Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Asphyx

One thing that I rather admire about the British horror films of the 60s and 70s is in how they seem to have a great deal more thought to them than their American counterparts (and much more than the bulk of their European brethren at the time – Spain, France, and Italy may have been making some damned entertaining horror in that time, but intelligent would not be a word I’d use to describe most). Led primarily by Hammer Studios, the films of that time tried both to re-envision classic horror themes in exciting new ways and to try to envision entirely new types of horror films to thrill us with. The Asphyx is one of the latter.

The film is set in the late 1800s (I think), and stars Robert Stephens as Sir Hugo Cunningham, a beloved and respected scientist who makes a startling discovery. It seems that every photograph taken of someone as they are dying features the same dark smudge hovering around them. He soon theorizes that this must be the “asphyx”, the spirit of the dead written about in ancient Greece, and soon sets his scientific sights on finding a way to make the spirit visible when it arrives, and then on finding a way to capture it. This is no minor thing, as capturing it and sealing it away ensures that the dying person or animal that summoned the asphyx will now live forever (or at least as long as their asphyx is sealed away).

One thing that makes this film so unique is in its overall tone. This is partly due to how there is no real villain in this piece, and if Hugo’s efforts transform into a closed-minded obsession after the tragic deaths of his wife and son, well, it’s a totally understandable one. There’s also a great deal more talking than in most horror films. Our main character is a man of ideas, a more benign Dr. Frankenstein, trying to puzzle together a newly-discovered mystery of the universe.

It ends in tragedy, as such a film must, with the deaths of some characters that we truly care about (the effort to capture an asphyx is indeed a risky one, since it requires each person to start to die in order to summon it), but one interesting thing – and I realize this is going to partially spoil the ending, but the opening scene of the movie spoils it anyway so I can’t feel too bad about doing it – comes in how two characters actually do survive to the present day. Of course, as the Greek legend of Tithonus could have informed Hugo, having eternal life isn’t necessarily all that wonderful without eternal youth to go with it, but still. Imagine if Frankenstein had ended with the doctor and his creation making peace with each other, and then continuing on together somewhere else, that’s sort of what this is like. This may not be as flashy or fast-paced as your average horror movie, but if you want something that tries something new and isn’t afraid to have actual ideas in it, you should definitely try to hunt this one down.

Rating: *** ½

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