THE ASPHYX:  A Fate Worse Than Death 

By Dr. Abner Mality

With your good pal Dr. Mality being in the mad scientist biz himself, I can tell you that there are few things more annoying than hearing some pious uneducated citizen mutter “he meddled in things man must leave alone” when talking about men of science. Much of human civilization is due to “those who meddled in things best left alone”. Occasionally a Dr. Frankenstein or a Dr. Moreau comes along and has an unfortunate accident or two, but I can’t hold that against them. You can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg.

However, there is one scientist whose grisly fate caused even me to shudder. This was a man who really did venture too far and too fast into profound matters of life and death. And he paid the ultimate price for his experiments. I speak of Sir Hugo Cunningham, the tragic hero/villain of the 1972 British horror film “The Asphyx”, also known as “Spirit of the Dead”.

“The Asphyx” is a true cult horror film unlike any other. Superficially, it resembles one of the many period horror films issued by Hammer Films or the lesser known Amicus or Tigon studios. But a closer inspection will reveal significant differences in style and theme. It is a thoughtful and profoundly sad movie. It is also perhaps the most morbid and death-obsessed film ever made.

I have been trying to see a good copy of this gem for years. Many Americans remember it when it was shown under the name of “Spirit of the Dead” as one of Elvira’s Midnight Movies in the 80’s. That version was badly cut and the corny wisecracks of the big-boobed baroness of bloody films did nothing but drain tension from what was otherwise a well-acted and suspenseful movie. Youtube provided fleeting versions of varied quality that disappeared almost as soon as they emerged. I stumbled across a handsome 2 DVD set from Odeon Films that I was unable to play in an American region DVD. Thankfully, I was finally able to get a good copy to watch at last. Upon seeing the movie, I knew I had to give it the Wormwood treatment. Thus, here we are…

“The Asphyx” is set in the heart of the Victorian Age. An exact date is never given, but I am guessing it takes place in the decade of 1885 to 1895…possibly a little later. There are some crucial things to know about England during this period. Two of the biggest social obsessions of the period are photography and Spiritualism. Both play a strong role in the story.

Photography during this period was exploding in a way comparable to the Internet of the early 21st century. Scientists were fascinated with all the new things photography was showing them while the public was driven to photograph as much as they possibly could. Constant improvements were being made to photographic equipment and although the cameras of the period would seem unbelievably clumsy to us now, rapid advancements were made during this period. Part of the Victorian mania to photograph everything extended into morbid realms…photography of the deceased was quite common at the time. Taking pictures of the dead furnished the entire rationale behind “The Asphyx”.

Spiritualism was at its height during the timeline the movie takes place. Attempts to communicate with the dead had started several decades earlier but reached their peak in the late Victorian period. Seances were common and plentiful and the Ouija board was introduced. In addition to trying to speak to the spirits of the dead, the new science of photography was employed to try and capture ghosts on film. It is hard to underestimate the grip that spirit communication had in this period. Many were convinced that the barriers between life and death were ready to crumble. [WARNING; SPOILERS FOLLOW!]

Against this backdrop of science and the occult we find the protagonist of “The Asphyx”, Sir Hugo Cunningham. Few men would seem to be more blessed than Sir Hugo during the opening of the film. He is a man of great wealth living in a beautiful country estate, surrounded by loving family and faithful  servants. A one-time widower, Sir Hugo is preparing to wed his attractive fiancée, Anna Wheatley. Anna is being introduced to Hugo’s biological son Clive, his adopted son Giles and daughter Christina, who is in love with Giles.

Sir Hugo is something of an amateur scientist and he’s become obsessed with the new science of photography. He is also a member of a society studying paranormal phenomena. Loved by all and with a bright future ahead, it seems Sir Hugo is on top of the world. But the gods raise high those who they later would destroy…

Sir Hugo has one hobby which many find morbid…he takes photographs of people at the moment of their death, such as those dying of terminal disease. He has made a most curious discovery in many of these pictures…there seems to be a dark smudge hovering around people at the moment they pass on. He exhibits several of these photos to a meeting of his paranormal research society and ventures to speculate that this dark spot may actually be the soul departing the body. That theory draws a decidedly mixed reaction from his fellow researchers.

During a cold spring day, Hugo and his family are celebrating his imminent wedding. He is busy taking “moving pictures” of the activities with a new camera of his creation. His son Clive is boating on the nearby river with Anna as Hugo films them gliding past. Suddenly, the staff Clive is using to guide the boat becomes stuck in the river bottom. When he succeeds in freeing it, he hits his head with tremendous impact on a low tree branch, causing him to spill into the water and upending the boat. Anna is tossed into the water and cannot swim.

