I have decided to spend Halloween month covering horror films of the British Isles, since that is the birthplace of Halloween. We begin the month with The Asphyx, a silly but eerie 1973 film starring Robert Stephens and Robert Powell. A Victorian nobleman and amateur paranormal researcher, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Stephens), finds that if he takes a photo of a person at the point of death, there is a shadow beside them.
While filming a family outing on the river with his newfangled motion picture camera, Sir Hugo captures a moving shadow next to his son Clive just as Clive accidentally hits his head and drowns. The shadow is an asphyx, which the ancient Greeks discovered and obviously named after this film. Everyone has one. It is a creature that comes to take your soul at death. Hugo, with the assistance of his adopted son Giles (Powell) poisons a guinea pig and captures its asphyx, making it immortal; then, of course, he sets about trying to make his family immortal in the same way, with disastrous results.
The crux of the film is in a conversation between Sir Hugo, his butler, and his doomed younger son (Ralph Arliss) near the beginning of the film. Hugo tells his butler in a rather offhand way to send his (the butler’s) sister’s medical bills for Hugo to pay, then reminds his son that their family has taken care of the people in their neighborhood in a similar way for 500 years. Because they are privileged enough to be able to do so, he says, they also have a certain amount of power. Although I hate to say this, because I am a liberal myself, Sir Hugo is the bad kind of liberal: he is motivated by guilt and power, although he tells himself that he’s working in everyone’s best interests. He wants the name of Cunningham to last forever. Also, he obviously sees the people he helps merely as tools to be used to bolster his ego. It is the same misguided intent that led him to adopt Powell’s character from an orphanage only to involve him in the horrible experiments years later.
Although the effects are outdated, the music is horribly melodramatic, and absolutely none of the actors or actresses other than Powell are at all appealing, I have always liked this movie. I enjoy the juxtaposition between the characters’ impeccable upper class manners and their barbaric acts. There is a scene in which Hugo and Giles open Clive’s coffin. The corpse looks bad because of having been in the water for a day and then in the coffin for two weeks, yet Hugo stoically removes a spider from Clive’s face and then Giles wordlessly hands him a handkerchief to wipe the spider cooties off his hand. It is also great fun to watch them rig up execution machines that almost or completely kill them, including an electric chair and a guillotine. They are very bad scientists. You will want to call Walter Peck of the EPA on them.
The film gets more and more ridiculous, but it is lots of fun, even though at times I have to wonder how they managed to play it straight. Fans of Hammer’s period horrors or of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies should not miss The Asphyx.