Cult Movie: Odd-ball supernatural sci-fi The Asphyx

Robert Powell and Robert Stephens in The Asphyx
Ralph McLean

The Asphyx

BY ITS very nature, a column about cult movies is bound to throw up some seriously odd offerings – and The Asphyx is odder than most.

A kind of metaphysical science-fiction thriller about the pursuit of immortality dressed up like a Gothic melodrama that ultimately winds up feeling like a creaky old Victorian morality play – with special effects that are limited to say the least – The Asphyx is certainly a bizarre proposition, but one that's well worth trying to get your head around.

The sole directing credit for Peter Newbrook, a man more famous for his award winning cinematography on such epics as Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), it appeared to little fanfare in 1972 but has slowly built up a reputation as one of the strangest and most intriguing films of its kind since.

Set in the 1870's it tells the tale of Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) who presides over a loving family on a large country estate but seems more interested in issues of parapsychology and his early experiments with photography and primitive movie-making technology.

When his son dies in a tragic boating accident that he was conveniently filming (about 20 years before such technology was created for those who are interested) Cunningham notices a weird smudge above his head and swiftly convinces himself he is in fact looking at the very soul of man as it leaves the body, something the ancient Greeks called the 'Asphyx', apparently.

They didn't, of course, but going along with such nonsense is all part of the magic on offer here.

Tormented by grief Sir Hugo becomes obsessed with capturing his own Asphyx and therefore cheating death forever which is where the real fun starts.

Newbrook swiftly loads up the outlandish sci-fi elements as Hugo experiments firstly on himself and then on his own family as he seeks to protect them from death at all costs.

Capturing the actual spirit itself, which looks like the kind of crazed glove puppet Jim Henson would have knocked together in a fever dream, involves all kind of steam punk paraphernalia. The effect is cheap but oddly affecting, with the creature screaming wildly as Hugo and his adopted son (played by old Jesus Of Nazareth himself, Robert Powell) try to trap it forever.

At times the actual capturing of the spirit feels like a Ghostbusters dry run, minus the comic capering.

Such fiddling around in God's domain is standard mad scientist behaviour of course, and the cost of such folly is always high. Robert Stephens, a hugely respected stage actor of the time but one given to acts of gross scenery crunching when the film cameras started rolling in front of him, cranks up the over-acting levels well past 11 here. His over-wrought and over-cooked playing of the tortured father role, trying and failing to put right what he's done, is a big part of the film's appeal.

Wildly over-amped and utterly ridiculous, it's all played with admirable straightness throughout. Frankly, if you fancy a little Friday night film fun, you could do a lot worse.

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