Thursday, 3 November 2011

Review: The Asphyx

The Asphyx (1973)

Sir Hugo Cunnigham is as happy man as the waning years of the 19th century has seen.  Head of an aristocratic family, inheritor of a great name, he is wealthy, educated, respected, a great scientist, social reformer and philanthropist.  More, he has three wonderful grown-up children, one adopted who is engaged to be married to his natural daughter, and he himself is to be remarrying after long years of widower-hood.

However, a spot shows up on his horizon in the form of a smudge he keeps finding on photographs of the dying that he's been taking as part of his philanthropic work.  At first, he thinks that these are photos of the departing soul, but then his natural son and fiancée die in a boating accident while he is filming them with an early cinecamera.  When he develops the film later and plays it, he sees the same smudge moving away. Driven by grief, he investigates and soon discovers that what he is seeing is the creature that carries away the soul at the time of death; a tormented thing called an Asphyx, after the spirit of Death from Greek mythology.  More to the point, Sir Hugo discovers that his apparatus that allows him to see the Asphyx also allows him to trap it, which means that he has the power to grant immortality.  Unfortunately, it can only be done at the moment of imminent death and so Sir Hugo's laboratory becomes a place of torture and death as he tries to bring life to the world.

The Aphyx is a curious film.  It was one of those small studio efforts to imitate the success of Hammer Films in the early '70s that met with varied success and this one fell into obscurity fairly quickly, which is a pity.  Indeed it fell so far that when I first went looking for it on the Internet a few years ago I kept finding sites dedicated to perverted sexual practices involving auto-erotic asphyxiation.   It's an undeserved obscurity because this is a nice little horror piece.  It makes the most of its very modest budget by spending every penny wisely and keeping the staging as intimate as possible.

The plot has some absurd coincidences in the beginning, but they only serve to get the story moving, so no real harm done.  meanwhile, Robert Stephens gives a very good performance as the loving father who descends into fanaticism and destruction through the purest of motives and Robert Powell gives an excellent, though understated supporting part.  With surprisingly good cinematography for a low budget production and a musical score that is refreshingly free of "spooky" leitmotifs, The Asphyx shows that some decent bits of horror cinema ran in the slipstream of Hammer.

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