Gather around, kiddies, methinks it’s time for yet another in my seemingly neverending line of supernatural stories. Let’s see if I can get through this one without mangling it, shall we? I have a friend who has a friend (don’t they all start this way?), and when my friend’s friend (we’ll call him “Teddy”) was young (double digits but not voting age, as far as I know), he was awoken one night to the sight of a ghost walking down the hall outside his room. The ghost was only discernible from the waist up, but here comes the kicker: It was the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Teddy followed after the spectre, and when he caught up to it, Lincoln was sitting (kind of tough with no lower torso, I assume) and reading a book. After a few stunned moments, the President looked up and said, “Are you enjoying the book, Teddy?” Needless to say, Teddy was freaked, no one believed him, and certain mental dispositions were investigated to no avail. Some time later, my friend was staying at Teddy’s, and in the middle of the night, the two of them both saw Lincoln’s ghost. They kept it to themselves. I suppose we could turn this into a debate on perceptions and states of consciousness or the existence of the human spirit outside of the human body or any number of paranormal tangents, but I think that misses the point of the story. These two men believe that what they saw was true. If you’re a disbelieving sort, you can dismiss it any way you want. But Teddy and my friend would dismiss your dismissal, and I guess the world would go on spinning, regardless.
One sunny day in then-modern England, a couple of cars collide violently. Unfortunately, there is a man who stepped out between the two, and when the cops pull his body from the wreckage, they are astonished to find he’s still alive. Cut to the year 1870. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) arrives home at his manor with new bride Anna (Fiona Walker) in tow. Life proceeds apace, and Hugo whiles away the time taking photographs and sharing his theories with the local parapsychological society. Quite by accident, however, Hugo observes an apparition looming near a man fated to die. What’s more, he can trap this Asphyx (a play on “asphyxiate,” I assume), but his experiments begin to prove more dangerous than their rewards.
Peter Newbrook’s The Asphyx (aka The Horror Of Death aka Spirit Of The Dead) is not a Horror film in a conventional sense. There is a supernatural presence, and it does take the form of a malformed, creature with a gaping, screeching maw, but it is not harmful in any expected way. Much like William Castles’ The Tingler, the Asphyx is a being nobody would ever even know was in their presence, behaving as a sort of emotional parasite and departing when its host does. With that in mind, the Asphyx also becomes a representation of the human soul, in a sense. It transforms the ethereal into a quantifiable, secular, corporeal element. It causes fear and pain in a physical manner (more like feeds on it, though its lingering prolongs the agonies of a violent death), but it mirrors the idea of man’s tortured soul. That its appearance is so ugsome says a bit about not only humanity but also about every living creature (even guinea pigs can have them). The beings feed on the least attractive things in us all, perhaps making them what they eat (?). This poses a problem for the film’s narrative. The Asphyx is not actually the human soul (Hugo believes it to be Egyptian Death Spirit, though the only thing I could find that came even remotely close is the concept that a person’s Sheut [shadow] could be depicted as a figure of death), but its capture enables the separation of the human spirit from the physical body. The obvious question is “why?” That’s like putting a lion which ate a convict in prison to serve out the con’s sentence (kinda, sorta). Perhaps I do not fully understand the concept. Could it be that the Asphyx is like a valkyrie, ushering spirits into the afterlife, so that by capturing the carrier, you capture the spirit? Either way, it works in a cinematic sense, providing a visually striking focus for the film’s more intellectual conceit.
I mentioned that this isn’t a traditional Horror film, but there are horrifying things going on throughout. Essentially, these events revolve around the film’s basic premise. In order to capture the Asphyx, a person must be close to death and aware of the fact, thus generating an inescapable fear. Nonetheless, the process of capturing the Death Spirit prolongs the victim’s experience, making for some quite tense (and even slightly disturbing) sequences. Needless to say, the process doesn’t always go correctly, turning horror into despair. Once Hugo has become immortal, he becomes not only more fixated on his experiments but also more willful in the lengths to which he will go to carry them out and procure subjects. Ostensibly, this makes Hugo the active monster of the piece (he even gets scarred by acid at one point), and it indicates the idea that our soul is what makes us what we are. Newbrook (no stranger to a film camera) almost never has Hugo onscreen alone. He is quite often filmed in the same frame with whomever he is speaking. The dual purpose served is that the film makes good use of the Todd-AO 35 (no relation) widescreen format, and it juxtaposes the physical representations of innocence and corruption, life and death for the audience to differentiate. Conversely, it can be argued that Hugo acts the way he does out of concern for those he loves, and this transforms him into a more sympathetic monster. But a monster, all the same.
Of course, the major theme of the film is one of immortality and its exploration. It deals with the cost of eternal life, that it is no panacea for the emotional wounds we acquire through our (normally) short lives. It also deals with forms of immortality, and I’m thinking here of two specific areas. The idea that we (or our bloodlines and family names) become immortal by being carried on via our progeny. Anna wants to give Hugo children, and Hugo couldn’t be happier. Hugo’s son Clive (Ralph Arliss) and his wife are expected to carry on the Cunningham name, and later adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) and Hugo’s daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) are to carry this torch (hey, it was the nineteenth century). But more interesting to me than this aspect is the one of immortality on film. Hugo has created an early version of a film camera, his own film to use in it, and a means to project it onto a screen. Moreover, the Asphyx itself is first suggested by smudges on images (possibly symbolizing a stain on the soul?), initially on static photos and later on moving film. The spirit is ensnared by a special light used in Hugo’s filming process and held in perpetuity by same. The ability to be seen by cameras and/or be seen by the means which allow cameras to “see” effects immortality. It’s the same as when cinephiles talk about people like Marlon Brando or Orson Welles as being “immortalized on film.” Only in The Asphyx, it’s a literal statement.
MVT: The performances in the film go a long way in selling the story, and they also do a marvelous job generating sympathy and pathos. The film could have been made with lesser executions in the acting department, but the ones here truly elevate some fascinating and entertaining material.
Make Or Break: The Make is the scene where Giles and Hugo try to capture the Asphyx of an indigent man (Terry Scully) who suffers from tuberculosis. It is gripping and powerful, and it focuses how the remainder of the film will proceed with its depictions of the price to be paid for immortality and whether or not it is worth the agony.