Where Do I Go To Get My Asphyx?

The 1972 British film The Asphyx—which is pronounced as you suspect it is, but which does not, I assure you, refer to a cosmetic procedure for the hindquarters—is an odd little horror film that could be taken for a Hammer period-piece movie, only it’s much tamer. It lacks the blood-and-cleavage emphasis of Hammer’s early 1970s product, as well as its all-out, anything-goes panache. Instead, The Asphyx is restrained, quiet, even somber. I think its producers meant it as a serious film. Its concern is not with sexy vampires or lurching monsters but with issues of a psychological, even spiritual nature. The actors, script, the very set design, accommodate this goal. The décor is tasteful, muted, Victorian in period and atmosphere, the costumes elegantly dark and modest, the actors reserved and thoughtful, speaking in clear, enunciated tones of life, death, and the search for immortality.

Not quite the viewing fare for a raucous Halloween frat party.

The title character, per the film, is an entity from Greek mythology, a death spirit that seeks out the dying to possess them at the moment of death—”a kind of personal Grim Reaper,” as Wikipedia’s film article describes it. No doubt the word connotes “asphyxia,” which itself derives from the Greek for, roughly, ‘stopped pulse.’ Though I’m suspicious of that Greek-mythology-origin bit. As a kid I was a devout reader of Bulfinch’s Mythology and I never encountered such a being in its pages. A Google search revealed that there’s a Dutch death-metal band named ‘Asphyx,’ though the article doesn’t mention if the film was the name’s inspiration, or if Greek myth came into it. In short, I suspect Mr. or maybe Ms., Asphyx to be made-up cinematic hoodoo by which to hang a plot. It brings to mind the Tingler, an equally concocted monster that also pops up during times of stress to make a nuisance of itself. At least that guy had a William Castle gimmick to juice it up.

That’s called a bustle. It’s a Victorian fashion enhancement. No Asphyx required.

In keeping with its decorum, though, the movie is pretty to look at. Freddie Francis’s cinematography gives us the golden glow of an English autumn, its wide country vistas stained with orange, green, and russet, its period interiors equally glowing in warm browns and reds. The story follows Sir Hugo Cunningham, a well-to-do dilettante inventor, scientist, and photographer of the 1870s, who wants to find out why a mysterious black Smudge appears on photographs of the dying (Sir Hugo’s interests tend somewhat toward the morbid). Could this smeary spot be the Soul departing the body at death? Then the Smudge appears on a primitive film of Sir Hugo’s invention, capturing the moment his adult son dies when bonked on the head by an inconvenient tree branch—except that under the moving-picture camera’s scrutiny it’s clear the Smudge is approaching the unfortunate young man, not leaving him. (Though the greater mystery may be how Sir Hugo invented the movie camera years before Edison, Friese-Green, or Le Prince, and no one seemed to notice.)

The plot now gets a little complicated, what with everyone asking what does the Smudge mean and why and how it appears on photos and film, our hero going so far as to film a man being hanged to see if more Smudges emerge. Suffice it to say that, after much talk of light boosters, phosphorescent crystals, and the chemical composition of sensitizing film fluids, Sir Hugo realizes he’s filmed the Asphyx, manifesting itself just when the Big Sleep beckons. On a still celluloid surface the Asphyx can be dimly apprehended; add lights, camera, and action, and it can not only be seen but heard, screeching like a banshee as it nears its victim, the noise it makes curiously like…the scraping of metal on metal.

And it’s here, with the naming of the creature, that the film runs into, shall we say, issues. The great film critic Stanley Kauffmann, in writing about the film The Roots of Heaven and its story of elephant conservation, noted that the word “elephant” has, when spoken, a “faintly comic tone,” an impression only heightened by its repetition. It’s the same here with our faux-Greco friend. At least the pronunciation of “elephant” has a ponderous dignity to it, whereas “asphyx” lacks even that. Good lord, it’s right in the title. I suppose titling the film The Smudge would had have even less gravitas, but it wouldn’t make me giggle. Even during the film’s trailer, enticing viewers with a peek into “the secret of The Asphyx,” I started laughing. Just what could that asphyxy secret be?

