Monday, October 25, 2010

The Asphyx (1973): or, Who You Gonna Telegraph?

In Victorian-era England, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a real Renaissance man. Born to a life of wealth and privilege, he has been free to follow his talents and interests wherever they lead , and as a result has created some truly remarkable inventions: among them, his own photographic system, a rudimentary motion picture camera, and a powerful high-beam spotlight that runs on the focused interaction of phosphorus crystals and water. Moreover, Sir Hugo is a champion of humanitarian causes, including the abolition of the death penalty in England. As he tells his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell), "Privelige means power, and we must never abuse that power! We're in the midst of great social change, and we must ensure that change is for the best!"

However, like many dabblers of years gone by, Sir Hugo is also interested in proving scientifically what most believe the sole province of the Almighty. Since the death of his wife, he has been an active member in the Psychical Research Society, and with his still camera has captured some startling images of dying TB patients--dark shadows on the print, blurred but definitively present, showing what he believes is "the soul departing the body at the moment of death!" However, when his movie camera captures a tragic punting accident that claims the lives of his son Clive and fiancee Anna, the film shows the shadow moving TOWARD the doomed subjects rather than away. With Giles assisting him, Sir Hugo begins seeking an explanation for whatever (the fuck) he's caught in his remarkably hi-def glass-plate prints.

"And that, gentlemen, is how we know the human soul to be banana-shaped."

Brainstorming in the lab, Sir Hugo posits that the image he's captured must be an Asphyx--an evil spirit from Greek myth that "manifests itself only in times of danger, having existed in eternal agony. It seeks out the dying, or the damned, for only by possessing those about to die is it at last released from unspeakable torment!" Of course he's 100% KEE-RECT, and his quest to discover, capture, and tame this supernatural creature make up the plot of Peter Newbrook's 1973 film The Asphyx (aka The Horror of Death).

The preceding paragraphs describe roughly the first third of the movie, which from a filmmaking perspective has its highs and lows. I was impressed by the sumptuous period sets and costuming, and by the mostly upper-level acting from the British cast. Robert Stephens was a respected Shakespearean actor considered by some the next Laurence Olivier, and his Sir Hugo would be at home in any top-drawer Charles Dickens adaptation. His sons and daughter Christina (the sort of Steele-ish Jane Lapotaire) are engaging and likable. In the negative column is some extremely incongruous, treacly score work by Bill McGuffie, whom  Newbrook allows to lay sweeping soap-opera ad-bumper music over what are meant to be chilling dramatic scenes. That said, Sir Hugo's old-school scientific apparatuses are well realized, even if the amazing zoom/close-up function on his movie camera prototype is never fully explained.

Hugh Jackman celebrates his 3rd consecutive Shite Eating Championship

Sir Hugo is distracted from his increasingly macabre experiments--one of which involves exhuming his son's two-week-dead corpse in a failed attempt to photograph the apparition again--by a summons from his civic-minded friends, who want him to record a public execution in order to show the British people the barbarity carried out in their names. When the hangman pulls the lever and the trap door drops, Sir Hugo turns on his phosphorescent spotlight and rolls the camera--only to discover the condemned man's Asphyx caught like a bunny in the headlights! As long as the screeching creature is held by the beam, the criminal dances at the end of his rope, unable to die; but when the last water droplet sizzles on the crystals and dissipates, the lights go out and so does the candle flame of the hanged man's life.

Of course to Sir Hugo this is a pseudo-science bonanza. Not only does it prove the Asphyx exists, it further shows that his phosphorus light can capture and bind the creature as long as the water holds out! What are the chances? Back in the lab, he and Giles rig up an Asphyx Trap and test it by poisoning a Guinea pig. It works like a charm, resulting in proof of their theories as well as one immortal rodent. Later that night Christina inadvertently lets the test subject escape, but no one's too worried. After all, what harm can an undying Guinea pig do? A second experiment with a moribund TB patient nearly works, until the subject, trapped in his death agony, throws acid at Hugo to make it stop. Scarred like a low-rent Phantom of the Opera, Hugo presses on.

"Fantastic! Now, switch to Reverse Cowgirl!"

