In Victorian England, a brilliant scientist, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), is dedicated to the study of paranormal phenomena. One of his experiments involves photographing dying people. Cunningham discovers that each photo contains a black spot and he theorizes that it is the “asphyx” (aka grim reaper). After the death of his fiance and son, Cunningham becomes obsessed with capturing the creature. The idea has terrible consequences.
Reaction & Thoughts:
If you are looking for an old-fashioned mad-scientist flick, The Asphyx (also known as Spirit of the Dead and The Horror of Death), written by Christina Beers, Laurence Beers, and Brian Comport, directed by Peter Newbrook (Corruption and Crucible of Terror ), is the movie for you.
Good performances and great production values are the film’s main virtues. Also, it has a particularly nifty premise that has disturbing implications. One could argue that the filmmakers were trying to ape Hammer Productions, but I think it’s more in the vein of an old Universal horror movie — it reminded me of The Invisible Ray, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
One interesting difference is that the crazy scientist is played by the very refined Stephens. He is no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, but he is very effective. Another thing that sets it apart from old horror is the gorgeous color photography of Oscar-winning cameraman Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago) — it’s so pretty that it hurts your eyes. The film’s glossiness is at odds with the film’s consistently dour tone. The visual effects are very good too.
Robert Powell (Harlequin) is very good as Stephens’s adopted son. Jane Lapotaire (Surviving Picasso) plays Stephens’s daughter. With Alex Scott (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), Ralph Arliss (She Fell Among Thieves), Terry Scully (Goodbye Gemini), and John Lawrence (They Live).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Asphyx is daffy, but endlessly fun. The direction by Peter Newbrook is spot-on. Overall, a surprisingly well-made, elegant and intelligent chiller that still packs a wallop today. Color, 99 minutes, Rated PG.