Tragedy has struck the Cunningham household. Clive and Anna both die. A mourning Sir Hugo realizes that his camera was running during the whole incident and has captured it all on film. He finds a frame of film that shows the exact moment of Clive’s death. The dark smudge is there! But when he rolls the film forward, he sees that the smudge is heading TOWARDS Clive and not away from him. Is it actually causing his death?

Now Hugo theorizes that the smudge his pictures have captured shows what the ancient Greeks called the Asphyx…the Spirit of Death. Is it something that feeds on death? Or does it actually cause death itself? Hugo becomes obsessed with finding the answer and enlists the help of Giles in learning more, even though his adopted son has some grave doubts. They will prove to be well founded. 

The two arrange to attend the public hanging of a criminal. Sir Hugo has created an attachment to his camera which he believes will bring the Asphyx into clearer view. The hanging is vigorously protested by anti-capital punishment forces and has become a bit of a circus. In a grim and gruesome scene, the man is hanged and at the precise moment of his death,  Cunningham activates his new device. The result is horrid…the Asphyx is revealed as a twisted, hideously shrieking creature that seems to be in agony.

Cunningham realizes that the beam he has used to show the Asphyx has also trapped it and made it immobile. He further reasons that if he could somehow permanently capture and imprison an Asphyx, it could make the person “belonging” to that Asphyx immortal.  Has he discovered the means to conquer death?

Hugo now frantically experiments further with Giles secret help. His daughter Christina is disturbed by the change in his personality and Hugo’s scientific comrades have exiled him from their community. He takes a guinea pig and poisons it. Just before death sets in, he manages to capture the guinea pig’s asphyx and place it in a locked container. The container is further hidden in an underground vault. Hugo poisons the rodent again, with twice the dosage. No effect. The guinea pig is now immortal and can never die as long as its Asphyx is imprisoned. This harmless creature will play a major role in events to come.

The next step is to see if the process will work on a human being. Hugo takes a dying man from a poorhouse…the same one he took Giles from years ago…and invites him to spend his last days at his sumptuous mansion. When the moment  of death comes for the beggar, Hugo and Giles attempt to capture his Asphyx…and succeed! But the beggar screams in agony…immortality has only perpetuated his pain and sickness. In a state of suffering rage, he throws acid into Sir Hugo’s face! Giles releases the Asphyx, granting a merciful death to the beggar.

Christina is terrified by what is happening to her father. It has put a tremendous strain on her relationship with Giles, who is bound by secrecy not to reveal what Sir Hugo’s research is. The next step in that research will be the most drastic yet.

Hugo will now seek to capture his own Asphyx. He rigs up an electric chair in which he will be fastened. The voltage will slowly be increased until Hugo is at the edge of death and in agonizing pain. Giles will then capture his Asphyx and imprison it. The process begins and its grueling to watch. This is a movie obsessed not just with death but the physical pain that accompanies it. At the moment when the Asphyx is to be captured, Giles finds he cannot control the electric chair and imprison the Asphyx both. Things begin to go disastrously wrong as Hugo cries out in agony. Christina bursts into the room and Giles barks commands to her. Despite her terror, she does as instructed and Hugo’s Asphyx is captured.

The scientist is now immortal. He puts the container with his Asphyx in it in an underground vault with a complex combination lock. The combination is scrambled, effectively imprisoning his Asphyx for all time. Now he can continue his experiments down through the centuries, uncovering the mysteries of death and bringing immortality to the human race. Or so he thinks…

Christina is horrified by what her father and fiancée have been involved in and finds it unbearably morbid. But silvertongued Hugo finds a way to convince her of the ultimate good in what he is doing. He explains the next stage of his plans. He wants Giles and Christina to both join him…and each other…in immortality, so that they can be a family all through the ages. After much persuasion, Christina reluctantly agrees in the plan.

Christina’s own “death machine” designed to draw her Asphyx will be a guillotine. Just before the blade slices her head off, it will stop its descent, but the terror and fear of imminent death will draw the Asphyx and allow Hugo and Giles to capture it. This time, both men working together should easily avoid the problems during Hugo’s own near-death experience.

The girl is again terrified and tries to back out of the guillotine at the last moment, but Giles convinces her to continue. She is locked in the guillotine. All the equipment is set up properly. But fate has decided to play a horrid joke. The immortal little guinea pig, which Christina adopted as a pet, has gotten loose. He decides to chew the tube providing fresh water to the Asphyx-capturing machine. The hose explodes and a series of disasters strikes. The guillotine is damaged as the blade falls…and neatly removes Christina’s head.

The absolute horror with which Hugo and Giles react to the scene is a tremendous tribute to actors Robert Stephens and Robert Powell. “You…you’ve killed her, “  stammers a stunned Giles. In a cracked voice, Hugo begs. “The Asphyx! For God’s sake, release the Asphyx!” He has realized that Christina’s decapitated head is still alive and thinking…

Giles releases the Asphyx and Christina mercifully dies. He immediately turns on Hugo in a rage and tries to strangle him. In fact, Hugo would have probably died, if his own Asphyx was not already imprisoned. Hugo chokes out that it was a terrible accident and Giles releases him.

