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The Asphyx Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 21, 2012 at 8:52 PM

    The Asphyx Review

    If you thought that the grave-robbing, nature-tampering Baron Frankenstein was messing with things that he didn’t understand and was going to pay dearly for his arrogant experimental meddlings, then wait until you cop a load of what the errant scientific boffins in Peter Newbrook’s deliriously daft 1973 SF/Fantasy The Asphyx get up to in the pursuit of vainglorious moral-ditching superego.

    Whilst Hammer was embroiled in darker, more violent and more salacious fare – Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Dracula AD 1972, Vampire Circus, Hands of the Ripper etc, and Tigon was pushing its boundaries with Blood on Satan’s Claw and British Lion unleashedThe Wicker Man, Glendale’s The Asphyx very consciously went out on a much more fanciful and thematically flamboyant tangent. Blending in SF with mythology, they created a film that stands quite apart from the crowd. On the one hand, it is just another stereotypical mad doctor episode, replete with reluctant assistant and familial tragedies dogging the immoral progress being made down in the lab. On the other, it is an exploration of obsession and a considered treatise upon the nature of mortality and the impact of spirituality.

    That it fails spectacularly on both counts is a point of immensely sniggersome embarrassment.

    This region-A Blu-ray release contains two versions of the film – the shorter UK cut and the extended US cut.

    Victorian scientist Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) has discovered that he is able to capture on film evidence of the soul leaving the body at the time of death. This takes the form of a dark smudge appearing on the photograph beside the dying individual. Further experiments involving phosphate crystals, dripping water and a special lens and light set-up then reveal this smudge to be the ancient Greek spirit of the dead, or the Asphyx actually arriving to whisk the soul off down into the Underworld. Thus, making that leap of logic that only cinematic head-scratchers can make, he deduces that if he can actually capture the said beastie and lock it away before it can feast upon his own soul, he can therefore gain immortality. Yeah, right. With the aid of his intended son-in-law Giles (a very young curly bonced Robert Powell), who is also, get this, his adopted son, he succeeds in doing so, but the incident, along with several severe mishaps along the way, including the unfortunate (though highly amusing) drowning of his son Clive (Ralph Arliss) and the future Mrs. Hugo Cunningham, Anna (Fiona Walker), ultimately unhinges him. His maniacal quest to share this dangerous power with the last vestiges of family that he has left – which is just Giles and his daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) – then leads to madness, death and destruction.

    Obviously there is connective tissue between this and both A Picture of Dorian Gray and Hammer’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death, but perhaps, the misfortunes of Sir Hugo are more akin to those of Dr. Seth Brundle. The teleporting whizzkid in David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly actually had a winner on his hands with his dazzling invention, and it was only the tricky fingers of fate that conspired to muck things up for him with an intruding insect. And then, no matter how much he was able to adapt and improvise to his new circumstances and mutations, extraneous variables continued to strafe his endeavours with pitfalls and escalating emotional dilemmas. This is very much the case for the erstwhile dunderheads pottering around in their stuffy laboratory here. But whilst Fate can possibly be blamed for the initial double tragedy that sets in motion Sir Hugo’s dabbling with demon-capture, the chain of calamities that then ensues is very definitely down to his and Giles’ own butter-fingered approach to their work. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread and all that. Sir Hugo’s oafish determination to simply blunder on with abducting and imprisoning his own asphyx is strewn with diabolical mishaps of his own manufacture. Pretty soon, everyone he knows is either accidentally dead or determined to find a way to die in order to end their misery.

    Like many fans of Gothic horror, I always had a soft spot for this curio of scientific tomfoolery. I remember reading about the film in one of those awesome genre tomes that used to catch my eye with their lividly illustrated jackets in the local bookshop, and when it appeared on television I was captivated by its wacky concept and the image of its shrieking soul-banshee. But I have not seen the film for a very long time, my VHS off-air copy of it sitting uselessly amongst many other long-redundant cassettes, so when it suddenly appeared on the Blu horizon I was surprised and elated.

