Tuesday, October 23, 2012


In Victorian England, a man (Robert Stephens) who belongs to a psychical research group discovers something unusual in pictures he took of mortally ill patients at the moment of their death—a dark smudge in the air near their head. At first, he thinks it's the soul leaving the body, but while he's filming his fiancĂ©e and his grown son canoeing on the river, the two have an accident and are killed, and on the film, the smudge is seen moving toward rather than away from the dying. Stephens theorizes that he's seeing the asphyx, a spirit that the Ancient Greeks believed appeared to the dying just moments before death. Stephens and his adopted son (Robert Powell) do some experimenting with a (literal) guinea pig and find out that a certain kind of light emitted through crystals can trap the asphyx and stop the being from dying. Now that they have an immortal guinea pig, Stephens decides to try and capture his own asphyx so he can become immortal, which of course entails putting himself in a state of near-death and having Powell operate the crystal light. What could go wrong?

This feels and looks like an understated Hammer movie and it probably could have done with a little more of the hot-blooded Hammer style. Its recent DVD release touts it as steampunk, which isn't too far off the mark—modern-day scientific gadgetry in the 19th century—though one problem with the movie is the fact that both the scientific and supernatural elements of the plot are barely dealt with in the narrative: the crystal light, the trapping of the spirit in boxes, and the background of the asyphyx itself are all just dropped in our laps, so to speak. A later plot point involving Powell writing down the combination to a safe in which the asphyx is to be put is very sloppily handled. Stephens and Powell are too restrained, like they're in a serious artsy drama, where the gusto of Christopher Lee or Vincent Price might have worked better. Speaking of Price, this plot seems pulled right out of the William Castle thriller THE TINGLER, though in that movie, the title being was a physical embodiment of fear that sprang from the body and could lead to death. The manifestation of the asphyx is a so-so effect but it does look pretty nasty. The movie is interesting at times and is beautifully shot; the Redemption Blu-ray disc makes it look like it was filmed yesterday. [DVD]

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