Most of us recall this film playing only late at night on TV. We never saw it at the theater; the reasons for that are various, and we'll come to them soon enough. Suffice to say that it was a sad fate for a thoughtful film.
Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is one of those Victorian gentleman scientists, a country squire with a taste for the fledgling field of photography. We first meet him as he is bringing home Anna (Fiona Walker), who will become his second wife, to introduce to his now-adult children: Clive (Ralph Arliss), Christina (Jane Lapotaire) and his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell). The children are delighted that their father is going to marry again, and welcome the woman with open arms.
That evening, we also find that Sir Hugo is heavily involved in Spiritualism, as he addresses a Society meeting while displaying photographs taken at the moment of death by three different photographers: each shows a smudge above the dying person, which Hugo and Society head Sir Edward (Alex Scott) feel is the soul leaving the body.
Things take a turn for the tragic as Sir Hugo is trying out his new motion-picture camera, shooting his family as they punt across the river which cuts through his estate. Attempting to extricate his pole, stuck in the muddy bottom of the river, Clive does not see a tree branch aimed squarely at his head; the blow knocks him out of the boat and upsets it. Knowing that Clive's passenger, Anna, cannot swim, Giles dives into the river over and over, but its murky water foils his rescue attempts. Clive's body is found on the river bank that night - Anna's is never recovered.
Two weeks later, the grief-stricken Hugo develops his movie film and is watching his last memento of his son and fiancee when he sees the eerie smudge again, over Clive... but the smudge is not moving away from the man, as the soul should at the moment of death, but it is moving toward him as he strikes his head. Giles, Hugo's partner in much of his experimentation, is equally mystified.
Hugo then receives a visit from Sir Edward, who brings shocking news: there is to be a public execution by hanging. Apparently Edward and Hugo are also part of a coalition to abolish capital punishment, and Edward asks that Hugo record the execution with his moving picture camera for use as propaganda. Hugo reluctantly agrees. When Giles, who was to assist him, leaves the spectacle in disgust, Hugo finds himself having to work two pieces of machinery alone - when the sun goes behind a cloud, he fires up a spotlight of his own design so that there may be enough light to photograph the hanging.
The crowd gasps in fear as they see a ghastly figure revealed in the unnatural light, as the condemned man drops through the trap door. Hugo cranks away at his camera as the thing in the light seems to strain at the edge of the light, apparently trapped... and the hanged man, his neck broken, continues to convulse and struggle, until Hugo turns off the light, the ghostly figure vanishes... and the condemned man finally dies.
Hugo now theorizes that what he captured temporarily is what he calls the Asphyx, after a creature in Greek mythology. Literally, a spirit of death that comes to each living thing in its moment of expiration. The spotlight, which produces its light through a reaction between water and "phosphate crystals", somehow stops and imprisons the Asphyx. He and Giles test out this theory by feeding a guinea pig poison and trapping its Asphyx in the beam of light, then forcing it into a small coffin-like device which has it's own chamber full of crystals and a bottle dripping water on them, filling the coffin with the same imprisoning light. Its Asphyx thus contained, Hugo feeds the twitching guinea pig an antidote. As long as its Asphyx is contained, the guinea pig is immortal.
Moving things up to the next level, Hugo visits a poorhouse which he finances and recruits a man who is dying of consumption (Terry Scully). Hugo cares for and feeds the man, generally making him comfortable until the consumption claims him, at which time Hugo and Giles trap the man's Asphyx. They attempt to coax the Asphyx into another chamber, but the man, in agony, makes Hugo release the trigger of the spotlight by throwing acid in his face. The Asphyx is released, and the man dies.
Though his face has not healed, Hugo redoubles his efforts, constructing an electric chair that he may have a tractable subject - himself - for the experiments. Throwing the switch under his own right hand, Hugo begins the process of dying, and Giles traps his Asphyx - only to find that neither man thought the experiment through, and a second set of hands is needed to adjust the prison chamber. Fortunately, Christina was roused by the commotion, and though terrified, she operates the spotlight while Giles imprisons the Asphyx.
While Hugo recovers from his electrocution, Giles sets up the prison chamber in the family crypt, attaching the crystal container to a water pipe that the light will continue, unmanaged. As Hugo has instructed, Giles then fits the single metal door to the crypt with a combination lock, then hides the combination. Hugo sets about planning to immortalize the rest of his family. Christina takes a lot of convincing; eventually, Hugo simply bullies her into it by threatening to disallow her marriage to Giles. For Christina's immortalization, the men rig up a guillotine whose blade can be stopped partway down its traverse, and Sir Hugo rigs a hose carrying water to the prison chamber, to ensure a steady flow of water to the crystals.