    Oops. Nostalgia can be highly misleading … and some things from the past should, perhaps, remain there.

    Upon viewing the film now, I found myself reduced to hysterics at the sheer ineptitude of this woeful, though engagingly ambitious screenplay, the jaw-droppingly bad performances from such theatrical and screen luminaries as Stephens and Powell, the endless array of cack-handed contrivances and the mindless stupidity of the entire caper. What was I thinking back then? This is truly awful stuff.

    Whatever your misty recollections of this swirling, over-ripe fantasy, you’d better scotch them.

    The Asphyx is stupendously laughable and goofy, both ham-filled and irresponsibly po-faced. Stephens is acting his little Victorian socks off, but to no avail. This sort of over-the-top character display may well work on the stage but it is ludicrous on-screen. His tantrums are crushingly camp and hissy-fitty. As each new disaster usurps his crusade, his reactions become ever more alarmingly amusing and over-the-top. Not to mention downright moronic. Everything he says is either pampered and simpering or highly overwrought. There’s no in-between. Stephens was actually very good in Billy Wilder’s The Private Live of Sherlock Holmes, playing the great detective opposite Colin Blakely’s Dr. Watson and Christopher Lee’s Mycroft Holmes, though you’d never have guessed it from this histrionic old blarney. But then I suppose that he needs to add something of power and rage to the proceedings, because he gets no help from the startlingly wooden Powell. Giles is supposed to be in love with Christina – yep, that’s right, his adopted sister – but just you see if you can spot any emotion in his delivery when he pledges his devotion to her in the sitting room. “It’s what I want most in the world,” he tells her of their intended marriage, his voice and his attitude like that of a drugged automaton. And let’s not talk about Jane Lapotaire, who just smiles and sighs a lot, and then is given over to a third expression of quietly fake girlie-concern. We’re supposed to care about this crowd? They are WOEFUL characters in the extreme.

    The best performance in the entire film comes from the guinea pig that Sir Hugo experiments on, who actually gets a massive amount of screentime in which to chew the scenery … quite literally, as it turns out.

    A lot of this silliness is down to the shoddy script, of course. The screenplay from Brian Comport is dire in the extreme. It is based upon a story by Christine and Laurence Beers, and the plot leapfrogs from one gigglesome scene to another without a proper sense of pace (in either version of the film). A lengthy exchange between Sir Hugo and his new fiancée after being introduced to the rest of the Cunninghams seems all the more stilted and agonising when you consider how swiftly she is to be discarded and done away with in virtually her next scene. The death of a son and a bride-to-be on the same day results in absolutely no grieving from Sir Hugo because the film just jettisons any time-wastage with such things. The relationships simply don’t add up, and the massive attitude changes that Sir Hugo, especially, undergoes leave you with absolutely nobody to identify with, or to root for. We may be told that Giles fancies Christina, but if you watch Powell’s performance he clearly fawns over Sir Hugo!

    Quite how any of those involved with this audacious claptrap took it seriously enough to actually arrive on-set each day is utterly beyond me. And how they managed to keep a straight face when the camera was running is nothing short of miraculous. Mind you, Robert Powell’s face is composed of such delicate and inexpressive porcelain that it would literally crack if he ever ordained to smile.

    Let’s just have a run-through of the most gloriously silly bits, shall we? There are some spoilers here … but with a lame panto such as this, who honestly cares …

    Victorian hair-do’s. Hair-don’ts, more like. Powell’s barnett has been snatched from one of those ursine cartoon characters in The Hair-Bear Bunch, and Alex Scott’s Sir Edward Barrett looks like his amazingly rectangular locks have been styled by Lego. Jolly-boating weather may well turn sour when Sir Hugo’s nearest and dearest take a plunge into the muddy depths, but just how did he manage to film the incident on his one primitive camera complete with edits and zooms and different angles and close-ups? And, whilst we are on the subject, is the audience really supposed to be horrified when Sir Hugo’s son Clive stands up on the little boat and whacks his noggin on an overhanging branch? It’s pure Tom and Jerry. It’s lucky I’d put my mug of tea down or else I may have scalded myself as I rolled about with laughter.

