Written by Brian Comport; Story by Christina and Laurence Beers
Directed by Peter Newbrook
A Cinema Epoch and United Entertainment Picture
Starring: Robert Stephens (Sir Hugo Cunningham), Robert Powell (Giles Cunningham), Jane Laportaire (Christina Cunningham), Ralph Arliss (Clive Cunningham); Fiona Walker (Anna Wheatley); Alex Scott (Sir Edward Barrett); Terry Scully (The Pauper)
I first saw this film on Elvira’s Movie Macabre in the mid-80s. While some of my appreciation for horror films developed while watching them hosted by the Mistress of the Dark, there was something different about this film. Unlike standard Elvira fodder like Contamination (1980) and Tombs Of The Blind Dead (1971), there was something about The Asphyx, then being broadcast under the title Spirit Of The Dead, that made it more noticeable and more memorable years later when it was finally released on DVD. This was a film that was chock full of ideas and took on the structure of a classic tragedy. It boasted two name stars (Robert Stephens and Robert Powell) and left the viewer with a feeling of both sadness and satisfaction. And to top it off, it featured a gerbil that couldn’t die!
Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a widowed scientist who seems to be embarking on a new chapter in his life: his son Clive (Ralph Arliss) will be married soon, his daughter Christina (Jane Laportaire) and adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) wish to marry and he himself is engaged to a fine woman called Anna (Fiona Walker). With all these marriages in the household, it won’t be long before the good name of Cunningham is carried on to the next generation. But tragedy on a Shakespearian level strikes when both Clive and Anna are killed in a boating accident. In his grief, Sir Hugo decides to develop the film that he was shooting of Clive when he died (film in the Victorian era? Yes, I know, we’ll get to that). He and Giles are shocked to see a dark smudge fly towards Clive at the moment of his death. This phenomenon ties in with similar still photographs that Sir Hugo has taken of dying patients. Originally, he imaged that his still camera had captured an image of the spirit leaving the body, but the filmed image, showing the specter flying towards his son, forces him to change his theories: he now believes that he has seen a harbinger of death coming to claim his son’s life. He dubs the phenomenon the “Asphyx” and through further experiments, he discovers that it is possible to capture a person’s asphyx and cage it indefinitely. This would mean immortality and the only price is to put oneself on the brink of death. But is it the only price…?
The Asphyx is a story about death and the lengths some will go to avoid it. Sir Hugo, bereaved by the loss of his son and fiancée and crushed by the knowledge that the Cunningham name will die with him, does everything he can to ensure that he will never die. Through his efforts, he ensures that a Cunningham will indeed live into the 20th century, but the price he pays is everything he holds dear. Sir Robert Stephens, known for his role in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie with his then-wife Dame Maggie Smith, gives a marvelous-as-usual performance as Sir Hugo, who starts off as the most caring and generous of men before sinking into the shell of a cold and unrestrained monster. His grief and thirst for scientific knowledge causes his better nature to seemingly drown in the same water that claimed Clive and Anna and his redemption comes far too late to do him any good.
It often seems as if fate is steering Sir Hugo towards his fateful rendezvous with his asphyx. Although he had long made a study of photographing people at the moment of their deaths, consider that the steps that lead him to the discovery of the asphyx all come from the results of accidents; he is innocently photographing Clive and Anna when a tree limb knocks Clive’s head in and their rowing boat capsizes. Further on, Sir Hugo is asked to film a hanging (he is a member of an organization protesting capital punishment, which makes sense given that this benevolent scientist cares so deeply for the sanctity of life) and when a cloud passes in front of the sun, he turns on a light booster which traps the asphyx, screaming like a banshee, in its beam. Sir Hugo seems almost destined to discover this fantastic secret, to somehow use it for the advancement of medical science, like how Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) in The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) imagined that his experiments with Victor von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) could be used to save lives during surgery. But like Frankenstein, Sir Hugo has other ideas. In fact, Sir Hugo and Victor have many things in common, the chief of them being their obsession with the continuance of life. The two scientists have different means to achieve their goals: Victor wants to create life from dead flesh (like God) while Sir Hugo simply wants to prolong life indefinitely (side-stepping God’s will). In a sympathy contest, Sir Hugo wins hands-down; Victor is motivated by an urge to be God (and he’s portrayed as something of a cold fish, even as a child) while the originally kindly Sir Hugo begins his descent to damnation as a result of his bitter bereavement and (less sympathetically) his desire to have his family name continue.
