Thursday, December 9, 2010

One From the Vaults: The Asphyx (1973)

One truly fantastic thing the advent of DVD made possible was that waves of relatively obscure genre movies became readily available. That trend seems to be dying down a little, but there are plenty of titles I have still yet to watch. With this in mind I’ve decided to begin a regular feature where I highlight one of these rarities, and give you the lowdown on whether it’s worth seeking out. For this inaugural entry, I checked out the 1973 period film The Asphyx. Over the past few years I’ve come across a number of reviews claiming it to be an underrated masterpiece in the style of the best Hammer horror entries. Being a big Hammer fan that was enough to sell me on trying it out, as if I needed encouragement, and I finally got around to picking up the Hen’s Tooth DVD release. Well worth the effort I must say. In addition to having one of the most bizarre creatures to ever grace the silver screen, it is an impressively produced throwback to an earlier era where scares came from concept and mood rather than graphic effects. Given that this came out at a time where such films were out of fashion it’s somewhat of a miracle that this movie even exists.

In essence The Asphyx is your basic morality play set in Victorian England . . . with a soul-eating monster. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), a man of science, is a dabbler in the field of spectral photography. In other words he tries to prove the existence of the soul by catching it on film. One afternoon at a family gathering, he inadvertently captures the tragic moment of the death of his wife and son. When he later examines the photos they reveal a ghostly figure. This prompts him to take photos at the execution of a local criminal, and again the ghostly image turns up. After doing some research Hugo comes to believe he has discovered the Asphyx, a death spirit discussed in the pages of mythology. An Asphyx exists for each individual, coming to claim them at the moment of their death. Driven by his grief Hugo engages in a terrifying experiment, operating under the theorythat if he can capture a person’s Asphyx they will become immortal. Unfortunately the subject has to be on the verge of death, meaning Hugo will have to create those conditions (via guillotine, fire chamber, and electrocution) to prompt the arrival of The Asphyx!

I’ve seen my fair share of these “be careful what you wish for” style horror stories, but few have been as creepy as this one (take that Monkey’s Paw). The combination of Hugo’s crazy schemes, and the truly unsettling appearance of the titular creature make for an unforgettable experience. The only gripe I have is the transfer on the DVD, which is non-anamorphic and therefore doesn’t fit the entire television screen. Why Hen’s Tooth didn’t produce a 16X9 transfer is beyond me, but at least they got the 2:35:1 aspect ratio correct. Despite this reservation I would highly recommend grabbing this while it’s still in print, as it’s truly one of a kind (and until now almost impossible to see). On a related note Retrofantasma has just put out their winter/spring/summer schedule, and wouldn’t you know The Asphyx is playing on a double-bill with Witchfinder General in June! So if you can hold off your curiosity until then, and make the trek to North Carolina, you can witness a proper screening.

Speaking of Retrofantasma, they’ve got a great schedule for the New Year. The highlight in my opinion is their May show, at which they will be screening the last surviving 35mm prints of Jaws 2 and The Legacy! I’m always blown away when they are able to get these titles from Universal’s rare archives, and simultaneously horrified that there could only be one 35mm print of Jaws 2 in existence. A sad state of affairs indeed. In any event be sure to check out The Asphyx either on DVD or the big screen while you still have a chance!


Daniel said...

This is one of those I rented back in the mid 90's. I couldn't watch the whole thing because it was presented Pan and Scan. That proved to be most frustrating and I just had to turn it off. Maybe with this new Hen's Tooth presentation I can take another stab at it. I always liked the premise of this one.

Jim Blanton said...

Yeah I can't imagine watching this in Pan & Scan. Any movie that uses the ultrawide, cinemascope ratio is a chore when cropped. It's definitely worth another look, even though the Hen's Tooth transfer isn't perfect. The Asphyx itself is one of the creepiest screen creatures ever, and the outrageous near death gimmicks Hugo sets up make for a wild ride. Great stuff!