    We are asked to believe that, just after Sir Hugo has produced evidence of these soul-smudges caught on film, there is going to be the first public hanging in decades just down the road in the village and that he has been tasked to film the event in order to make a record of man’s inhumanity! How convenient for his experiments. Coincidence, perhaps? Get out! Contrivance Alert! Contrivance Alert! And how come his conjuring of the demon-muppet of the asphyx from the hanged-man elicits lots of gasps and screams from the stunned onlookers who can all clearly see it, but is then only mentioned in a throwaway comment by a colleague some time after the event. Jeez, the whole village has just witnessed a bizarre and clearly supernatural manifestation … and then it just gets on with things. What rubbish.

    This was camera-operator Newbrook’s only film as a director, and you can see why. He has absolutely no idea how to direct, with some sequences simply appallingly handled. Jane LaPotaire waking up to find the heroic guinea-pig nibbling on her quilt and then having to spend the next few minutes acting opposite it is just excruciating to watch. The securing of a terminally ill inmate of the doss-house simply to use his tuberculosis-ridden carcass as a means of luring-out the asphyx is not only in horrifically bad taste, but also a tedious chapter that allows Terence Scully, who plays the poor soul, to make some rather wretchedly protracted eulogising about his lot in life. It just doesn’t fit the tone or the story at all. He strings his film together piecemeal, in a robotic, unthoughtful manner. Scenes just happen, or collide into one another. The extended cut adds some relevant material, but it also throws up some inept moments that drag unnecessary themes out for too long. But whichever version you opt for, the film is stilted, theatrical and drastically arch, with no sense of wonder, thrill or mystery. No sooner has something been suggested by one of the boffins – a combination lock on a crypt door, say – than it appears in the blink of an eye. Sir Hugo decides he’s going to ensnare his own asphyx, and to do so he’ll need to stare death in the face. Et voila – he’s rustled up an electric chair with which to electrocute himself! He wants his daughter to join him in immortality. Hey presto – here’s a full-size working guillotine to put the frighteners on her! How about a gas chamber for Giles, then? Coming right up, Sir Hugo! All sorts of paraphernalia are fabricated in the passing of one frame to the next, proper momentum hogwashed as a result.

    When Sir Hugo rigs up his electric-chair to juice-up his body to the brink of death, thereby summoning his asphyx so that Giles can capture it, he plans everything so meticulously that he forgets that there really ought to be a third pair of hands manning the trap! Oh dear Lord, this sort of negligence beggars belief. Honestly, you watch this scene and it is absolutely clear that not only does Powell’s preening sissy realise this face-slapping and potentially fatal blunder, but Comport and Newbrook do also! This isn’t a structured piece of narrative, it is a specific case of seat-of-the-pants winging-it. Oh, and check out Giles’ impulsive slapping of the interfering Christina? Maybe it’s just me … but, she doesn’t really warrant such a wallop, does she?

    And, oh my god, there is the hysterical set-piece in which Christina is reluctantly persuaded (read forced) to enter immortality alongside her gonzo father by facing the descending blade of that guillotine I mentioned to elicit her asphyx for incarceration. At this point, I think you have to hurl any last vestige of credibility out of the window. “Come, my dear. Just lie back and put your head underneath this wickedly sharp blade that your beloved is going to release in just a second or two. Now, don’t worry about a thing. It’s all under control. You’re not going to be hurt. We’re not going to make any more mistakes.” Oh, yeah, you’re just going to do that, aren’t you? And then that bloody guinea-pig enters the equation with a nibble and a gnaw at just the wrong time and upon just the wrong electric cable – and at this point I just couldn’t stop laughing. And then we cut to the reaction shot of the two academic retards!!!!! Priceless.