This aspect of the film is a bit strange and my point to a failing in Sir Hugo’s character from the very beginning. We don’t doubt that he loved Anna and envisioned having children with her, but it could not have been impossible for him to find another wife. And his attitude towards Giles betrays an odd contempt for his adopted son. Giles carries his name and, by marrying Christina, would keep both the Cunningham name (through Giles) and seed (through Christina) alive into the next century. But Hugo doesn’t see it that way; he considers his legacy stifled in the drowned bodies of Clive and Anna. In a demented effort to preserve his family name, he winds up becoming the legacy himself, wandering around with a baggy and wrinkled face and petting the oldest gerbil in the world, unable to die even when he unwisely steps into the path of two cars destined to crash into each other.
After discovering how to trap the asphyx (starting with that of the aforementioned gerbil), Sir Hugo electrocutes himself and successfully seals his asphyx in the basement behind a combination lock and with it, apparently, his scruples and compassion. In his most selfish moment, he forbids Giles and Christina to marry unless they immortalize themselves too. Reluctantly they agree, and all students of drama should be able to guess how well that goes.
When Christina’s immortalization goes awry (a brake on a guillotine fails, chopping the poor girl’s head off, which she endures, unable to die, until Sir Hugo comes his senses and releases her asphyx), Sir Hugo finally realizes his folly and wants only to release his asphyx so that he can be at rest with his family. But there is one hurdle Sir Hugo is unable to leap: Giles who, in his own quagmire of grief, plans to destroy the combination to the basement door and hang one more tragedy on Sir Hugo’s conscience by killing himself in a way that seems to implicate his step-father. Completely guilt-ridden, Sir Hugo decides to free his asphyx and end it once and for all. But the writers allow him his moment of redemption: instead of opening the envelope Giles left him and finding only the ashes of the combination to the basement door within, Sir Hugo realizes that it is now his lot in life to live with the guilt of what he’s done. Blessed release through death is not for him. He burns the envelope himself, never knowing of Giles’s duplicity, and consigns himself to a sad immortality with his “only friend”, the immortal gerbil. It doesn’t matter in the least that Sir Hugo couldn’t have opened the basement door even if he had tried; what matters is that, after so many bad decisions that have cost so many their lives, he has finally made the right one: pretty deep stuff for an Elvira broadcast.
The Asphyx isn’t perfect (very few horror films are – that’s part of their charm). The movie camera mentioned earlier, smack-dab in the heart of the Victorian era is bad enough without Sir Hugo claiming to be its inventor (apparently his guilt allowed him to let the patent lapse and be usurped by Mr. Edison) and I frankly question Sir Hugo’s certainty that his asphyx is indeed trapped for all eternity. The film would have us believe that a steady drip of water onto a pile of chemical crystals produces a light strong enough to hold the asphyx in its box, but I wonder about the existence of such a chemical that never dissolves or of the reliability of a drippy water pipe over the span of centuries, but if you’re going to accept the existence of the asphyx in the first place, you might as well jump into the film, plot holes and all, with a mighty cry of “Wheeeeeee.” The heart of the film isn’t in its peculiarities; it’s in the image of a ghostly specter screaming in a beam of light, in the tears of a woman who felt the pain of the guillotine, in a perfect moment when a pauper (Terry Scully), knowing he will not live to see the morning, requests Sir Hugo to put his body in the ground in the hope he may be of some use to the Earth in death like he never was in life, and of the man whose life was once as bright as a summer morning and who finds himself alone. And yes, it is even in that stupid gerbil; when Sir Hugo cradles it and calls it his only friend, I defy anyone in the audience not to be touched; he is a man destined to be an outcast by society, but must bear it bravely as a knight of the realm should. During the second act of The Asphyx, Sir Hugo forgot his pledge as a knight. In the moment when he chose not to open his own crypt and accept an eternity of wandering with his fluffy rodent, he remembered it again.