The Asphyx (1972)

*. I have to admit, I went in to this with one question paramount in my mind: How do you pronounce “Asphyx”? The answer? “Ass-fix.” I probably should have guessed.
*. That matter settled, what we have here is a surprisingly off-beat British horror flick. The premise is demented. Apparently each of us has a personal demon known as an asphyx that comes to take away our soul after death. This is not a comforting thought, or one that fits very well with any religious tradition I’m aware of.
*. As researcher Sir Hugo Cunnigham (Robert Stephens) discovers, however, the asphyx can be seen hovering around a person who is approaching death, and by use of a phosphorus lamp can be trapped in a case. This means that the person whose asphyx is so contained is now effectively immortal. I’m not sure why this should be so, but it is.
*. Being a good man of science, Sir Hugo experiments first on a white lab rat, making it immortal by capturing its asphyx in a special cabinet. Note that animals have souls too. Might we do the same with plants as well, or anything organic? The question is left open. In any event, satisfied with the results Sir Hugo goes on to immortalize himself, and plans to do the same with the rest of his family. Alas, as errors compound he learns that “providence is not to be tampered with.”
*. The Asphyx was directed by Peter Newbrook, and I believe it was his last film (he later went on to work a lot in television). His previous movie had been Crucible of Terror, another real oddity that I enjoyed. He obviously had a thing for making movies outside of the box. It’s too bad he didn’t have a chance to do more, but the British film industry was contracting in the 1970s.
*. The story came from Christina and Laurence Beers, who I don’t know anything about and didn’t find any other credits for. The script was written by Brian Comport, who did a couple of other obscure (and weird) horror titles and that’s it. The nearest analog I can think of is The Picture of Dorian Gray, but even that’s little more than an echo, with the asphyx in the basement the guarantor of Hugo’s immortality. But Hugo does age, even if his lab rat, his “companion for all eternity,” doesn’t.
*. Of course this part of the story doesn’t make sense. Why should it only be Sir Hugo’s face that ages? How is he still ambulatory? And how is he maintaining that asphyx casket after all these years, since he can’t get into the basement?
*. Using a guillotine as a near-death experience was perhaps not the wisest move. I’m just saying.
*. But then the death traps the characters use are all kind of fun in a Dr. Phibes sort of way. An electric chair. A guillotine. A gas chamber. The Jigsaw killer might have been taking notes.
*. It’s all very silly. If Giles just wants to kill himself at the end, for example, and that clearly is all that he wants to do, why bother going through that rigamarole about replacing the crystals and pumping his chamber full of oxygen so he can blow himself up? Why not just take some poison and call it a day?
*. So now I’ve called it demented, silly, and fun. I enjoyed it. The frame narrative is a nice gag, and watching them play around with all the Victorian technology is a treat. I don’t think there’s anything very profound about The Asphyx, but there is melodrama if not tragedy in its story of a man who basically annihilates his entire family and then, faced with a choice between grief and nothing, chooses grief.

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