They don't often make films like The Asphyx anymore, and haven't since Hammer Studios closed its doors. (Though they have recently reopened, perhaps holding out some hope.) Victorian gothic horror movies aren't in fashion these days, but in the seventies they abounded, and this film is a fine example.
Wealthy amateur inventor and psychical researcher Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) believes he is entering a new and happy chapter in his life. His children, son Clive, daughter Christina and adopted son Giles (Ralph Arliss, Jane Lapotaire and Robert Powell) are all grown and successful, and he has just introduced them to his wife to be Anna (Fiona Walker). Everyone is happy, and he has plenty of free time to pursue his hobby, photographing people at the moment of their deaths, in pursuit of his psychic researches. He notices a distinct smudge in these photos that appears to have no natural explanation, but this gives him no more pause than any other of his scientific inquiries. He is leading a placid and self satisfied life.
And then tragedy strikes. The happy family is out on the river for some boating fun, and giving Hugo a chance to try out his newly invented motion picture camera. Thus, he is filming when his son Clive is struck on the head by a stray branch, and his fiancée falls into the river to drown. Clive's death is caught on film, and Hugo notices a shadow moving toward him just at the moment that he expires. He believes he has discovered proof of the ancient Greek demon, the asphyx, that inhabits a body at the moment of its death. He also discovers, quite accidentally, that he can trap an asphyx with a type of chemical spotlight that he has invented.
He enlists the unwilling help of Giles in his experiments, and becomes more and more obsessed as he delves deeper into matter, and tries to discover what might happen if he caught and imprisoned his own asphyx. As one might guess, in a horror film, scientists who tamper in God's domain generally come to tragic ends. And so it is here. The basic story is a familiar one to any horror fan, but the way it is played out and interrogated here is exceptionally intriguing.
This is helped considerably by the incredibly passionate performance by Stephens. He was a classically trained actor who worked with Zeffirelli and Billy Wilder, but he takes the subject matter of The Asphyx utterly seriously. This is certainly not a realist film, and the performances recognize that, but it is quite a bit more than melodrama. Stephens, and all of the other performers, are quite believable, and real emotions are on display here. It's these heartfelt and empathetic performances that allow the viewer to forgive the sometimes outlandish premise, the occasional plot hole or the special effects that look amateurish by today's standards.
The Asphyx is not terribly bloody and there's essentially no action, so if one is solely dedicated to amped up slasher type films, it's probably not for you. But it does develop and maintain a steadily building sense of unease and dread. As mentioned above, there are a couple of plot holes, or moments when it is unclear why characters take the actions that they do and not others. But these are easily forgiven, as one is swept up in the fantastic sets and splendid performances. The Asphyx is subtle and thoughtful, and asks discomfiting questions of its audience. It would be refreshing if more modern horror films were like this. Highly recommended.
Asphyx - Extended