Short Ends and Leader

Horror - British Style: 'The Asphyx'

Oh those crazy British scientists.

The Asphyx

Director: Peter Newbrook
Cast: Robert Stephens, Robert Powell
Distributor: Kino
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1973
USDVD release date: 2012-4-17

From the early 1970s, when every horror film was worth seeing, comes this highly original slice of nerve-rattling British preposterousness. The unlikely hero is Sir Hugo Cunningham, played in a totally convincing manner by Robert Stephens as a middle-aged, aristocratic ass with faint lisp. The secondary hero is his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell), a rather glum young man who wants to marry his adopted father's natural daughter (Jane Lapotaire), which I suppose must be legal.

That English rose as intelligent and indulged as a privileged Victorian daughter can be, yet one of the movie's wise decisions is to refuse to "update" her into the kind of spunky self-willed heroine who plays better with modern audiences. Such strong-willed types indeed existed in that time and place, yet they weren't as common as most modern movies and books would have us believe. Thus, both her husband and her fiancé are constantly cutting off her inquiries with orders like "Just do as I say," which causes her to retreat into mouselike acceptance. In fact, her willingness to do as she's told is a source of the film's several tragedies.

The most obvious source is Sir Hugo's sense of entitlement, which allows a hunger that won't be thwarted until he's ruined everyone. His obsession is cinematic. He believes his new hobby of photography (and he's even invented a motion picture camera in the 1870s! and it even cuts in close-ups automatically!) allows him to capture the spirit of death ("the asphyx") that comes to each individual. This idea is equally amazing for its absurdity as for its originality, and it's all handled with breathless seriousness. The spirit is presented as a grotesque, bat-like, agonized thing that emits piercing sound effects, and the viewer comes to anticipate each appearance with both dread and excitement.

Presented in widescreen splendor, this is a film whose sense of tragedy and melancholy feels borrowed from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and it does sufficient justice to the comparison to deserve its reputation as a cult horror classic, even though several plot conveniences don't make a lot of sense.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.