Skip to main content

A review of "The Asphyx" (1973)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Too silly to be a true classic of horror and too stately to be a B-movie, The Aspyhx is an oddball film that's not likely to be what you're expecting, but which is an entertaining and interesting watch nonetheless.  It's more science-fiction than horror and plays out like a long and atmospheric episode of The Twilight Zone with the aesthetics of Frankenstein.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Bit Where I Describe the Plot

Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a rich guy in 1875 England.  (The Wikipedia entry for the film says that he's a "scientific" philanthropist, but I somehow missed the part where he practices science as anything but a hobby.)  When the film opens, Hugo is remarrying and introduces his new wife-to-be to his daughter, biological son, and adopted son Giles (Robert Powell).

I would tell you that these characters are worth remembering, but the only one that matters a whole hell of a lot is Giles, for reasons we'll get to shortly.  In point of fact, Hugo's new wife pretty much disappears from the movie after the opening scene - I'm fairly certain she exists only so she can ask Hugo about his hobbies, which allows the movie to get to the plot.

Hugo is fascinated by photography.  More specifically: photographs of men and women shortly before their deaths.  In each photo, he finds an ominous black orb hovering over their bodies.  Hugo believes this is evidence of the human soul and shares his findings with a Victorian era Psychic Research Committee.

Unfortunately, Hugo is wrong - it's not actually the soul.  He learns the truth tragically via an unintentionally hilarious scene the following day.  Hugo has just invented a prototypical video camera and is testing it out on a river while his children paddle in a couple of rowboats.  Unfortunately, his biological son and his fiancee are both killed when their boat capsizes.  (Also, a raging rapid suddenly materializes out of nowhere and disappears after his son is dead.)

After mourning (off camera), Hugo watches the footage of his son and sees the orb above his body right before he fell into the water.  But he notices that the orb isn't leaving the body - it's going toward it.

As it turns out, he's actually been taking pictures of a mythological being called an "asphyx," These are personal death angels that come after you when you die to take your soul to the afterlife.  Now that Hugo has proof that asphyxes exist, he decides to take his research a step further by looking into ways he can experiment with them physically.  He engages Giles as an assistant in these experiments.

One thing leads to another and they find out that it's possible to actually trap an individual asphyx in a device and hold it captive indefinitely.  In so doing, he renders the person / animal it belonged to immortal.

Hugo and Giles debate a bit on the ethics of testing, the value of immortality, and whether or not anything they're doing or have done is really worth trying to repeat again.  Ultimately Hugo makes the decision to trap his own asphyx and try immortality out for a change - the experiment goes swimmingly, but when tragedies start to mount, Hugo may be forced to re-evaluate his choices.

The Bit Where I Make Fun of the Movie Even Though I Liked It

This is a pretty silly movie.

It's a little hard to get across its tone.  It invokes shades of Vincent Price / Roger Corman with a dash of Vault of Horror.  It's not really campy, but it is corny and melodramatic.  It manages to simultaneously be intelligent and stupid, inventive and plain, subtle and over-the-top.

Let me give you an example.  Let's talk about the asphyxes themselves.  They are portrayed as blue, ghostly things not unlike Slimer from Ghostbusters.  They never do anything especially menacing, but they are unsettling nonetheless - in large part because of the awful screeching noise they make when exposed to the living world.  They would be fine if featured in small doses, but the movie has this habit of putting them front and center so you can see all the little flaws in the special effects, then hitting a dissonant chord really loudly to make sure you understand that you're supposed to be scared.  The overall effect is less than scary.

The technology used in the experiments is actually one of my favorite aspects of the movie.  It's utterly bonkers and no attempt should be made to understand it - but it looks pretty good on film,  Basically, there's two components at play: An asphyx cage and a "booster," which is basically just a spotlight that has a jar of magic crystals (literally) inside of it.  (Seriously, don't ask how it works.  I don't know where they got the magic crystals from.  And the fact that magic crystals are swapped out with non-magic crystals becomes a plot point eventually, so... yeah, I guess Hugo bought a bulk supply from a wizard.)