The actors, of course, behave with appropriate seriousness throughout, though with all that asssing and fixssing and whatnot, I wondered if they broke up during scenes—how many takes were needed? Much of the film’s action is sheer talk, particularly for Robert Stephens as Sir Hugo, in whose full-blooded performance, recalling Donald Wolfit at his most bloodsome, syllables are dragged and drawn out like steam through a bottom-heavy pipe: Assss-Phyxsss, he hisses, as if he were Henry Higgins giving speech lessons to a snake. Was this sibilant emphasis a form of defiance? As if to signal to audiences: All right, go ahead and snicker! We know what it sounds like; but now that you’ve had your joke, it’s time to get over it—so sit up and attend to our tale!

What with Stephens running round wailing, “My asphyx! My asphyx!”, and the Asphyx cropping up in Tingler-esqe fashion whenever the end times loom, the tale itself goes a bit crazy-ass at this point. Discovering he can capture the Asphyx in his booster light, Sir Hugo succeeds in imprisoning the thing, right at death’s door so to speak, thereby forestalling the intended victim’s demise—in effect, endowing the lucky escapee with eternal life. Thus we get scenes of trapped Asphyxes (!) pinned like butterflies in beams of light and shrieking loud enough to rouse the dead (surely defeating the purpose of its errand?), before being boxed up in cabinets like winter clothing put away for spring. It’s a scenario that begs for camp, but throughout the actors maintain an admirable composure, even when spouting lines like “We’ll seal off my Asphyx in here,” and “I must ensure that my Asyphx can never escape.” And also: “How do you propose to summon your Asphyx?” Which I bet is a question you don’t hear every day.

Maybe Asphyx-summoning is not an everyday problem, but it’s one that—weirdly, I admit, but aptly—fits in with the movie’s creditable depiction of its late-Victorian ethos: of that era’s obsession with death and its urge to embrace science and seek knowledge beyond known limits. Late-Victorian writers like H.G. Wells and Robert Lewis Stevenson captured their culture’s core in such novels as The Time Machine and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, their narratives plumbing boundaries physical, psychological, and moral, their characters willing to try anything in such pursuit. It’s with similar (if questionable) zeal that Sir Hugo decides, in order to lure the Asphyx out of whatever etheric realm it resides, he must create the threat of death to a potential eternity-seeker. To such purpose he builds several home-sized execution devices, including an electric chair, a guillotine, and a small gas chamber. Nothing but good, clean, morbid fun. After he succeeds in immortalizing himself (with the electric chair; who’da thought?), Hugo now uses the slow-action guillotine to attempt to immortalize his daughter. What could go wrong with a scheme like that?

Plenty.

Alas, things don’t work out too well for poor Hugo. In his quest to trap the Asphyx and bestow immortality, he pretty much slaughters his entire family, and at film’s end is left with only his immortalized self and an immortalized guinea pig to keep him company (just roll that last bit through your mind…an immortalized guinea pig). Our last glimpse of him is as an exceedingly old man, clutching his small rodent friend to his breast as he wanders the streets of modern London like a lost soul. Was the film alluding here to an actual Greek myth (check it out in Bulfinch)—that of Tithonus, a mortal who, granted eternal life by the gods, forgot to ask for eternal youth and therefore must age throughout undying Time? It’s a sad, sober, even frightening thought to end our tale; no doubt the Victorians would have loved it. And surely such thoughts are appropriate during the Scary Season—one to which, as you contemplate the night of fright ahead, we could even append a moral:

Think twice about getting that Asphyx.

Happy Halloween.

Bonus Clip: Get your Asphyx on:  the (faded) trailer for The Asphyx—More than a Myth! More than a Maybe!

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