Alas, Christina had earlier set the immortal guinea pig free, and the treacherous beast chews a hole in the water hose, extinguishing the light within the prison. As Hugo runs to the chamber to set things aright, he jostles the levers controlling the guillotine, and the blade slams down on Christina, decapitating her. Both men stand shocked and horrified for a moment, then Hugo frees her Asphyx, allowing his bisected daughter to die. The grief-stricken Giles attempts to throttle him, but in the movie's single intentional laugh, Hugo tiredly informs him, "You can't kill me, Giles. Nobody can."
Later, Giles finds Hugo searching his desk, trying to find the combination - it is his intention to release his Asphyx and die. Giles promises Hugo that he will open the locked crypt, but only if Hugo immortalizes him first, as promised - Giles says he intends to use his immortality to make amends for Christina's death. However, this is all a part of an elaborate revenge/suicide plot on the part of the mourning Giles. The young man switches the crystals in the spotlight (the new crystals are white, so we cannot make the obligatory joke about Folger's Crystals), then burns the sole copy of the combination, placing the ashes in an envelope, which he hands to Hugo before he steps into the new Death Machine: a makeshift gas chamber, employing the deadly gas from a wall light.
When the spotlight will not fire up, Hugo immediately stops the flow of gas to the cubicle, and bustles about to feeding oxygen to Giles. However, Giles breathes, "Christina..." and strikes a match, blowing himself to kingdom come. The distraught Hugo staggers to the crypt, pulling out the envelope... then he stops short, remembering Giles words about making amends. Then he burns the envelope himself, never discovering his young assistant's duplicity. Hugo clutches the guinea pig to him, "My only companion in immortality..."
Move forward about a hundred years... an old man walks slowly down the street, dressed in tattered rags. He turns, revealing that he is Hugo, wearing some of the worst old age make up ever put on screen. He is also still holding the guinea pig... which has not aged a day! Hugo steps into the street, directly between two cars that crash together. Which is where the movie begins, with two policemen dismayed that the man crushed between the two cars is still alive. Hope you remembered back that far. The end.
Glendale Entertainment, which made The Asphyx, was one of the companies that attempted to fill the void as Hammer began to stutter and stumble in the early 70's. There were two strikes against this movie when it was first released in America: first, they were distributed by a company that had before only distributed softcore sex films; they had no idea how to sell such a cerebral movie. The second, insurmountable obstacle was that it was 1973, and a little movie called The Exorcist had opened. For better or worse, The Exorcist skewed the movie-going public toward much more visceral, splattery thrills, and The Asphyx could not have competed with even the weakening Hammer films in that area.
Even when Christina is beheaded, we see no blood. Asphyx's horrors are of a much more brainy sort, and most of the horror comes from the deterioration of Sir Hugo's character. At the beginning of the film, this man is arranging to have his butler's ailing sister taken care of at his expense and informing his son, with great sincerity and no condescension, "We Cunninghams have our responsibilities." It is perhaps a commentary on the ego of the British Upper Class that Hugo wants to be immortal so that not only can he continue his philanthropy for all time, but so he, and his family, may guide mankind through its upcoming technological development. By the end of the movie, this man - who is morally opposed to capital punishment - is building execution devices in his own study. At the end, he sacrifices all he holds dear - literally - to achieve his goal, his own Godhood.
It's good, heady stuff, all played absolutely straight, with nary a drop of irony, camp or melodrama, by a stunningly good cast. Which only makes it hurt all the more when one must consider the movie's shortcomings.
First come the scientific considerations. Even beyond the idea that Hugo invented the motion picture camera decades before Edison, there are those troublesome crystals that produce light when water is splashed over them. Fair enough, but this means some sort of interaction is taking place, which also means that something is undergoing a chemical change to produce that light, and it's probably not the water. Wouldn't they have to refresh the supply of crystals in the chamber occasionally, rather than just hooking them up to a water drip and assuming all will be well for eternity?
It's hard to swallow that a metal door fitted with a combination lock would foil a truly determined man with a drill. Or that the masonry surrounding that door is impervious to a sledgehammer. Why does Sir Hugo build ever more complicated death machines when he has a perfectly good electric chair, which he already knows is practically foolproof? Why do the filmmakers seem to think that a guinea pig is the same animal as a rat?
There is a form of script known as the idiot story, in which the story can not move forward unless all the characters act like idiots. The Asphyx is not an idiot story, it is an entirely different breed: the accident story. All the major plot points are accident-driven. Hugo discovers the existence of the Asphyx by accident. Fair enough. Finding out he can trap the beastie by accident is stretching it. Losing Christina to a contrived accident simply causes one to pause and think about the proceedings too much.
Most other movies would employ some sort of sleight of hand to distract you from these things; some gore perhaps, or a bit of skin. The Asphyx, though, is a class act, and eschews these things - unfortunately, to its ultimate detriment.
Handsome picture, original concept - stumbling story.
- April 2, 2000