To trap an asphyx, they need to first set up their subject (i.e., living thing) in a precarious situation that will kill it.  Then they need to set up the cage nearby the subject with its door wide open.  Next, they aim the booster at the area in the general vicinity of the subject and turn it on to both detect and "catch" the asphyx.  Finally, they have to move the booster gently toward the cage and close the door.

I hate to bring up Ghostbusters again, but it's basically just an overly-complicated and immobile form of using a proton pack and ghost trap.  Actually... it's exactly like Ghostbusters.

Anyway, the point is that as Hugo's experiments mount in complexity and scope, he sets up increasingly more elaborate and delicate Rube Goldberg-like contraptions to put the subject in imminent danger.  This ends up being both a source of tension and hilarity as the movie goes on.

The first time they trap an asphyx, they use a straightforward and simple arrangement.  Hugo feeds some poison to a guinea pig and then they trap the asphyx before the animal dies.  Easy.

When Hugo decides its time to capture his own asphyx, he somehow comes to the conclusion that poison won't work.  I guess he just doesn't like the taste?  Well, anyway, he goes for something a little more robust: a homemade electric chair, with a device to control the amperage at his fingertips.  Hugo zaps himself to death while Giles turns on the booster and captures his asphyx.  Success!

So, given that the electric chair method was proven to work and comes with the safety precaution of a self-controlled voltage dial, you would think (hope?) that Hugo would just use the same setup for everyone else he plans to immortalize, right?

And that's where you're wrong, because The Asphyx knew the movie would be boring if the characters could cheat death so easily.  Instead, when they decide to immortalize their next target... they strap her to a guillotine.

Yup.  A straight-up guillotine.  No safety measures - they just hold onto the blade with a rope and either let it drop a bit or pull it back.

Was that seriously the best idea you could come up with?  You didn't want to think that through a little more?  Maybe try the poison again?

By the time they get to the final experiment, they end up putting together this bizarre arrangement with an oxygen tank, an airtight prison cell hooked up to a rope and pulley system, and supply hoses draped all over the lab.

Come on, Hugo!  Poison!  Put some poison on a bagel and feed it to your kids, you dummy!  This is not a difficult process!

The Bit About Science and Non-Themes

In an early scene in the movie, Hugo tells his son that the Cunninghams have an obligation to be charitable to the public.  Philanthropy plays an interesting undercurrent in the movie, particularly in the context of scientific conquest.

The movie doesn't make it totally clear where the Cunninghams' wealth came from, but it does imply that Hugo is more of a hobbyist than an actual researcher.  He is mainly preoccupied with photography - going so far as to invent his own motion picture camera - and only gets involved with asphyxes and immortality on a lark.  Science doesn't seem to be his profession as much as it is a way to pass the time.

But because it is just a hobby - and because he has unlimited resources to fund his meddlings - Hugo is able to uncover one of the most important breakthroughs of his fictional universe's history.  In turn, you would expect him to pass on this knowledge to the public as another form of philanthropy.

Yet the movie never closes the loop on that thematic arc.  Even though the conclusion may be that immortality is too terrifying and immoral a thing to be replicated, wouldn't the underlying science still be of value to the rest of the world?  Isn't it the height of selfishness to deem one scientific exploit "wrong" and withhold it from the world?  Wouldn't the Cunningham morality dictate that he at least publish a paper on his findings before he smash up his lab while screaming, "Oh, the folly!"?

The movie has this odd habit of provoking a lot of interesting questions about science and experimentation, but refusing to come up with any satisfactory answer to or discussion about any of them.  For example: there is a scene where Hugo takes in a dying poor man to experiment on his asphyx.  Immediately your mind wanders to a thousand ethical questions.  Doesn't the poor man deserve to be told about their research?  What if telling him would invalidate the research?  Would things be any different if he was another rich man?

The Asphyx seems unconcerned with any of that.  Really all of this is brought up just so they have a good excuse for Hugo to perform a lot of pulpy B-movie science in his private lab.

The Bit Where I Tell You To See It Anyway

Despite all those flaws (to say nothing of the fact that the opening twenty minutes drag quite a bit), it's still a quirky and fun movie.  The Asphyx pretends to be a lot smarter than it is, but if you're willing to accept its dumb decisions to let the plot move on, I think you'll find a lot to enjoy here.

You can watch The Asphyx on Netflix Instant right now.