The Asphyx Review
It would be possible to say that The Asphyx was a waste of good material but I’m not altogether sure that a storyline as daft as this one could ever have been any good. Even Corman or Fisher at the very peak of their form would have been hard pressed to make this metaphysical nonsense take flight. It’s not just silly, it’s aggressively, in-your-face silly. Add some appalling dialogue and the kind of performances which remind you why some actors should stick to the theatre and you have a movie which never even begins to work.
“My God, this man’s still alive,” says a bit-part policeman at the site of a car crash in the opening scene which is set, to somewhat incongruous effect, in the early 1970s. Then we are whisked back 100 years in a world of stiff clothes, coach and horses and bad acting. Robert Stephens, in one of the most spectacularly awful performances ever committed to celluloid by a usually good actor, plays Sir Hugo Cunningham who returns to his family home with a new wife, Anna (Walker). “What a pity all our new family couldn’t be here,” muses his daughter Christina (Lapotaire), to which her brother Clive (Arliss) replies, in a risibly expository fashion that becomes characteristic of the film, “Yes, I had to leave Elizabeth behind in Switzerland. She’s bitterly sorry to miss the wedding but her absence is unavoidable.” Lucky old Elizabeth, we realise, as a film which begins as simply daft soon becomes utterly ludicrous. Hugo is a bit of an old tyrant who adores Clive and Elizabeth but is cold and distant towards his adopted son Giles (Powell). But his mind is not so much on the wedding – “I was naturally very anxious to make a good impression,” worries Anna – as on his epic quest to discover the story behind some weird smudges on photographs he has taken of people in the very instant they are dying. “My children are all grown, they’ll be going their own separate ways before long,” explains Hugo in a scene which is presumably meant to explain his passion for his research but actually comes across as morbid self-pity.
“A smudge.... here.... and another one, here... and finally another.... here!” Hugo points this bizarre phenomena out to fellow members of his psychical research committee, one of whom responds, understandably, “It is perplexing, to say the least.” The smudge could be explained as faulty exposure or inaccurate recording but is in fact, or so Hugo believes, the Asphyx; a creature in Greek mythology – a spirit of death that arrives when a person’s life is threatened. This is all very foolish but it’s not impossible to conceive that a good, sinister horror film could still be produced with a bit of imagination and care in the making. It’s fair enough that Hugo, in 1875, is experimenting with the possibilities of photography, but in the scene that follows he also appears, to amusing effect, to have invented (twenty years before Le Prince), the technology to produce films. As he films Anna and Clive on a boat, they have an accident and both are killed. Hugo obsessively replays this scene and discovers that the smudge is not only on the film but is also moving towards the victims. This is unlikely enough but, as Jonathan Rigby points out in his book ‘English Gothic’, “we discover that he has also inadvertently invented the zoom lens”. This scene is fatal to the development of the film because it’s just a step too far and it’s the death blow to the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.
“There’s a widely held belief that a dead man holds the indelible image of death,” we are informed as Hugo decides to take photos of his deceased son. Well, widely held in the battier circles of British society in the late 19th Century perhaps but even the followers of Madame Blavatsky would be hard pressed to take any notice of this nonsense. Hugo continues his exploration into the sillier side of psychical research by filming a hanging, during which we get to see The Asphyx in gloriously vivid and unintentionally funny detail. It would be straining at a gnat to make fun of the cheapness of the special effects but it’s hard to ignore the striking resemblance of the Spirit of Death to a sock-puppet. “That’s it,” declares Hugo, “There’s it’s Asphyx”, trying to convey an impression of awesome horror while obviously not realising the rather cute appearance of the much-feted monster. Much effort is made to try and create a sinister atmosphere around the creature and the horrible high-pitched screaming is quite effective but once the Asphyx is seen it detail, the whole conception collapses to laughable effect.
The development of the plot becomes increasingly foolish. “Do you realise what we’ve done,” snaps Hugo, indicating his understanding that every creature has its own asphyx. Therefore, if he can catch a human asphyx then immortality is theoretically possible. I won’t bore you with the details of this but must point out that Hugo beings a campaign to make himself and his family immortal using a series of ridiculously cumbersome attempts at semi-suicide. The highpoint of stupidity comes when he decides to use a guillotine to immortalise his daughter in a scene which, in a less tedious film, might be a camp classic.
Stephens is so awful in this film that it’s rather embarrassing while simultaneously being riveting. Given a simple line like “There hasn’t been a public execution for years”, he furrows his brow, spits out the middle words and then lingers over “years” just in case we’ve missed the point of the dialogue. Connoisseurs of bad acting will relish every scene. The rewards are many and varied. At one point he has a hissy fit and strides around his lab screaming “Pointless? How dare you call my work pointless!” in a manner which even Colin Clive at his most extravagantly camp would find hard to match. Wishing to finish a conversation, he raises his hand and, over-enunciating like Julie Andrews singing ‘Do-Re-Mi’, says, “That is all!”. The real treat comes however when he has a classic pseudo-science line to deliver. His dramatic pauses bring new pleasure to dialogue such as “If I am able to record the Asphyx due to the fluid with which I sensitise my photographic material (meaningful pause) then why shouldn’t the light my booster generates (shorter pause and intense look) determine the Ashpyx’s movements? (Long pause and much fiddling with cheap replicas of primitive scientific equipment) When I press the trigger, it releases accurately measured droplets of water onto these crystals...” Sadly, at this point, Robert Powell interrupts but it’s not long before Stephens is back on form. “Giles,” he says intensely, “Find me a.... guinea pig”. By which he means a real guinea pig which features largely and absurdly in ensuing events, not least when it chooses the most unfortunate moment to nibble a crucial cable. As the story progresses, Hugo is meant to become ever more obsessed with his quest for immortality, but Stephens has already begun at fever pitch and can’t find anywhere more insane to go. So the character arc makes no sense at all. As pointed out by several other writers, Peter Cushing or Vincent Price might have made more of this character. Stephens, abandoned by script and director, has nothing to do except ham it up.
