One of my favorite things about being a critic is when I get to discover a film from the past that I’ve never heard of and it turns out to be a gem. The Asphyx is one of those films that I decided to give a shot, and afterwards I can’t believe I’ve never even heard of this film until recently. The film definitely dabbles in the horror genre as well as science fiction, and to be honest it is one of the more clever and original films that toys with the idea of immortality. The Kino release of the film came with two versions, one that is 86 minutes and the other a 99-minute cut. The longer cut of the film has its additional scenes cut in from a 35 mm print; the additional scenes are easy to pick out due to the poor quality (it is a very jarring difference), but to be fair, it didn’t impact my experience.
The film opens up in modern times, at least for the time the film was first released in 1972. There has been a terrible car accident, and it seems only one person has managed to survive. The film then jumps to the late 1800’s and to the English countryside where Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stevens) is doing research on spiritual photography. He’s created a special device that can add light and reveals the image of an Asphyx, an ancient Greek spirit of the dead. Through Hugo’s experiments he believes that if you can capture and trap the Asphyx as someone is dying, you can prevent that persons death and they will become immortal, at least for as long as the Asphyx is trapped.
Though the film has a slow start, once we see Hugo go down the rabbit hole with his experiments this film really is fun and goes in some wild directions, especially for its time. The effects are campy, but they are still effective. The screeching effects for the Asphyx creature are pretty creepy. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this film really gave me some Ghostbusters vibes. When you see how Hugo uses his light device to guide the Asphyx and trap it inside a box, well, it just seems like the 1875 version of the proton pack and the ghost trap.
Where this film kind of frustrates me is how it handles the character of Hugo. He always seems to be obsessed and the “mad scientist” type, and despite him encountering tragedies we don’t see it effect him, at least in a convincing way. He seems to be more disturbed by the prospect of filming an execution than the death of a family member. Even when the stakes are raised with each experiment he performs, we don’t get to really experience the moral dilemma. It’s as though the writers were throwing out all these cool ideas to put on the screen, but nothing in the way of character development. This is really problematic in the final act, because what could have been a great emotional scene is simply treated as though nothing really happened.
This would be the only film directed by Peter Newbrook, who was a camera operator for Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Then you have Freddie Young, who was the Director of Photography for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. You’d think the film would have a grand, epic look and feel to it, but instead it looks at times like a simple stage production. Still the film works, and it’s surprising that Newbrook didn’t direct more after this, because there is certainly potential on display during certain parts.
While I’m not the biggest fan of remakes or reboots, this is a film I’d like to see given the reboot treatment. With better technology to pull off the special FX and a modern take on the material, I feel this is a movie that could be great. For now, though, I’m glad I have this little gem. It’s not perfect, but it sure is fun.