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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Asphyx

This first sci-fi film of 1973 is a British sci-fi / horror hybrid. Glendale Productions created a visually rich film with a sort of epic feel, but that did not catch on with audiences. Robert Stephens and Robert Powell star as the 'mad' scientist and his adopted son assistant, as they first detect, and then capture the spirit of death, the Asphyx. This was the only film Peter Newbrook directed. He had been the Producer and cinematographer on Glendale's only other film, Crucible of Terror ('71).

Quick Plot Synopsis
A contemporary british police car responds to a traffic accident. The two drivers are dead, but the old man in the middle of the crash is alive! Flashback to the late 1800s. Sir Hugo Cunningham and his fiancee, Anna, arrive at his mansion via carriage. Sir Hugo's adult children, Christina and Clive, take to Anna. So does Sir Hugo's adopted son Giles. Anna asks about Sir Hugo's work. It's psychic phenomena. His hobby? Photography, of a sorts. He's reticent. Sir Hugo and Sir Edward show the Society photos they've taken of people just as they were dying. The three separate photos each show a 'smudge', which Sirs Edward and Hugo think is the human soul departing. Later, Hugo is using his new-fangled movie camera to take film of his children in boats on the river. Clive's pole gets stuck in the mud. He hits his head on a branch, upsetting the boat. He and Anna drown. Distraught, but in need of distraction, Hugo develops the film. It shows the smudge near Clive, but traveling towards, not away. Sir Edward arrives later still, with news of a public hanging the next day. Both are, apparently, opposed to captial punishment, so Edward wants Hugo to film the travesty so as to shock others into reform. Hugo uses his movie camera, but also his new-fangled floodlight that uses water dropped onto special blue crystals. The trap door is opened, and Hugo light traps a specter trying to get to the dying man. Hugo theorizes that this specter is the spirit of death, which the greeks called The Asphyx. To see if trapping an Asphyx would prevent death, they try it on a guinea pig. They poison the pig, but trap its Asphyx. The pig does not die. They try this with a poor man dying of TB, but it fails. Hugo tries it on himself. This almost fails, but they do trap his Asphyx and lock it in the basement. He is now immortal. Hugo wants Christina and Giles to be immortal too, for the usual vainglorious reasons. They reluctantly agree. The attempt with Christina goes wrong (the guinea pig chews through the rubber hose, so the light goes out). She dies. Giles somberly agrees to proceed. He is to be gassed to near death. Giles sabotages the floodlight beforehand. When the gas is on, he lights a match and blows himself up. Hugo, distraught at killing all his children and fiancee, imagines it will take forever to heal from his guilt. Fast forward to 1972, a shabby Hugo, with his immortal guinea pig, step out into traffic. Freeze frame, but sound of crash continues. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The story in Asphyx is a bit more Lovecraft-ian than sci-fi, but the steampunk elements keep it from getting too mystical. The photography and sets lend a sort of elegence that the old Hammer films used to have. The plot has several points to muse on, so it's more of a thinking-person's story.

Cultural Connection
Immortality is one of the oldest plot threads in science fiction. It was part of the motive that drove young Frankenstein to try to cheat death. Many other films dabble with man's misplaced desire to never die. Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was another early example, in which the Faustian wish was not all-knowledge, but immortality. Early sci-fi films play with immortality, such as The Man Who Lived Again ('36), The Man With 9 Lives ('40) and others which feature someone frozen. More recently reviewed were the two-headed movies and The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler ('71). Of course, immortality underpins the many zombie and vampire films too. Man's obsession with avoiding death gets a lot of film.

Faustenstein -- Sir Hugo follows the time-honored missteps of Dr. Faust and Dr. Frankenstein. Like Faust, Hugo is willing to risk all (his children) for his goal of immortality. LIke Frankenstein, he attempts to play God, tampering with things man is not meant to.

Mini Monster -- A curious twist on the Frankenstein theme, is the immortal guinea pig. In the Frankenstein idiom, his monster returns to bring doom back upon the 'mad' scientist whose hubris led him where he shouldn't be. In this case, the guinea pig (as a sort of anti-monster) chews the rubber hose feeding water to the spotlight that trapped Christina's Asphyx. This chaos caused her death (by guillotine, no less). Both Hugo and his guinea pig were together 100 years later (1972), and both survived the car crash. The immortal guinea pig!

Old Hammer -- This film has much of the look and feel of the early Hammer Horror films of the 60s. That is, before Hammer decided that films needed gratuitous sex and gore. Those additions didn't save Hammer. But then, the old Hammer style was not the draw it once was, either. Asphyx did not get much of a reception. Horror films would follow the path set by The Exorcist, released just a month later. Disgusting gore would become required. Thoughtful topics were passé.

Playing God -- When Christina learns of her father's work, she protests that man was not meant to be immortal. Indeed, this was why man was evicted from the Garden of Eden. He could not know evil (the rebellion of sin) and remain immortal (in the Garden). Hence God's warning, that to eat of that tree, "you will die" (not be immortal anymore). Christina represented the pre-humanist Christian understanding, that life on earth was temporary, that eternal life (heaven) was the goal, not eternal occupancy of the waiting room (earth). Hugo represents the humanist understanding, that all there IS is life on earth, there is nothing else BUT the waiting room, so he wanted more. He learns of the curse of his choice. Others move on through the waiting room, but he remains stuck there forever.

Bottom line? There's not much science in the fiction of Asphyx. It is, nonetheless, a respectably told tale in a more Faustian mode. The steampunk elements are nice, but too few to be an attraction. The pace can be a bit slow in spots, and a bit talky. Modern audiences, accustomed to buckets of gore in the 40 years since, will likely be bored or disappointed. Those willing to do more thinking may find it more agreeable.


Randall Landers said...

I think this is a charming film, really. The steampunkishness is just part of its appeal, but this is a scientist who keeps killing his own children and their lovers, and keeps on going. Even though he's horribly burned by acid in an accident, he doesn't take this as a sign from above to stop this pursuit. Instead, he continues to hurt those whom he loves.

dfordoom said...

An underrated movie, definitely worth seeing.