The Asphyx, is a movie that I have always been drawn to, and for a long time now I have considered it one of the better Horror movies to come out of England during the 1970’s. But is it a horror? It certainly has been categorised as one by many and even been given a cult status as a horror. But I am not entirely sure that it fits squarely into the genre. I was surprised that the movie was a B feature when it was first released to cinemas in the UK or maybe I am being unkind as it was more of a double A feature being billed alongside Hammer films Demons of the Mind.

There are within The Asphyx certain issues and scenarios that can be seen as horror, but the storyline encompasses many subjects and situations, romance being one, it is I feel essentially a love story, that deals with loss, discovery and includes an abundance of science related items. In some ways it evokes shades of Burke and Hare but in this case, it does not pursue the more grisly and macabre side of that tale, also there are similarities between its story and that of Shelley’s Frankenstein, because we see man acting as if he is God, not in so much as a creative way by taking body parts and manufacturing a monster/being, but more leaning towards altering lives.

The film or at least the storyline is quite unique, but also highly implausible and yet at the same time it does make the audience think, What if? It is a classy, enticing, and interesting movie, that has a fascinating appeal to it. I say implausible because the plot is somewhat science fiction, but at the same time the movie comes across so well one does forget this and the interest levels rise, I would even go as far as to say it is thought provoking. I think this is mainly due to the impressive cast, who all produce performances that are believable, each actor being perfectly suited to their respective characters and a well written screenplay, and helmed by filmmaker Peter Newbrook.

Released in 1972, The Asphyx, aka- Spirit of the Dead or The Horror of Death, opens in present day England, where in the brief pre-credits sequence we see a road traffic accident, the police attend the scene, but other than that the audience are kept in the dark. It then cuts to the main title credits which lead into the opening scene proper of the movie set in 19th Century England. The story focus upon Sir Hugo Cunningham who is portrayed superbly by English actor Robert Stephens.

Sir Hugo is a highly respected scientist, and a revered member of the parapsychological society, which is an organisation that studies various forms of psychic occurrences. In their latest studies the members have been photographing people who are at the point of death, all have started to notice a smudge or a shadow on the photo as the person passes. The members conclude that they have captured the persons soul leaving the body as they die. Sir Hugo, however, disagrees and decides that he must continue to investigate more thoroughly.

Cunningham, holds a party at his house, and whilst there he uses a camera that he has invented himself to capture moving pictures of the event, whilst he is using the camera he films a terrible boating accident, in which both his son and Fiancée are tragically killed. After the accident he watches the film and notices the same smudge or mark that has been noticed on the photos of the society. On closer examination he notices that the smudge is moving towards his son and not away from him. After re-watching the footage many times, he deliberates and concludes that this is not the soul departing the body, but is instead The Asphyx, a mythological entity spoken of by the Greeks.

Later Cunningham attends a public execution, as a protest against capital punishment he records the execution on his camera, after this he returns to his home and with his assistant Giles played by Robert Powell, he shows the film and together they see the executed mans Asphyx suspended momentarily in the light from Cunningham’s device, Sir Hugo very quickly reaches the conclusion that if he could suspend a dying persons Asphyx that person would become immortal all the time the Asphyx is contained or trapped.

The two men then trap the Asphyx of a Guinea Pig, and seal it in a well-fortified room in Sir Hugo’s house with a door that is virtually indestructible. Things take a turn for the worse, (as they very often do-the best laid plans scenario). And the storyline becomes ever more sinister with Cunningham deciding that he will trap his own Asphyx, and lock it in the same room as the one from the Guinea Pig, thus ensuring that he will live forever.

Assisted by Giles Sir Hugo subjects himself to high charges of electricity, and Cunningham installs a combination lock on the door of the room or the tomb as it is called in the movie. Giles soon realises that he cannot trap the Asphyx alone and enlists the help of his Fiancee Christiana (Jane Lapotaire).

After trapping his Asphyx Cunningham decides to offer both Christina and Giles immortality, which they agree to, but Christina is killed and later Giles to is killed due to an experiment that goes horribly wrong, and even though Giles has left Sir Hugo the combination to the tomb Sir Hugo destroys it because he decides to stay living and roam the countryside forever wrapped with guilt because of the deaths of Giles and Christina. Which takes us back to the beginning of the movie. We see the two cars that are involved in a fatal collision, and the police on the scene of the accident, the two drivers are killed but a pedestrian an old man is miraculously still alive and walks away from the accident unscathed holding a Guinea Pig.

Its an entertaining movie, and one that I can gladly watch over and over, and even if the storyline does at times drift into the preposterous, I still enjoy it.

I also love the score, which is by Bill Mc Guffie, the Scottish born pianist was mainly known for his jazz performances and compositions, and also via his performances with the likes of Cyril Stapelton, Teddy Foster and Kenny Baker, but he did occasionally work on film scores. Daleks invasion of Earth, 2150 AD, The Challenge, The Comedy Man, and The Leather Boys all in the early to mid 1960’s.

The Asphyx, is a romantically laced soundtrack that is fully symphonic, and contains a particularly haunting opening theme. The music is lilting and subdued, with the music acting as a subtle but powerful background to the story as it unfolds. The style is vaguely evocative of the style employed by fellow Scottish composer Harry Robinson who also excelled writing music for horror movies, and Mc Guffie’s affecting central theme has many affiliations with Robinsons Demons of the Mind. Mc Guffie’s music lulls the audience into what is a false sense of security, and because it is subtle and mostly melodic has the desired effect of making the moments of horror or shock even more powerful.  

Sadly, the score has never been released and I think I correct when I say that there has never even been as much as a cover version of the theme. I would imagine that the score will now never see the light of day and is either gathering dust in a cellar somewhere or has already been thrown out or destroyed. Mc Guffie went on to record several easy listening albums which became very popular, he died in March 1987.  

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