Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Asphyx (1973)

In 1973, period horror flicks were a dying breed, although they probably didn't realize it quite yet.  How cool to discover this very British, very weirdo flick called "The Asphyx", a Victorian-era period piece about an inquisitive upper class scientist who dabbles in experiments related to the nature of death.  Although it was made in 1973, it aspires more to the old days of classic Hammer-style horror.

OK, so there's this guy.  A squire, I think, and be honest--you're not really sure what a squire is, are you?  No, I didn't think so.  Well, I will tell you a squire is...a rich guy who lives in a big house and gives lectures to people about weird smudges on film. Yes, photography, which was so cutting edge back in the Victorian era, is the major plot point here.  The squire guy's name is Hugo Cunningham, and he's just married a second wife.  They're way too happy together, so you know something awful is going to happen to her, right?  Right.  Well, before it happens, we discover Hugo has some strange research going.  He studies pictures taken of subjects who were moments from death, and discovers an unexplained smudge on the images.  Hugo is convinced the smudges are images of the soul leaving the body, and he's determined to prove the soul can be photographed. 

Ladies and gentlemen...the Asphyx.
The trouble really starts when Hugo acquires a new-fangled "motion picture" camera, and while filming his family rowing boats on the water, an accident claims the lives of his wife and son.  Again a mysterious image appears on the film, but this time before his son's death, not after.  Hugo realizes the smudge is not the soul of the nearly departed, but rather something hovering near the subjects moments before their deaths--perhaps causing death itself.  Becoming more obsessed with finding the answer, Hugo films the hanging death of a prisoner and witnesses a startling phenomenon when a beam of light he uses for his photography reveals a bizarre apparition struggling to reach the victim.

Hugo dubs the apparition the "Asphyx", and his hypothesis is that the Asphyx is what truly extinguishes a human being's life.  An experiment with a guinea pig reveals the Asphyx can not only be trapped in Hugo's beam of light, but also imprisoned inside a lighted bottle, rendering the guinea pig immortal because it's Asphyx cannot reach it.  It isn't long before Cunningham enlists his daughter's fiance to help him with his experiments, and he turns himself immortal by trapping his own Asphyx.  Hugo's immortality, however, also causes him to become even more determined to pass this morbid little curse on to his daughter and her fiance.

"Oh, Good God, I just remembered I left the iron on!"
I have to say, the idea here is a lot more interesting than anything else.  It's a wild story, and the fact that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense doesn't seem to slow it down in the least.  The plot moves along at a fast clip, and it doesn't leave you sitting around thinking for too long.  Truthfully, I don't know what to think of the Asphyx itself.  As seen on camera, it is a blurry, squirming wraith that screams a lot.  They're kind of like the green slimer ghost in "Ghostbusters", and they scream like the pod people from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".  They might be ridiculous, but they're pretty weird and disturbing, too.

In the end, "The Asphyx" is one of those films that wants to tell us that even though nobody wants to die, living forever could really kind of suck, too.  Although I wouldn't call it pure 70s Doom, especially since it's a period movie, this idea alone is enough to lend it a little doomy cred.  It's not a bad way to spend an hour & a half.!

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