With a compelling sound design, good special effects, and competent performances, as well as very solid direction by Peter Newbrook who never made another film, The Asphyx is one of the better but lesser known horror films of the last 50 years.
A photographer and scientist discovers a shocking secret: It’s possible to become immortal through the capturing of a person’s “Asphyx…” a spirit that appears anytime a person is about to die.
It’s around the turn of the century in England, and a scientist and photographer named Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) lives a rich and happy life full of creativity, satisfaction, and grown children, with prospects to marry again and have even more children. His oldest daughter is to be married to his protégé and adopted son Giles (Robert Powell), and over some time they collect a series of photographs that were taken of people right at the moment of death and all the photos have a common connection – they each feature a strange dark smudge near the soon-to-be-deceased person, which leads Hugo and Giles to conclude that the smudge is the soul departing the body. One beautiful afternoon, Hugo is out with his family and filming them rowing boats, but a horrible accident occurs, leaving another of his sons dead. When he reviews the footage he shot, he sees the strange dark smudge again, only this time the smudge moves, indicating that the soul – or whatever it is – might be a thing that is slippery and sentient, meaning that it might be possible to capture it before the point of death … rendering the person to whom it belongs immortal. Hugo and Giles conduct an experiment on a guinea pig, and when the smudge – which they name an “asphyx” – is captured in a container like a ghost, they have made the guinea pig immortal. The next experiment is obvious: Hugo will have his asphyx captured at the moment of his death and make himself immortal – which works – but then comes the next stage of his experiments … to duplicate the process on his remaining family. After a disastrous attempt to make his daughter immortal turns Giles against him, Hugo becomes cursed to keep on living with the guilt of his actions and live the life of a cursed immortal, destined to walk the earth in shame forever.
In the style of a Hammer film or an Amicus picture, the strange and unique film The Asphyx has aged pretty well, and it will appeal to classic British horror film fans, as well as horror films in general. I remember several decades ago when Fangoria released the “100 Underrated Horror Films You’ve Never Seen” book, I scoured the list and tracked them all down, and this film was one of them, and deservedly so. With a compelling sound design, good special effects, and competent performances, as well as very solid direction by Peter Newbrook who never made another film, The Asphyx is one of the better but lesser known horror films of the last 50 years.
Kino Lorber has brought The Asphyx back in print on a new Blu-ray edition that has two versions of the film – an 86-minute cut and a 99-minute version. Both versions have been restored, but the longer cut uses footage of varying quality, so at times the picture gets murky and faded. There’s an audio commentary with critic Kim Newman, plus the trailer and a slipcover.