From its title onward, The Asphyx is not exactly a run-of-the-mill low-budget horror film. It is not exactly anything in the sense of fitting neatly in a generic cubbyhole. The results are posh and mildly interesting, but as the film tries to provide a somewhat highbrow (and probably expensive) take on a genre associated more with vivid visuals than refined entertainment, they are also rather confused.
Just explaining the title demonstrates the difficulties. The “asphyx” is neither clearly an animal nor a spirit nor anything else. It is a harbinger and purveyor of death of unspecified materiality unique to each of us that appears just before someone dies. Its (their?) existence is discovered accidentally (with the help of a premature movie camera) by Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), a philanthropist and scientific dilettante who becomes obsessed with the idea of trapping an asphyx. He believes that if someone is brought close to death and his or her asphyx is prevented from entering the body and locked away, he or she will continue living as long as the asphyx remains imprisoned.
The asphyx itself is moderately menacing, but it never gets close enough to frighten deeply. For that matter, its threat is muted by the pages of exposition needed to explain it. Who could doubt the seriousness of a film that takes the time to educate us that “asphyx” derives from ancient Greek? Such misguided genuflection before culture betrays the attitude that costume horror has to be made respectable. The director, Peter Newbrook, and his cinematographer, Academy Award winning Freddie Young, plunk down one handsome image after another, as if the self-consciously worthy execution will make ordinary horror better, more significant. Even the costumes are too well upholstered and tailored to be seen as anything less than Perfect, never dirty or mussed. The results may be impressive. They are certainly stiff. They are are not very frightening, and a horror film that fails to chill has lost the plot.
While Newbrook avoids blatantly exploitative blood or gore, he fails to provide much alternative. When, for example, Cunningham’s daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire), for reasons too complicated to get into, is waiting for the blade of a guillotine to fall toward her we do not so much experience her fear as “appreciate” the actress’s squirming efforts to make us believe she is frightened. With the exception of Robert Powell as Giles Cunningham, Sir Hugo’s adopted son, who underplays a little, the cast acts and Acts and ACTS, all too ably declaiming in the venerable British theatrical tradition.
No matter how wrong-headed these efforts to elevate the horror film may be, The Asphyx is inoffensive, and at least there is a lot to look at. Craftsmanship offers its own pleasures, even if they are no substitute for active engagement. The Asphyx is, however, an excellent example of how good taste is more likely to assure the bland than the flavorful.