For the last four decades, The Asphyx has been a little-known, cultish film from Great Britain. Hard to find on video or DVD in America, the few who remembered seeing the film upon its release (or actually owned a copy on video) spoke of the film using terms such as "genre classic", "quirky", and "original". But for sci-fi/horror connoisseurs who have never had the chance to see the film, it has finally been released by Redemption and Kino Lorber here in the states.
The Asphyx isn’t wholly original as the overarching theme of the film is about a mad scientist looking for eternal life, but the concept of the film itself is certainly unique and entertaining. The fine British character actor Robert Stephens stars as Sir Hugo Cunningham, a well-known scientist who studies death and dying. During his studies of the dying, he takes photos of each subject at the moment of death and chances upon the discovery of some kind of black smudge near each person’s head. At first Cunningham thinks there are merely bad spots in the photographic plates or his chemicals are spoiled. But when he is filming his family boating on a lake, a terrible tragedy strikes as both his wife and son drown. Devastated, he nevertheless develops the film since it is the final record of his own loved ones. But once he watches the film he is shocked to find the same smudges of black next to their heads. Cunningham begins to formulate a theory and, when he is approached about filming a public execution, he dismisses his initial disgust at the spectacle for a chance to prove his theory. Not surprisingly, Cunningham finds that the same dark smudge appears near the prisoner’s head moments before his death by hanging.
Cunningham is now convinced that he has discovered the Ashpyx, or what the ancient Greeks described as the Spirit of the Dead. With this discovery, the distraught and now obsessive scientist formulates a new theory: if he can capture the Asphyx just before the moment of death, he can not only save a person, but that person may well become immortal! Forcing his daughter’s fiancée to help him by promising her hand in marriage once the experiments are complete, Cunningham and his assistant dream up several experiments that lead up to the actual capture of the Asphyx itself. Will Cunningham actually solve the riddle of Death? Will he make himself and his family immortal? Or will Cunningham realize, too late, that playing God has consequences he’d rather not face?
This was Peter Newbrook’s lone directing credit, having operated the camera for many wonderful films such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Newbrook does a nice job, but is limited by a script with several plot holes as well as limited characterization. For example, Cunningham forces his daughter’s fiancée into helping with his crazy experiments by denying permission for the two to marry. The fiancée gives in much too quickly and with very little argument, which allows for the advancement of the plot but comes across as wholly unconvincing. Cunningham is obsessed with keeping his work from his daughter because he is afraid that her delicate sensibilities cannot handle the realities of his experiments, so the poor daughter is limited to wandering about confused and whining a great deal, which becomes a bit annoying. However, the setting is creepy and gothic, which is a positive. The atmosphere reminds one of any number of British gothic horror films from the early 70’s, and is not unlike some of the old Amicus productions or even some of the Hammer films–although The Asphyx is relatively bloodless and much less lurid than Hammer’s productions. I have always been fond of these period productions, and The Asphyx certainly falls into that category, complete with formal 19th century language and stodgy British characterizations.
While not without its faults, The Asphyx is still a solidly entertaining hitherto little-known slice of gothic British horror. While it may not be the cinematic classic described by its numerous fans, it is unique and certainly worth a watch. Redemption and Kino Lorber have teamed up to produce another nice package that includes the DVD or Blu-ray in a remastered HD print that includes both the 86-minute original UK release as well as the longer "uncut" 98-minute US release. Supplemental features are limited to a short photo gallery as well as the original theatrical trailer. The Asphyx has already been released and is widely available in stores or online.