Drunk with power and rationalizing that the longer he lives, the more good he can do for mankind, Sir Hugo enlists Giles' aid in helping him immortalize himself by capturing his own Asphyx. Of course to do this Sir Hugo must put himself in mortal danger, and this is where the film's secondary theme comes front and center: the barbarity of capital punishment. For his immortalization, Sir Hugo devises an electric chair that will put the volts to him slowly, so that when he's on the very point of death Giles can fire up the phosphorus beam and catch the Asphyx. It works, of course, and the two men imprison Hugo's Asphyx in an underground crypt where water will drip on the containment crystals forever. They further safeguard Hugo's immortality by permanently sealing the crypt with a lock that only Giles knows the combination to.Because hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Not wanting to live forever and watch his loved ones die of old age, Hugo insists that Christina and Giles (who are engaged to be married--since Giles is adopted this is okay, I guess) become immortal with him. Carrying on the capital punishment theme, Sir Hugo straps Christina into a WORKING GUILLOTINE, hoping to catch her Asphyx just as the blade falls. Why he didn't use the electric chair again, or, you know, ANY FUCKING THING ELSE BESIDES A GODDAMN DECAPITATION MACHINE, is a question that will be forever unanswered. As might have been foreseen, the plan goes horribly awry, thanks to a bug in the system--or more appropriately, an immortal guinea pig. Ah, Hubris!

Nota bene: NEVER a good idea

Not spending too much time reflecting on why he EVER thought the guillotine was a good idea, Hugo wants to end his crushing guilt by releasing his Asphyx and dying. But Giles has a different idea--arguing they can only overcome the guilt they feel for Christina's death with time and good deeds, he persuades Hugo to go ahead and make him immortal...this time using a jury-rigged GAS CHAMBER. Hugo learns too late that it's revenge and not immortality that's motivated his adopted son's scheme, as a self-sparked explosion destroys their equipment, the lab, and the secret of the immortality chamber's combination all at a go.

The Asphyx takes its share of missteps over its running time. There are several extremely talky and static sections that had me checking my watch, wondering when something was going to happen again. Also, the capital punishment theme, while potentially interesting, falters quite a bit in execution (ba-dump). The methods for luring the Asphyx out are so needlessly elaborate and uncontrolled--I mean come on, a GUILLOTINE?--that it's clear the writer and director just put them in there to make a point. Which would be well and good, except that whatever point they hoped to make is either lost or forgotten in the mad science ravings and action-packed finale. I kept expecting a payoff--either a reversal of attitude or else something bringing Hugo's philanthropic ideals back into play--but instead the script falls lazily back on the old Tithonus trope, i.e. "living forever ain't all it's cracked up to be."

BOOM goes the dynamite!
On the other hand, there's a lot to enjoy here as well. I'm a sucker for period-piece Mad Science, and Stephens plays an underwritten part with a great deal of enthusiasm. He seems to turn on a dime from "well-meaning experimenter" to "stark raving megalomaniac," but when he DOES get ranting, it's an awful lot of fun. I'm also a fan of the "goofy leaps in logic that turn out to be precisely correct" and "protagonist happens upon EXACTLY the way to fight monster by blind luck" shortcuts, both of which The Asphyx leans on heavily. And while it is more than a little dumb, the sheer audacity of the ever-more-ridiculous execution methods has a certain charm for fans of over-the-top silliness.

But the real joy here lies in the Asphyx itself, as realized by effects maestro Ted Samuels . Accomplished through simple puppetry and double-exposure camera tricks, the Asphyx is a Muppet gone MAD: a gauzy, caterwauling gargoyle coated in layers of shroud-like blubber. The scenes in which Giles and Hugo trap an Asphyx in their magic beam--and give them credit, these guys NEVER MISS--resemble nothing so much as a similar set-piece with Slimer in 1984's Ghostbusters! In fact, I would not be at all surprised if Reitman and his FX crew were big fans of this film.

Caught on tape: the elusive Squealing Worm

The Asphyx has been hard to find since the VHS edition went out of print some years back, and has had limited DVD release (legitimately, at any rate). However, if you're a fan of Victorian-era mad science (or steampunk ghostbusting), it might be worth your time to seek this one out. 2.25 thumbs.

Gettin' Old Ain't for Pussies, Kid


2 comments:

dfordoom said...

It's been released on DVD here in Australia but I'm not sure if it's still in print. I seriously love this movie - as you said, period-piece mad science is always fun, and in this one the mad science is particularly mad.

But it's also exactly the sort of thing those crazy Victorians would have dabbled in.

The Duke of DVD said...

Fantastic review! I nearly shot 50 year old port through my nose at the Hugh Jackman caption!

I have to admit, if I were going to try and capture something called "The Asphyx", I would employee means needlessly elaborate as well.

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