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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Asphyx (1972)

I could hardly believe my eyes when I first saw the trailer for this movie- it was like Ghostbusters but serious and set in Victorian England. How could I NOT find it awesome? It's a very rare thing indeed when a movie not only lives up to its theatrical trailer but also exceeds it. How this movie manages to remain so far below the radar confounds me. I think now is a good time to stop jibber jabbering about it and let you get to the goods.


Am I right or what? The trailer is a bit annoying what with the "More than a myth...More than a maybe!" horseshit but at the end of the day what can you really do about it?

 The story revolves around Sir Hugo Cunningham, a scientist/philanthropist who discovers a mysterious blur on photographs taken by him and fellow colleagues of people taken at the moment of their deaths. He believes this blur to be the image of the soul as it leaves the body, but his doubts lead him to further experimentation after the accidental death of his son. Through a series of mishaps and accidents he discovers something far more insidious- a being known as the Asphyx, a spirit which appears at the moment of death to take one away the the underworld. Theorizing that one could become immortal by capturing their Asphyx before death, he begins experiments to prove the unimaginable, but not without dire consequences.

While this is considered a horror film, it only fits via technicality. Like most British horrors of its era, this film is less of a scare and more of a morality tale. Hugo's obsession with cheating death so as not to lose those close to him ever again leaves him completely blind to any consequence, and we see his character and human decency erode along with it. If you can't figure out what I am getting at then you are probably a sociopath.

But back on track here- Poor Hugo's desire for immortality is the true centerpiece, and the horror we see is not of the blood and guts variety but completely cerebral in nature. I find it sad that modern horror films seldom play on this aesthetic and concern themselves with more bargain basement gore fest plots with zombies or werewolves or some such other overdone elements from decades past as their main focus. The plot is more than compelling and really quite original, and I would not be surprised if this movie wasn't at least a teensy tiny inspiration for Ghostbusters some years later.

The Ghostbusters parallel is an easy one to make, and the trailer posted above provides you with all the ammunition you need to make the jump. One thing I am definitely surprised by is that this film isn't bigger with the whole "steam punk" crowd. Considering the fact that there's lots of cool technology reverse engineered to look plausible in a different era (examples: spirit capturing "light boosters" powered by blue crystals and coffins capable of containing them, and also a motion picture camera in use a full 20 years before they were invented), you would figure they would have latched onto this one immediately. Maybe it's better that way because I think that whole genre and it's title are total bullshit.

The cinematography gets big ups here, as the Director of Photography was the formidable Freddie Young, who you will recognize from various films you haven't seen such as Lawrence of ArabiaYou Only Live Twice, and Doctor Zhivago. Unfortunately for me, the Magnum Entertainment vhs edition is pan and scanned all to bloody hell so I couldn't really enjoy any of his meticulous work. I cannot say how the Interglobal Home Video editions look and I assume that any DVD edition from the US or UK is likely in widescreen format and does not suffer from this problem. Even though this happened through the entire movie in the most annoying ways possible I still got sucked into the movie enough that it did not matter, but having a widescreen copy would definitely be worth it.

Something else I would like to mention is the difference between the prints used for the DVD and VHS masters for the tape I saw and the DVD my brother had seen before recommending this to me. In my old vhs things are ever so slightly washed out (part of the charm of British horror films of this era I think) and the Asphyx appeared to be blue, but you might have noticed that it is green in the theatrical trailer posted at the start of this review. Upon doing some research, I found out that someone (some sources say All Day Entertainment, but I cannot confirm this) actually did an incredibly extensive restoration of this film which included very careful color correction of a badly faded 35mm print. For a film this obscure that is a very major effort, and I am thankful someone stepped up to the plate. Maybe I should go get the DVD too.

I think you might have guessed by now that I REALLY enjoyed this film. It's well shot, a compelling idea, has cool artwork on the cover, and has some great moral dilemas for the audience to mull over. Of course I do have a couple of misgivings (mostly the absolutely terrible old age makeup used at films end, it looks like a really lame papier-mache mask), but no film is 100% perfect and that's why I love the artform so very much. No matter what edition you choose to pick up or come across (I won't lie, I went for the artwork on mine, plus it was only 5 bucks) I think the smarter folks out there will really enjoy it and find that there's quite a bit to chew on in what most people might dismiss as nothing more than a simple ghoul movie.

Please do watch this and enjoy yourself.

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