Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Robert Stephens, Robert Powell, Jane Lapotaire, Alex Scott, Ralph Arliss, Fiona Walker, Terry Scully, John Lawrence, David Grey, Tony Caunter
Written by: Brian Comport, based on a story by Christina Beers, Laurence Beers
Directed by: Peter Newbrook
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 86
Date: 02/01/1973
IMDB

The Asphyx (1973)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Death Screeches

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Peter Newbrook's The Asphyx has a fascinating, if awkward idea. It seems that a creature called the "Asphyx" comes for your soul at the moment of death. At the turn of the century, a scientist and photographer, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), discovers that the Asphyx can be photographed -- it appears as a smudge -- and is affected by light. He discovers that a certain kind of light source traps the Asphyx and that a special kind of box, with a constant light source, can keep the Asphyx incarcerated forever. If a person's Asphyx can't get to them, then it follows that the person will be immortal.

The movie makes a big deal out of this capturing process, but it's so complex, and with so many parts, that anything can go wrong, and usually does. In one experiment, two scientists -- Sir Hugo and his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) -- somehow forget that they needed a third person to open the door of the trap. (For some reason, someone needs to keep a hand on the light switch constantly.) In another scene, a loose Guinea pig chews a hole in an important cable.

The Asphyx relies perhaps too much on absurd scenes like these, including the stupid deaths of Hugo's loved ones, and a completely arbitrary scene in which Hugo is asked to photograph the hanging of a condemned man -- for posterity. But this device also allows him, far too conveniently, to solve the puzzle of the Asphyx. But plot logic set aside, The Asphyx succeeds on the strength of its idea. The scientists have several arguments over what it all means, and these are always fascinating.

Director Newbrook was better known as a secondary camera operator on some major films and the lead cinematographer on some minor films. This was his only directorial outing. He makes brilliant use of the huge Cunningham estate, with its libraries and laboratories; everything is made of brown stones, decorated with little bursts of color throughout the frame. The period costumes and antique lab equipment are made to seem deliberately cumbersome, adding to a sense of unease. (Add to this the unholy screeching of the Asphyx itself.) A bizarre opening scene seems to be disconnected with the rest of the narrative, but it creates a full circle if you watch it again after the end. Overall, this is a unique and memorable little chiller.

Kino Lorber released the DVD under their "Redemption" label. The transfer is superb (a Blu-Ray is also available). The main version runs 86 minutes, but an extended version is also available from the extras menu. It includes low-quality footage that does not quite mesh with the restored footage, and so it's recommended for die-hards only. Other extras include a photo gallery and trailers.