(SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.
Giles: Can we ensnare a human asphyx?
The title, we are knowledgeably – or should that be inventively? – informed by Robert Stephens’ Sir Hugo Cunningham, derives from Greek mythology and refers to the spirit of death. It seems each of us possesses one of these, so presumably it’s some form of adjunct to the soul and/or spirit. Sir Hugo inhabits a Victorian milieu – the precise date isn’t given – and is a devotee of psychical research, as were many of the era. In particular, he has become a devotee of spirit photography, or more especially of photographing subjects at the point of death, believing he has “recorded the soul at the moment it departs the body”. A circular, darkened smudge appears on the images, and as if to confirm this, he captures something similar, by accident, when filming his son Clive (Ralph Arliss, later of Doctor Who’s Planet of the Spiders and The Quatermass Conclusion) as he drowns in a boating accident.
Sir Hugo: Trap a man’s asphyx in a beam of light and seal it off so it has no way of escape and you have immortal man.
Giles: I can’t even begin to grasp such a concept.
Now convinced this is Clive’s asphyx, Sir Hugo ventures further, recording its rather more dramatic departure from the condemned man at a public hanging; he realises the spotlight he used has acted like a flame to the supernatural moth. Sir Hugo believes he can trap this, and before long he’s bottling up a dying guinea pig’s death spirit and entombing it, rendering the animal immortal. He tries the same with a poverty-stricken tuberculosis sufferer, but the man reacts – not unreasonably – rather antagonistically to being forced into death agonies and throws acid in Sir Hugo’s face (thus, like all good, or rather bad, villains, he is rendered disfigured).
Sir Hugo: My colleagues and I… photograph the dead.
This gradual descent from activist for the abolishment of the death penalty to one who clinically spies out the terminally ill for his warped experiments isn’t perhaps as effective as it might have been. Part of that could be the casting. Oddly – since I’m a big Stephens fan, and he’s here embarking on an ever so brief big-screen leading man stint (basically this and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) – I don’t think he’s that great. He’s always best when he has something to dig his teeth into, be it villainy or humour (or both together). Stephens has a large presence, so he’s already more than a mild-mannered, earnest and sincere husband welcoming new bride Anna (Fiona Walker, Doctor Who again: Silver Nemesis and The Keys of Marinus) home at the outset. Stephens isn’t quite Nicholson in The Shining, but Sir Hugo’s decent into obsessiveness and fanaticism is similarly seamless.
Sir Hugo: Help me immortalise myself, and I will immortalise you and Christina as well!
There’s also that anyone expecting repercussions following the departure of Sir Hugo’s death essence will be sadly disappointed. I fully expected such a twist, but alas, it never came. Instead, we’re afflicted with Sir Hugo’s increasingly risible desire, having successfully extracted his asphyx through electrocution, to persuade daughter Christina (Jane Lapotair, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, Eureka) to do likewise. Giles (Robert Powell), in love with Christina, has already agreed. Most absurdly, since what could possibly go wrong, they opt to achieve this for Christina by inducing fear of death by guillotine – since fear alone is theorised to summon an asphyx – with an actual guillotine. This strategy is successful, but they hadn’t allowed for the pesky guinea pig showing up at a crucial moment and chewing through a vital piece of apparatus, leading to Christina getting the chop. Almost any other extreme method of demise would surely have made more sense.
Sir Hugo: There’s nothing in the world can kill it now, unless we release its asphyx.
Notably, Sir Hugo elects not to allow Christina’s asphyx to be captured, since this would mean her decapitated body lived on. Which begs some questions about this immortality and how it is sustained (I mean, what would remain if all physical matter were rendered as ash, or is that a Gremlins 2 kind of question?) Either way, it may go to explain why, when we see him in the current day at the end, Sir Hugo has turned into one of Fraggle Rock’s Gorgs with a dash of John Merrick. Unless it’s a disguise, something unpleasant has befallen him physically (after all, his pet guinea pig looks exactly the same). And if Sir Hugo’s now a hobo – as his outfit suggests – what has befallen his house? A combination lock would hardly deter a new owner from entering and messing with his asphyx. Never mess with another man’s asphyx.
Sir Hugo: Well, once immortal, one could govern the course of events perpetually And with the wisdom of each successive age and civilisation.
Clearly, like your common or Transylvanian vampire, anyone actually practising longevity would need an impenetrable stronghold and the means to dip in and out of readily available alternative identities or generations to sustain their influence. Sir Hugo certainly has ideas that encroach on such elite thinking, before it all goes very wrong.
Giles: Are you afraid of facing everlasting life with me?
This era of spiritualism and Victoriana hasn’t often been depicted effectively onscreen – Photographing Fairies was a decent stab a couple of decades back – and The Asphyx, though it has swathes of potential, is no exception. It isn’t so surprising that Christina and Laurence Beers have no other screenwriting credits to their names. Or that this was Brian Comport’s last one. The asphyx effect itself is by far the best element, like a grotesque cadaverous sculpture given life. Unfortunately, everything else about Newbrook’s movie is rather bland technically. Bill McGuffie’s score plays up the melodramatic tragedy rather than the sinister possibilities, and the proceedings only ever look like a modern-day Victorian-themed fancy dress bash. At its best, Hammer steeped you in a heightened, atmospheric period setting, but this is all rather hollow.
Pauper: Your hospitality has been lavish. The condemned man ate a hearty meal.
Powell’s on good form – another thing about the lack of period effectiveness is the hair, and Powell’s is pretty big – his career on the up pre-Jesus, Ken Russell and Richard Hannay. Mercifully a long time before The Detectives. Lapotaire’s probably the most affecting, though. Alex Scott, one day destined to play Cobber Gummidge opposite Jon Pertwee, is also notable as Sir Hugo’s spurned psychical associate. Terry Scully, as the aforementioned pauper, delivers a decent monologue, having been wined and dined before his demise (“When I’m dead, spare me the dissecting table”).
Christina: We are merely creatures of God. Not God.
It seems a remake was planned about a decade ago, apparently to star Alison Doody (my first response was surprise that she could even headline a movie, my second bafflement that, whoever it was whose features had been decimated by all that plastic surgery, it certainly couldn’t be Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s female lead). The Asphyx is definitely the kind of material that could benefit from a remake, though.