For a time, Giles’ hatred for Hugo is palpable. But then an eerie calm descends on him. Hugo is determined to capture Giles’ own Asphyx and bring him into immortality. What happened to Christina was a nightmare, but an uncontrollable mistake. “Of course. We must go on for duty and humanity, “ Giles calmly says. But something has died inside his soul.

The Cunningham estate, which seemed so happy at the beginning of the film, has now become a grim graveyard. The servants have long left and Sir Hugo’s friends have abandoned him. His obsession with the Asphyx continues, though. His plan for Giles is to place him inside a glass cube and slowly fill it with gas. Giles himself will control the flow of gas inside the cube, leaving Hugo free to capture his Asphyx.

Before the procedure starts, a cool and icy Giles hands Hugo a sealed envelope. It contains the combination to the vault where Hugo’s Asphyx is stored. If for some reason in the future, Hugo grows tired of his immortality he can open the envelope, get the combination and free his Asphyx. Giles smiles curiously as he gives it to Sir Hugo.
The process begins. All goes according to plan. But just before the gas causes Giles to lose consciousness, he pulls a matchbox from inside his jacket. Looking at an aghast Sir Hugo, he says “Christina…” and lights a match.

The resulting explosion has blown the mansion apart…and Giles as well. Any normal person would have been killed in the blast. But the immortal Sir Hugo rises from the rubble, his shoulders slumped in total defeat. He finds the only other survivor of the blast…the guinea pig. Clutching the rodent to him, Hugo burns the envelope with the combination in it. His Asphyx will now lie hidden in the vault for all eternity. An eternity that Sir Hugo Cunningham will now spend in penance for his attempts to conquer death.

He speaks to the guinea pig: “I obey God’s will, my friend, my old friend, my eternal and everlasting friend, my companion in immortality…”

Now the scene switches. It is many decades later…England in the 1970’s. Through the streets of a modern city, a hunched and tattered figure stumbles.  It is an incredibly old and disfigured man, who blinks and looks at the sky. Clutched in his hands is a guinea pig. He staggers into the street, where two cars collide with this tattered figure in the middle. We hear sirens and then a policeman’s voice says “My God, he’s still alive!”

This film is a Greek tragedy in every sense of the word. Like Icarus, Sir Hugo reached too far too fast and fell blazing to Earth. Like Prometheus, he tries to bring knowledge to mankind but pays bitterly for it. The feeling of inevitable doom reverberates throughout “The Asphyx”. Many compare the look of the film to a Hammer production, but in reality, it is both more and less lurid than that.

Peter Newbrook put together a very unique film and a very handsome one. The period detail is exquisite and never fails. The only real misstep comes in the very last scene, as the disfigured and ancient Sir Hugo is clearly wearing a cheap and ill-fitting mask. Yet the eerie sorrow of the moment is so potent, one can forgive even this slight lapse.

I was not terribly familiar with actor Robert Stephens before watching the film, but he does a tremendous job here. Sir Hugo never comes across as evil or even that foolish, but obviously his obsession with beating death has made him unbalanced. At the end, he realizes this and willingly destroys his only escape from a lonely eternity when he burns Giles’ envelope.

Speaking of Giles, Robert Powell is an actor I’m familiar with and greatly respect. He was great in everything I saw him in but somehow never broke through to major screen success. Although Giles dies a rather romantically noble death here, he would eventually play a different kind of immortal when he essayed the title role in “Jesus of Nazareth”. And for many, his portrayal of Christ remains  the best.

The rest of the cast is unknown to me, but all do well and seem very natural in their roles. One of the real stars is the Asphyx itself…a hideous little creature whose horrible shriek will be ringing in your ears long after the film is over. It actually appears only briefly, but is unforgettable whenever it does.

“The Asphyx” never really found its audience in 1972. Horror movies were turning to gut-munching grindhousers like “Last House on the Left” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. The actor-centered period piece was fading fast at the time and “The Asphyx” was more intellectual even than most of those. But connoisseurs kept its memory alive. It enjoyed a brief renaissance during the early days of the VHS boom but only recently did it receive a DVD release that could be seen in America. There was even talk in 2014 of doing a remake, but that quickly faded.

So yes, my friends, unorthodox science can often yield powerful results in the future….results worth being a pariah or a martyr. But in the case of Sir Hugo Cunningham, NOTHING could be worth the price he paid…and maybe is still paying. Will somebody someday stumble into that hidden vault and find a way to break in? Will Hugo’s Asphyx be released at last and his torment ended?

Only time will well…