Probably more one of those fairly obscure film coincidences rather than one of those film connections that leaves me scratching my head at the sometimes arcane synchronicity of movie-watching, but it turned out that The Asphyx was directed by Peter Newbrook, who was the director of photography on Corruption, which I watched just a few days earlier. While the two films are both of the horror genre, they couldn’t be more different- Corruption was a present-day horror calculated to shock, reflecting the growing trend at the time for nastier horror thrills for audiences jaded by the more traditional horror films that Hammer had been making for over a decade, and The Asphyx was much more restrained, a period piece that deliberately avoided being graphic or gory, and wouldn’t have seemed out of place had it indeed been from Hammer.
Barring an ill-judged present-day opening and close which bookends the story proper, the film takes place entirely in Victorian England, and the peculiar obsession of Sir Hugo Cunning (Robert Stephens) a scientist who notices grim shadowy artefacts in his photographs of the recently, or imminently, dead. He deduces that his unique photographic chemical solutions are capturing the image of the Asphyx, the spirit of the dead of Greek mythology, and proposes a way of trapping the creature in a device of his own devising, thus granting immortality to the subject of the creatures attention (the Asphyx unable to take possession of a dying person, that person would then be unable to die). While Stephen’s experiments prove successful with a family pet and then later upon himself, things start to go awry when he attempts to immortalise his daughter…
It is to the cast’s credit that the preposterous plot is taken absolutely seriously, in the best tradition of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in any of their own Hammer yarns, and Robert Stephens certainly lends some weight to it all. A well-respected actor who was at one time tipped to be the successor to Laurence Olivier for his theatre work, he was very much a theatrical actor, very intense. I recall him appearing in Ridley Scott’s first film, The Duellists, and voicing the part of Aragorn in the BBC’s marvellous radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve always struggled with him, personally, but oddly enough he works well here as the typically slightly manic, deranged scientist whose personal tragedy during a family boating accident drives him to ever greater extremes. The central premise of the film is daft but its treatment is actually quite disturbing, especially with someone like Stephens as the star: for once I’m not going to suggest its a horror film that would have been better with my old favourite Cushing in the starring role.
Indeed, I have to wonder if Stephen King was at all familiar with this film, because it shares some striking similarities to his story The Green Mile, and the film directed by Frank Darabont: maybe its a stretch, but an immortal character accompanied by his immortal guinea pig through the decades seems rather akin to The Green Mile‘s immortal Paul Edgecomb and his similarly immortal pet mouse, Mr .Jingles, and both tales share grisly scenes of an Electric Chair doing its ‘thing’. One of those film coincidences maybe.