Incredibly silly but undeniably entertaining, The Asphyx looks the part of respectable Gothic horror, but can’t escape the flimsiness of its premise or the enjoyably overblown performance of Robert Stephens. Presented here in a surprisingly stunning Blu-ray edition, the film is well worth seeking out.
Directed by frequent David Lean cameraman Peter Newbrook (his only directorial credit) and shot by longtime Lean cinematographer Freddie Young, The Asphyx stars Stephens as Sir Hugo Cunningham, a well-to-do scientist who discovers what just might be the secret to immortality.
An amateur photographer in addition to a scientist, Hugo notices a strange black smudge in photographs of people on their deathbed, and when personal tragedy intersects with his own photography, he finds what he believes to be the key to the mystery. Just before death, the Asphyx — an ancient Greek spirit of the dead — comes to take the dying’s soul away, but Hugo hypothesizes that if one could harness the Asphyx and prevent it from reaching the person, that person could attain immortality.
Along with adopted son Giles (Robert Powell), Hugo develops a system of crystal-fueled lights to capture a person’s Asphyx, which looks like a shrieking, aborted Ray Harryhausen creature. The method’s pseudo-science is fairly laughable, but the film really goes off the rails plausibility-wise when it comes to Hugo’s attempts to turn Giles and his daughter, Christina (Jane Lapotaire) immortal. The process requires him to summon death, and well, let’s just say I wouldn’t use a guillotine as my method.
Despite the contemptibly stupid decisions the characters often make, The Asphyx remains a pretty interesting piece of fantasy/sci-fi/horror fiction. While the allure and the danger of immortality is never felt as profoundly as the film seems to think it is, the novelty of the narrative and the quite lovely photography by Young make for a rather pleasant diversion.