Tempting Providence: The Asphyx (1973)

Death is scary. Despite being inextricably bound with life, it has vexed and mystified humanity for as long as we’ve had the capacity to reflect and to wonder. One almost ubiquitous constant in all this grappling with Death through the ages has been a belief in some form of afterlife. (Of course, the afterlife isn’t always reassuring. The ancient Greeks believed that the “shades” of all those who had died dwelled in Hades, which was not a nice place at all.  Today, belief in a literal hell is still very high in the U.S. Interestingly, according to one survey, percentages of responders who absolutely did not believe in hell rose steadily the older — and closer to death — they got. [Baylor Religion Survey, 2007]

Perhaps because of the uncertainties of the afterlife, the concept of physical immortality has similarly captured the human imagination, at least since the Epic of Gilgamesh. In an earlier post on Count Yorga: Vampire, I speculated that at least some (if not most) of the staying power of the vampire in popular culture is due to the innate fascination with being young, sexy and powerful forever. Lately, science has titillated the public with research suggesting that the aging process can be slowed or even halted, or that we might someday be able to upload our consciousness into machines.

Poster - The Asphyx (1973)The Asphyx (1973) takes both the spiritual and material aspects of fascination with eternal life and combines them into a very interesting, quirky and horrific morality play. The film is set in the late 19th / early 20th century, a period marked by the industrial revolution and an explosion of inventions and scientific discoveries that upended traditional lifestyles and man’s conception of his place in the universe. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a man of contradictions: as a patrician country squire, he represents the past and a declining aristocracy; on the other hand, he is a relentlessly curious scientist who’s invented his own movie camera and “light booster” (a fancy name for a spotlight). He’s also devoted himself to psychical research, and possibly proving, through scientific means, the existence of life after death.

Early in the film we see him giving a lecture to a group of fellow researchers. He shows them a series of slides of people at the moment of death. In each is a “smudge” seen hovering near the head of the dying person. Telling the group that he and others double-checked the film and processing, he makes a big leap: “What we have recorded is the soul departing the body at the moment of death!” The meeting ends with some convinced and others still skeptical.

Back at the country house, Sir Hugo’s fiancee Anna (Fiona Walker) has arrived to meet his family — eldest son Clive (Ralph Arliss), daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire), and adopted son Giles (Robert Powell). Everyone’s happy that the long-time widower has found a new love. Sir Hugo commemorates the occasion by filming his loved ones boating around on a nearby lake. Tragedy strikes when Clive and Anna take their turn out on the lake. Sir Hugo cranks away with his movie camera as Clive maneuvers the canoe with a long pole. The pole gets stuck in the mud, and as Clive struggles with it, he fails to notice the canoe is quickly heading toward a low-hanging tree branch. He looks up just in time to get clobbered in the forehead. He falls into the water, the canoe overturns, and Anna, who can’t swim, goes in as well. Giles dives in to save the two, to no avail — the water’s too murky.

After the funeral, Giles is surprised to find his adoptive father processing the film of the accident. “I must see them again,” Sir Hugo says sadly. At the point that Clive hits his head on the branch, Sir Hugo stops cranking the projector. “The smudge!” he exclaims. Giles is baffled —  “What is it? It moved!” Sir Hugo excitedly compares the frame with the still pictures of the dying he’s taken for his psychical research. It’s exactly the same, but after examining the moving pictures, he realizes that his assumption of a soul or essence departing the body is all wrong. The smudge is actually moving towards his doomed son.

And here he makes another great leap. When Giles protests that they haven’t got the slightest clue what the manifestation might be, Sir Hugo turns thoughtful:

Don’t we? My researches into psychic phenomena show me that in Greek mythology, they refer to the spirit of Death… they called it the Asphyx. It 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 released from unspeakable torment!

Sir Hugo is a fascinating contradictory bundle of superstitious belief and dispassionate scientific method. Convinced that he’s on to something big, he becomes almost giddy thinking about how he might be able to further study the Asphyx, i.e., getting up close and personal with death. Giles sees that nothing good can come of this “scientific” study, but Sir Hugo is too full of himself to see the danger:

Giles: Tempting Providence is the pastime of fools!
Sir Hugo: And the destiny of the great.

