Man, if you’re looking for a British seance movie — and really who isn’t — there’s not a better film for you than this 1972 bit of craziness. Sir Hugo Cunningham’s (Robert Stephens) idea of fun is to film the last moments of peoples’ lives and seeing if a smudge in the images are the soul of the body trying to escape. Man, Victorian England was daffy.
Things get crazier, because when he uses a camera at the party for his engagement, his new fiancée and son are killed in a boating accident. When he watches the movie he made of the tragedy — because why not, right? — he sees that not only has he captured the blur, but that it is moving towards his son. That’s when he starts to believe that these smudges and blurs are something he calls the asphyx, the grim reaper from Greek myth that individually comes for each of us.
Now here’s where things get even more interesting. Because our hero figures that the asphyx must deal with the rules of the physical world. So he invents a special light that uses phosphorus stones beneath a drip irrigation valve that can briefly capture that smudgy black angel, making anyone who keeps asphyx remained imprisoned into an immortal.
Cunningham tasks his ward — how rich and British and Batman do you have to be to get a ward — Giles (Robert Powell) with capturing his asphyx and burying it deep in a family tomb. Because after all, Cunningham’s contributions to science are just too important for him to ever die. They need to bring in another person, Giles’ stepsister (and fiancee, because this is high society England) Christina for help. If they help him become an immortal, he will consent to them getting married.
Nothing works out well for anyone, save perhaps the guinea pig that can’t die. He’s doomed to wander the Earth with an immortal Cunningham, all the way to modern London as seen at the end of this movie.
The Asphyx is a movie that feels like a hard sell to an American crowd. It’s kind of staid and nuanced, but the effects are pretty wild and the idea is definitely high concept.
This is the only movie directed by Peter Newbrook, who also wrote Gonks Go Beat, produced Corruption (which no woman will dare go home alone after watching) and worked on the second unit on Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai.
If you watch this in the U.S., know that as of now, you can’t see a high quality version. Every version of this movie — so far — has footage mastered from the 35mm negative mixed with footage mastered from a print of inferior quality, which means that the movie’s quality is constantly shifting. That said, the asphyx itself looks awesome and the story is enough to keep you watching.