    How about this, then? When those amazing blue crystals are swapped for some apparently innocent and useless white stand-ins, just how convinced would you be by Robert Powell’s brusque and assertive declaration that he’s already checked them and there’s no need for Stephens to open up the back of the illuminator? Aye. Not very.

    And the final shot, which neatly links up with the enigmatic modern-day prologue is an absolute howler. Not only is the old age make-up incredibly bad (it looks like a face made out of Shredded Wheat!), but just why the hell are those two cars hurtling directly at one another down the city street in the first place?

    This final frame almost brought the house down. And I was the only idiot watching it.

    All of this would be great if we were kicking back with a Mel Brooks-style comedy, but there isn’t one ounce of intentional humour in the film. Which, of course, just makes the whole damn thing even funnier.

    And yet the whole preposterous farce bumbles along with a screwball grip on you. Laugh, gape and ridicule as much as you like, but for some unfathomable reason you stick with it. Perhaps you want to see what these idiotic eggheads are going to do next. Or maybe you want to see that yowling animated monstrosity wriggling about some more. It could be just to witness Robert Stephens lose his rag one more time with demented exasperation, or to see the foppish and dour Robert Powell suck in his cheeks and cast adoring blue eyes at the death-defying crackpot again. Whatever your reasons, you can’t help but be entertained by seeing yet another catastrophe befall the pair of mirthless dunderheads.

    You know, surprisingly enough after all of this shameless lambasting, there are some ingredients that are not only pretty decent, but actually very good. You can clearly understand why cinematographer Freddie Young’s name is proudly proclaimed on the cover of the BD release. The three-times Academy Award-winner (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter – what a fall from grace for him with this twaddle, eh?) adds elegance, class and some profound compositional work to a film that needs any and all the talent it is able to grab a-hold of. The set design is tremendously well conceived, with the parlours, studies, crypt and laboratory of the Cunningham estate all intricately crafted to affect a convincing aura of nineteenth century fastidiousness. Young’s lighting is frequently superlative and his mastery of space and movement is something to endlessly admire – this was also the man who lensed the exquisite Bond outing You Only Live Twice. Yet despite this fabulous art direction and photography, there is the stale air of an old Doctor Who episode about much of the lab shenanigans. I kept expecting a big blue police box to suddenly materialise and for Tom Baker to interrupt the tweed-clad geeks with a grinning, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” and the offer of a jelly-baby.

    But perhaps the most successful thing, and something that actually defies all the odds, is the visualisation of the Asphyx, themselves. Caught in the mumbo-jumbo of Sir Hugo’s daft crystal light, this is an Edvard Munch-like screaming effigy that looks like the bastard child of a Muppet and an Uruk-hai berserker. Always seen trapped within its own constricting circle of blue light, the demon creature whirls and spins and writhes, shrieking endlessly in the torment of not being able to snatch a tasty soul. It is a wildly eerie sight that even manages to remind of a rogue spectre that may have wafted in from Ghostbusters. Sadly, most of their appearances end up being shot-down in flames by the accompanying performances of the two human muppets who spend too much time pretending that simply turning a metal lens on a stand is actually hard work. Newbrook tries in vain to generate suspense during these sequences, but the results are predictably insipid and risible.

    So, I’m sorry to report that The Asphyx is just not worth the effort of revisiting or even discovering in the first place, unless you merely want to chuckle at how badly made a genre film can be. The saddest element of all is that there is some genuine imagination at work here, and it should always be applauded when a filmmaker tries to come up with something new in a genre. But when such glorious ideas and aspirations are so cruelly hamstrung in practically every other department, production design and cinematography aside, no amount of ambition can save the day.

    No, this movie is hysterically bad. Don’t fall for the blarney that other commentators have spouted about this being a rich and well-acted gothic thriller. It is pure period bunkum of the dumbest order and the lowest-rent. The performances and the screenplay are unacceptably poor. The result a desultory mess.

    Rent it only for a laugh.