Although reminiscent of the films in the Hammer Horror canon, The Asphyx was not made by that renowned studio, which makes this 1973 film an underrated curiosity from horror’s hallowed halls.
It’s 1875, and Dr. Hugo Cunningham has just returned home with his new fiancée Anna. He’s thrilled to introduce her to his family, which consists of his son Clive, daughter Christina, and adopted son Giles. Dr. Cunningham is also part of another family: learned men studying parapsychology. They have noticed a strange black smudge on photographs of people who were near death. Hugo feels certain it’s the image of the soul leaving the body.
Unexpectedly tragic circumstances soon increase Hugo’s curiosity. While filming Anna and Clive in a rowboat on a nearby river, Clive’s oar gets stuck in a sandbank. He is too distracted by his attempts to free it to notice the low-hanging tree branch nearby, which soon knocks him out of the boat. When the boat capsizes, Anna falls into the river and Hugo rushes to save her because she cannot swim, but the water is too murky to see anything. Hugo and Giles find Clive’s dead body hours later, but not Anna’s, and assume she was caught up in the current that leads to a nearby waterfall.
Two weeks later, Hugo is developing the film of the accident when he notices something akin to the black smudge from the earlier photographs. Only this object appears to be moving towards Clive, not away from him. After additional investigation, Hugo’s develops a theory: this is The Asphyx, a spirit that lies in wait for every sentient creature at the moment of death. He soon figures out a way to trap it, thus rendering its intended victim as immortal.
Much like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Hugo Cunningham comes from a world of wealth and privilege, which he freely acknowledges, along with that privilege’s unique power. “We Cunninghams must never abuse that power,” he tells his children. Unfortunately, his grief and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge warp his mind in the same way they did Dr. Frankenstein’s, leading to ghastly results.
The image of the Asphyx itself is disturbing, especially when accompanied by some unforgettable spectral shrieking. Yet that’s not what makes this film special. Despite its impeccable production design, period costuming and a distinct lack of gore, The Asphyx is one brutally bleak film.
The change in Hugo, along with the effect that this has on his family, is subtle and scary, as he stumbles further down the path into arrogance and insanity. Some outlandish but inspired death set pieces further elucidate the depths of Hugo’s depravity, so that The Asphyx feels like a missing Edgar Allan Poe tale written under the influence of H.G. Wells.
Bookended by a couple of thought-provoking flash-forward scenes, The Asphyx is both harrowing and heartbreaking, and deserves a wider audience. Thankfully, Kino Lorber and Redemption Films released an impeccable transfer on Blu in 2012.
This article was originally published on Rue Morgue on November 13, 2015.