Sir Hugo seems to have forgotten another important ancient Greek concept: hubris. And just like any good Greek tragedy, hubris proves to be the intrepid scientist’s undoing. Sir Hugo’s next close encounter with the Asphyx comes when he is enlisted by an upper-crust reformer colleague to film an upcoming public hanging. The colleague is outraged that public hangings are still taking place, and hopes that by filming this latest affront to decency, people will be so shocked and disgusted they will demand an end to executions (a dubious proposition at best). When Sir Hugo readily agrees to do it, the colleague has no clue to his underlying agenda, but Giles knows exactly what’s going on.

Closeup of the Asphyx

If you see this coming for you, put your affairs in order -- quick!

Sir Hugo drags the reluctant Giles to the execution to help with the equipment, but before the “festivities” begin, Giles stalks off in disgust. Sir Hugo starts cranking his camera. Just as the hangman is about to pull the lever, the sun goes under a cloud. Sir Hugo fires up his “light booster” to compensate just at the moment that the lever is pulled. As the condemned man falls through the trap, a screeching, spectral thing is caught in the beam right next to the hanged man — the Asphyx! The crowd gasps in horror at the spectre, and at the horrific fact that even though the prisoner’s neck is surely broken, he’s still alive and kicking. Sir Hugo shuts the beam off, the Asphyx is released, and the prisoner’s legs become still.

Even without the benefit of today’s CGI effects, this scene is a gut-wrencher. The Asphyx’s unearthly shrieks are a kind of hellish accompaniment to an awful “dance of death” — the horror really takes hold as the crowd realizes that a man who should be dead is not. Of course, Sir Hugo witnesses this too, and puts two and two together– death can be forestalled indefinitely if, at the moment the Asphyx comes to possess the dying, you can capture it in the beam of a “light booster”.

The next step is to test on an animal. Anna’s pet guinea pig is pressed into service. The trick is to subject the animal (or person) to immanent deadly danger, and trap the Asphyx at the precise moment that it comes to take possession of the dying body. The beam, which traps the spirit like a force field, can then be directed to a container with an identical light fed by a steady drip of special chemical compounds. Sir Hugo succeeds with the animal — even skeptical Giles is excited — and the rest is history… and tragedy.

After Sir Hugo traps his own Asphyx and “immortalizes” himself — with an electric chair of his own invention, and after a very close call in which he almost dies — he becomes completely obsessed, and insists that all the surviving members of his family be immortalized too. When I first saw The Asphyx, this is the point at which the film broke down for me. Rather than sticking with a proven method (his own electric chair), Sir Hugo devises ever more elaborate schemes — a guillotine and the world’s first gas chamber — in order to help his daughter and adopted son achieve immortality as he has.  I remember thinking at the time how contrived it all was.

Now, with a third viewing under my belt, I can better appreciate the film’s allegorical essence. Its brilliance lies in juxtaposing Sir Hugo’s monomaniacal obsession with trapping the Asphyx and gaining immortality with all the sundry, diabolical (and official) ways man has devised for ending human life. The film seems to be saying: any individual’s quest for immortality is hubristic and ill-advised and will end badly, but as a species we can achieve a kind of grace by affirming life rather than inventing new ways to kill.

Sir Hugo successfully traps the Asphyx while electrocuting himself

Do NOT try this at home!

The Asphyx might be a stretch for most viewers these days — there’s a lot of dialog and genteel manners and stuffy Edwardian drawing rooms, not to mention superimposed puppetry in place of CGI. But the film also features several intriguing, quasi-steampunk inventions, some unique, if off-the-wall ideas, and top notch acting, especially by the two Roberts (Stephens and Powell). Most importantly, it attempts to say something meaningful about the human condition — a rarity in today’s horror films.

The Rundown:

Marketplace News:  Redemption Films recently released a re-mastered version on Blu-ray and DVD.

For more reviews of obscure but worthwhile B horror and sci-fi films, see my blog, Films From Beyond the Time Barrier.

See also Films From Beyond on YouTube.

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