Join us every Monday, as we look at a cult movie. Our film of the week this time sees a Victorian scientist trying to capture the spirit of death

Director: Peter Newbrook
Cast: Robert Stephens, Robert Powell
Available on region one and region two DVD
Watch the trailer here

The Asphyx is one of those British gothic horror films for which some claim “under-rated cult classic” status. That might be exaggerating its merits just a little, but fans of the Hammer and Amicus studios should certainly check it out.

Robert Stephens plays Victorian scientist Sir Hugo Cunningham, who is conducting experiments into photographing the dying at the point of death. Noticing a strange smudge on the photos, he believes he’s recorded the soul leaving the body. Further experiments reveal the smudge is moving towards the body, not away from it. Cunningham concludes that he’s recorded the Asphyx, the spirit of death from Greek mythology (this legend was, incidentally, totally made-up by the screenwriter. What a swizz!) Discovering how to trap it, he hatches a plan to confer eternal life upon himself and his family…

We’re then treated to lots of scenes amusingly reminiscent of a Victorian version of Ghostbusters, as Cunningham trains a beam of brilliant light onto screeching, protoplasmic blobs, and drags them into storage boxes. It’s hard to resist the temptation to call out “don’t cross the streams!”

The Asphyx takes itself a lot more seriously than that, though. Terribly, terribly seriously in fact – even as it becomes increasingly farcical and preposterous. As the filmmakers try to squeeze in grotesque death scenes, Stephens whips out a home-made electric chair, then a guillotine, then a gas chamber. It’s like watching a particularly grisly Tom And Jerry cartoon – you half expect someone to suddenly get flattened by a ten-ton weight.

What stops the film from sliding into irredeemable silliness is the performance of Robert Stephens, one of those dependable British thesps you can always rely upon to pull out the stops. Alternately watery-eyed, then shaking with furious rage, Stephens wrings the maximum emotion out of every line, treating this period potboiler with exactly the same level of commitment that he brought to countless productions of Shakespeare.

Ian Berriman, reviews editor of SFX and cult movie nut, has watched Rat Pfink A Boo Boo four or five times, but never seen On The Waterfront. The nutter.

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