IMMORTALITY... WHAT WOULD YOU SACRIFICE FOR IT?
Immortality has long been the goal for misguided movie scientists, death generally being the one ailment they’ve yet to successfully conquer. Such is the feverish drive of such a task that, regardless of how ethical that scientist may be in the beginning, they eventually become obsessed with stemming time’s dismal tide and halting death entirely. One tale of a scientist who more or less succeeded came in 1973, somewhat influenced by the Hammer Horror films, in the shape of a British gothic horror whereby that one scientist accidentally stumbled upon a way to stop death and bring everlasting life to the subject of his experiments.
Whilst experimenting with photographing the dying, Victorian scientist Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) discovers the secret of death: when someone dies, they are visited by a spirit - the Asphyx. After the death of his son, Hugo tries to find a way to capture the Asphyx and achieve immortality. With the help of his future son-in-law Giles (Robert Powell), Hugo succeeds in capturing his own Asphyx, but things become complicated when he wants to immortalise both his daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) and Giles.
I think I’m not alone in saying that the first time I saw The Asphyx, I came across it on television late one night, and watched it in a weird kind of stupor because I had no idea what it was beforehand. Considering the bulk of the film, the opening couple of minutes do sit rather strangely. The main story is set in the Victorian era, but the film opens on modern day London (modern day for the time, at least). Two cars have just crashed into each other, killing both of the drivers outright. The police have arrived to investigate the scene when one officer discovers the body of a man underneath the crash, seemingly having been caught in the middle of the two cars at the point of impact. He is therefore rather shocked to learn that man is still alive. From here, we flashback to the Victorian time where we will then spend the next hour and fifteen minutes. Over the course of the film, our protagonist, Hugo, will conduct macabre experiments with little notion as to an end game for his research, will cause a few fairly violent deaths by accident and make himself immortal… trust me, when you just happen upon a film like this late at night, you tend to remember it.
The original idea for the film came from Laurence and Christina Beers, with the script being written by Brian Comport, who penned only a few films, mostly horror, in a short five-year career. The central conceit rests on the already mentioned scientist finding a supernatural spirit that visits those about to die, and all by sheer accident. In fact, the bulk of the film rests on accidents, coincidences and oversights by the characters. Hugo’s initial discovery of something that hovers over people at the moment of death is by accident; his son’s death is an accident; his direct discovery of the Asphyx is an accident spawned from a coincidence; his own life is saved by a fortuitous accident. There’s very little in the way of real cause-and-effect logic going, instead with things leaning on a much more far-fetched sense of fatalism described simply as “God’s will.” Frankly, this really does let things down, since logic seems to have absolutely no place in this particular world. Granted, the story does require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, but there’s most definitely a line that film crosses repeatedly, which just leads to a feeling of clumsiness in the whole endeavour. There’s also a character that arrives with a great sense of importance, but is quickly dispatched and never heard from again. I’m sorry, but that really is just bad writing.
The script is also rife with moments and explanations that seem like they should make some kind of sense, but simply don’t hold up. For example, Giles’ attempts to sabotage his own procedure are marked by inconsequential details, which just confuses more than anything else. Also, that Hugo is meant to be a respected scientist of sorts is somewhat countered by his rather shockingly inconsistent methods and oversights in experiments. He seems to forget such enormous things like a second person to help out. That’s really pretty big. His explanations are also very, very thin. He is able to contain the Asphyx by using his special light booster… powered by crystals… and water… what? This piece of equipment seems to be genuinely useless for anything other than the task it accidentally can do.
In fairness, there are other moments that handled a little bit better, but only a little. Hugo begins the film as a conscientious man, understanding and with the desire to use his power and influence responsibly and for the betterment of society. He offers to pay for his butler’s sister’s medical care, and took Giles in from the poor house when he was a boy. He also expresses great shock and disgust at the use of corporal punishment. These points, though presented in a very clumsy way, do offer evidence of the change in the man, so his progression is fairly convincing.
The direction is also something that does the film few favours. Whilst the setting looks really very nice and fairly gothic, the story itself is handled in too weak a fashion, and is marred by moments of clumsiness that may have been acceptable to some back then, but that’s still no excuse. One such example would be when a grief-stricken Hugo watches the film he shot of the short boating escapades that led to his son Clive’s death. As he watches, the film cuts and repositions to get a better look at what happened to Clive in a manner that would be impossible in the film’s reality. Is this a somewhat picky point? Perhaps, but it does speak to the overall lack of logical sense that the film is wrapped in.
The performances are something of a mixed bag. Most of them are of the typical clipped Englishness of period films, punctuated by very brief outbursts that are immediately followed by apology. The only people that really hang around long enough to give any kind of performance are Robert Stephens, Robert Powell and Jane Lapotaire. Lapotaire is so-so and a bit forgettable really. Powell spends most of the time being very stern-faced, but manages to pull something out of it every now and then. Stephens actually does rather well, though. It’s of a fairly campy nature, much the film itself, but you can see his frustration, his grief, his anger. You can see his transition from respectable man of society to death-obsessed mad scientist. The script and direction really do him few favours to help, but he holds it well.
The Asphyx is a fairly memorable and amusing film, with an intriguing idea at its core. However, the execution rather lets things down, with the script rife with superfluous characters, half-hearted pseudo-scientific explanations and more than its fair share of plot holes, and the direction is also really rather clumsy at times. Whilst hardly a classic of the genre, it remains a pretty interesting watch, and the performances from Stephens and Powell are actually quite good. It won’t exactly knock you back, but you’d be surprised at how it will likely stay with you.