Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January and the “31 Days of British Horror” in March , Jules is at it again in May, treating us to the continuation of his chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.
You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.
Starring: Robert Stephens, Robert Powell
Director: Peter Newbrook
By 1972, as Hammer were sadly discovering, the whole gothic horror cycle of British cinema was well past the point of running out of steam. Audiences were tiring of vampires in castles, monsters running amok among the peasants and upper class scientists playing god.
Fortunately, nobody told the makers of The Asphyx this, with the result being one of the most unique and imaginative period horrors of the era.
A gentleman photographer (Robert Stephens) in Victorian England, Sir Hugo Cunningham is part of a parapsychological group who are photographing people at the precise moment of their death, with the images showing a strange blur hovering around the body. Is this evidence of the soul leaving the body?
When Sir Hugo accidentally films the death of his son and fiancé, he sees that the blur is moving towards the man, not away from him. He then decides that this is no soul, but is in fact The Asphyx from Greek Mythology, the individual grim reaper that comes to everyone at the moment of their death.
Together with his ward Giles (Robert Powell), Hugo throws himself into his research, capturing images from animals to executions, before moving onto a much bigger plan – the secret of immortality. All they have to do is capture the Asphyx…
Even for 1970s horror, the central conceit for The Asphyx is pretty out there. There’s some big ideas here, ideas on mortality, hubris and how far a man will go who has lost everything, but when it comes down to it, it’s that old trope of upper class scientists playing god again. This time though, it doesn’t feel tired at all and that due to a combination of several things.
There’s no monster or even villain for a start, which makes for a refreshing change. Just a great, weird idea at its heart. Even just the capturing of the soul/asphyx is interesting enlightenment, but to then strive to contain it to defy death? Now that’s an idea.
It’s one that’s perfectly suited to the rich visual setting of the Victorian era, all cluttered rooms of books and clanking, brass-detailed scientific equipment. In fact, every set and location both inside and out looks stunning here, helped in no small part by the cinematography of three-time time Oscar winner (for Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter) Freddie Young.
Sadly, the Asphyx itself is the one thing that doesn’t look great, being quite clearly a puppet, but it still has a weird, slightly otherworldly charm to it.
It’s the casting that really makes The Asphyx though. Robert Stevens made his name at the Royal National Theatre, becoming one of the most respected stage actors of his generation and was at one time regarded as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier. He’s clearly slumming it big time here, but quite effortlessly brings an enormous amount of gravitas and pathos to what could have been a fairly one-dimensional role in lesser hands. His Sir Hugo is almost like a reverse image of Baron Frankenstein. As wealthy, privileged and sadly hubristic in his own way, but through a humanist desire to prevent death, not defy it.
As his adopted son, collaborator and eventual adversary Giles, Robert Powell more than holds his own. A fine, fine actor in his own right, he does well here not to be outshone by the older man he shares almost every scene with.
The Asphyx is one of those rare horror films that favours story, character and concept over frights, violence and…well, horror. But it’s still a remarkably effective chiller at its heart and well worth investigating.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy