odd Australian picture which reinterprets the narrative of Rasputin and applies it to modern day Australian politics...I reviewed it on here some time back.

    Hope that's a few interesting Powell highlights to keep you going! :-)


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