The Asphyx (1972) – By Duane L. Martin

It’s 1972, and there’s a head on car accident. The police arrive and find that both drivers are dead, but there’s a third person who’s still alive. A person, who was crushed between the two cars.

Now we travel back to the past, back to where it all began, around the turn of the century. A carriage approaches a mansion, as Sir Hugo (Robert Stephens) and his bride to be arrive back at the manor and are greeted by Hugo’s son Clive (Ralph Arliss), his daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire), and his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell), who by the way has a thing for Christina and they want to be married. Clive is betrothed to another girl in Switzerland who he’s going to be leaving to marry in a couple of weeks, and Sir Hugo is happy with his fiance, Anna (Fiona Walker). This happiness wasn’t to last however.

Sir Hugo was not only a photography buff, but he was also a psychical researcher and even invented an early movie camera. He had recently photographed people at the moment of death for his psychical research, which he shared with his friends at the Psychical Research Society. In each photo, a smudge could be seen near the head of the person at their moment of death. It appeared in photo after photo, and was ruled out as a simple lens smudge or other photographical error. What could it be then?

Later, Sir Hugo is testing out the movie camera he invented by having Clive play gondolier to Anna as they crossed the river in a long boat. Once he finished filming them coming across, he was about to film Giles and Christina, when the pole Clive was using to steer the boat stuck in the mud. He tried to pull it out, but as he was struggling with it, the boat went under a tree. They shouted at him to watch out, but Clive stood up and caught a branch right in the forehead, which knocked him out, and out of the boat. He drowned in the river. Anna fell overboard in the collision, and she too drowned and was washed away down the river.

In his grief, Sir Hugo develops the film, only to find that same smudge next to Clive’s head as he hit the tree. He shared his findings with Giles, who was unsure at first, but wanted to help his father find the truth. A truth which came to light as a convicted criminal was to be publically hanged as a message to the other unsavory elements that had been creeping up in society of late. Naturally the evolved elites found this barbaric and wanted Hugo to film it for evidence to use against the practice. The day of the execution, as the man was about to be hanged and had his head in the noose, Hugo was about to start his film rolling, and just before he did, he opened the shudder on a special spotlight he had invented which used water dripping on special crystals to produce light. When he turned on the light, the Asphyx was revealed next to the man, to the shock and horror of everyone. As the man dropped to what should have been his death though, he didn’t die. He just kept twitching at the end of the rope. It was this that triggered an idea in Sir Hugo. The Asphyx, a Greek spirit of death that lives in eternal torment, takes over the body at the moment of death, displacing the human soul, so it can have a moment of relief from its torment. Hugo surmised that if his light was capable of trapping a person’s Asphyx, and that Aspyx could be contained in a special container that was perpetually lit by his special water crystal light source, then the person would become immortal, as their Asphyx could never force the soul out of the body. An experiment on a guinea pig which was poisoned, proved his theory, and then he took it one step further, and tried the experiment on himself.

Ok, that’s enough of the story. You get the idea, and I don’t want to spoil what it all comes to in the end. So how was the movie? Well…

I had never heard of this film before I requested it for review. Once I saw it however, I realized that I had seen a small part of it on television a long time ago, but I came in in the middle so I ended up not watching it. This film is supposedly a cult favorite, which I can neither confirm nor deny, since I had virtually no knowledge of it before this. Hey, I can’t be familiar with every film now can I? After watching it however, I can totally see how it could achieve some measure of cult status. Parts of it are very cheesy and fun. The Asphyx is really quite different looking, and the visual effects they used to add it into the film, by any standards, look rather cheep, while at the same time being very interesting and even cool in its own way.

The acting, set and costume design in this film very much give it the look of one of the types of films that Hammer Studios had been putting out during this era. Some people say there’s even a bit of a steampunk element to the film, and while I can see that in Hugo’s cameras and the boxes he uses to trap the Asphyx, as well as some of the other devices he uses, I wouldn’t say these things were consciously made for that purpose, because the steampunk genre wasn’t even popularized until the 80’s to early 90’s, though many films from the 60’s and 70’s are considered seminal to the genre. Still, this film has a very cool look to it, and one that fans of the Hammer style films will very much appreciate.

The acting in the film is quite good, and is exactly what you’d expect from this style of film. It was so good in fact that at certain points, I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle Christina for being such a whiny moron, and at times, Giles reminded me of a young David Bowie with his line delivery.

This film is not without its problems however. There are elements of the story that weren’t thought through all that well with regard to the whole immortality thing and the set ups they used to get the Asphyx to appear so they could capture it, and the ending didn’t make a whole lot of sense for various reasons, but I can’t really get into much of it without giving away some of the greater elements of the story. When you see the film, you’ll know what the issues are, because they’re very apparent. Still, they won’t affect your enjoyment of the story, which is really all that matters. The story as a whole is really entertaining, especially the things that happen near the end, which again, I won’t spoil here. You’ll definitely want to see it though, because the stuff that goes on at the end are some of the best parts of the film. Sorry to be so cryptic, but I really don’t want to ruin it. You’ll just have to see it.

This new blu-ray release from Kino’s Redemption label was mastered in HD from the original 35mm negative, and it looks amazing. The visual quality and sound are excellent, and it includes a theatrical trailer and a photo gallery. It also features two versions of the film. The standard UK release is 86 minutes long. Then there’s the extended US cut, which is 98 minutes long and was re-assembled using the re-mastered UK version as a base and inserting standard def edits from the available US version source materials, which were of inferior quality. I actually wanted to watch the US version for this review, but I forgot to switch it and then realized about half way through the film that I’d forgotten. I honestly don’t think it matters much. The UK version doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything with regard to the story. The US versions just adds more to it.

All in all, this is another great release from Kino’s Redemption label. I would strongly urge anyone who’s a fan of the classic Hammer films to check this one out and add it to your collection. It’s fun, entertaining, exciting at times, and even has moments of dark humor that are sure to keep you smiling. You really can’t go wrong with this one. By the way, the method they use to capture and trap the Asphyx, I think you might recognize some similarity to another popular film that came out years later called Ghostbusters. See the film and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Oh, and Robert Stephens who played Sir Hugo… The whole time I was watching the film, all I could think was, "Man he reminds me of Jonathan Ross!". If you don’t know who Jonathan Ross is, he’s a British talk show host. Look him up and you may see the similarity like I did.

If you’d like to pick up a copy of this film for yourself, it’s available from Amazon on blu-ray and DVD, or from any of the other usual outlets.