The supporting cast have a hard time competing in the overacting stakes but generally manage to keep the contest interesting. Alex Scott, as Hugo’s research colleague, waves his hair around as if in a force ten gale and stamps on every line as if it were a venomous insect. “Ahhh, you have the slides. This will be MOST useful,” he states in a manner which makes you wonder how badly he could play Richard III. Mind you, given a line like “We must share what knowledge we glean from our researches”, what else could he possibly do. In a small role as the hanged man, Terry Scully speaks with a RADA accent and obviously thinks he’s in ‘Upstairs Downstairs’. “The condemned man ate a hearty meal” he states, grinning with pleasure at his supposed witticism, following this up with the simply bizarre line, “When dead, I may feed a few dried tubers.” Jane Lapotaire, a fine stage actress, makes no impression at all until her guillotine scene, when she is required to do little else but look terrified. It’s only Robert Powell who emerges with any credit, largely because he alone in the cast has any idea of how to underplay a scene.
To be fair, there are some audacious ideas presented here and it’s possible that a really good treatment of them could have proved worthwhile. After all, equally daft concepts had been explored in much better films like The Creeping Flesh and Hammer’s marvellous Demons Of the Mind. But none of the potentially intriguing avenues are explored and interesting subtexts - such as Hugo’s view of science as a rational alternative to fear and his ironic inability to understand that immortality is nothing more than living death – go to waste. When you consider that “Doctor Who” was examining concepts just as audacious with considerably more wit and economy on television, the film seems even more of a missed opportunity. Moreover, with a bit of tension and atmosphere, the movie could have been genuinely unnerving and even disturbing.
You can’t expect much from hacks such as writer Brian Comport, who also came up with the hopeless screenplay for sordid Brit-flick The Fiend, and composer Bill McGuffie - perpetrator of woeful scores for ten years that range from Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD to Sidney J.Furie’s hysterically daft The Leather Boys. But, considering the presence on the team of ace DP Freddie Young and production designer John Stoll, the film looks surprisingly drab. It doesn’t help that the print used for this DVD is cropped from 2.35:1, but the horribly dingy appearance of many of the scenes is hard to understand given the distinguished members of the crew. It’s debatable whether Peter Newbrook can actually direct a film. This was his debut, following a successful career as a cinematographer and sometime producer of exploitation horror movies such as the much more enjoyable Corruption. That film has a sleazy energy which keeps it entertaining but The Asphyx has delusions of grandeur, from the faux-Victorian dialogue to the pretentious asides about scientific responsibility, which make it a chore to sit through. Laughing at it is diverting for a while but it’s also a bit disturbing to watch people making such fools of themselves. Newbrook, who began his career on the second unit of Lawrence of Arabia, never directed again and his career ended with this film, which came shortly afterwards the even more appalling Crucible Of Terror, a film which is constantly revived on TV for reasons which defy understanding.
Anchor Bay’s release of a film which is alleged to have a cult following is bound to disappoint virtually everyone, adherents and detractors alike. Not only is the print is pretty bad shape, it’s also transferred in the wrong aspect ratio and granted a soundtrack remix that doesn't work.
Incidentally, the version on the disc is an 82 minute version of the film and not the full 99 minute version familiar from TV showings. According to Marc Morris at Anchor Bay UK, this is because, of the two extant versions of the film, the shorter one is better.
The film is transferred in anamorphic 1.85:1. That's the major problem with this DVD. The film was shot in Todd-AO 35, a Scope process and should thus be viewed at 2.35:1. The US DVD release was non-anamorphic but was in the correct ratio. Why Anchor Bay have let us down on this is baffling. The transfer is awful anyway; artifact ridden with smeary colours and poor contrast but it would help if you could see the whole image. Characters are constantly half cut-off on the side of the screen, their disembodied voices appearing when you least expect it.
There are two soundtrack options. The first one is, somewhat vaguely, called English Stereo. Actually, it's a 2-channel mono track that sounds reasonable, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt. However, it's crackly and sometimes distorted. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is, on the other hand, a disaster. Dialogue is much too low in the mix, making it hard to hear which is a particular problem with a film as wordy as this. Music is too loud and strident throughout and the whole track simply seems out of balance. The source of the remix was obviously poorly kept too.
The only extra is a small photo gallery containing stills from the film, some production photos and publicity.
No subtitles are provided for the film.
The Asphyx is a very poor excuse for a film but even such a bad movie deserves a better presentation than this. Anchor Bay's DVD gets my award for worst release of the year so far and should be avoided.