Directed by Peter Newbrook and released in 1972, The Asphyx was also known under the titles Spirit of the Dead and The Horror of Death. Set in 1875, it explores many of the same themes as Frankenstein, what with all the hubris about scientists tampering in God’s romaine and suchlike. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a widower, a gentleman scientist, and a cheery, progressive sort of bloke, using his money and expertise in service of the betterment of mankind. At the beginning of the movie, he is bringing his fiancée Anna (Fiona Walker) back to the family estate to introduce her to his two grown children Clive (Ralph Arliss) and Christina (Jane Lapotaire), as well as a young fella named Giles (Robert Powell), who he introduces as his adopted son, but who also has a thing going with Christina, so…huh. Yeah, technically they’re not blood relatives, but still, eeeewwwww. Moving on.
One of Sir Hugo’s main scientific pursuits involves working with a psychical research society, photographing people at the moment of their deaths. A few of their photographs seem to show a strange black smudge near the dying people, which the psychical society believes are the souls leaving the bodies. Sir Hugo is excited about the implications of this research, but his ward/assistant/daughter-banger Giles is all kinda meh, skeptical of the society’s conclusions and not really seeing the point of it all.
Things start going to shit about twenty minutes into the festivities. Clive and Anna are killed in a freak boating accident, and Sir Hugo happens to capture their deaths on his newfangled video camera. Beside himself with grief, he insists on watching the footage to see his beloved Anna and his only son Clive one final time. He is simultaneously horrified and ecstatic to find that he can clearly see that telltale black smudge appearing on the film right before Clive gets beaned with the fatal tree branch, but now that he can see it as a moving image instead of a static one, he can’t help but notice that the smudge is not moving away from Clive, as his soul presumably would, but toward him. Dun dun duuuuuun.
This doesn’t seem like a great deal to go on, but from this single piece of evidence, Sir Hugo formulates a theory that obviously, this black thingamabob isn’t really a soul per se, but an entity from Greek mythology called an asphyx, something like a grim reaper deal that comes to claim your ass when you’re fixin’ to bite the big one. He’s eager to do more research into the matter, and fortuitously, an opportunity soon presents itself: the president of the psychical society, Sir Edward Barrett (Alex Scott) arrives at Sir Hugo’s house, all in a lather because the barbaric British government has decided to reinstate public executions in order to try to stem the tide of a supposed explosion of violent crime. Sir Edward and Sir Hugo are both vehemently anti-capital punishment, and Sir Edward wants Sir Hugo to film the first hanging, hoping that the horror of the images will rally the public to their cause. Sir Hugo pretends that he doesn’t really want to do it, but secretly he’s all like AWWWW YEAH and metaphorically rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee. He finally agrees, though he doesn’t tell Sir Edward what his true intentions are, vis-á-vis recording dying people’s repo-demons.
During the hanging, Sir Hugo uses a “light booster,” essentially a spotlight using phosphorous crystals, to illuminate the gallows as the condemned man meets the noose; but to the surprise of himself and everyone assembled, the criminal’s asphyx is clearly visible to all, and seems to be trapped within the phosphorous beam. When Sir Hugo reviews the footage later, both he and Giles realize that if a person’s asphyx could be halted by the phosphorescent light, and further, if the asphyx could then be transferred to a purpose-made lock-box with a phosphorous beam shining indefinitely into it, then a person could, theoretically, never die, provided the asphyx is never released. They try the experiment on a guinea pig and meet with rousing success, so of course the next logical step is that Sir Hugo, growing increasingly mad with the potential power of everlasting life, decides to immortalize himself, because his awesomeness cannot be contained within a single lifetime, goddammit.
If you know anything about this type of movie, you’ll know that the situation is going to go drastically, horrifically sideways from that point forward, and you may find yourself asking the following questions: is it ever morally justifiable to toy with immortality? What lengths will a man go to to preserve his family and his legacy? Is it really prudent to have to live forever when your noggin is hanging on by a single sinew like Nearly Headless Nick? Some pretty fucked up shit happens at the end of this, folks, and here is yet another example of a Cunningham family who really, desperately need some kind of psychiatric intervention. Happy Days this ain’t.
As with a lot of British films from the early 70s, this one moves at a snail’s pace and is ridiculously talky, so it’s definitely not for all tastes. The characters, further, are all intensely twee, upper-class-twit types, but I found myself kinda liking them in spite of myself. Plus I was so interested to see what new, profanely impious schemes Sir Hugo was gonna come up with next that I was utterly transfixed through the entire two-hour running time. I also found the ending wonderfully cruel, ironic, and immensely satisfying.
That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.