Search This Blog

Thursday, October 6, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 1: The Asphyx (1972)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Screenplay by Brian Comport; Based on an original idea "The Asphyx" by Christina and Laurence Beers
Directed by Peter Newbrook

Robert Stephens:  Sir Hugo Cunningham
Robert Powell:  Giles Cunningham
Jane Lapotaire:  Christina Cunningham
Ralph Arliss:  Clive Cunningham
Alex Scott:  Sir Edward Barrett
Fiona Walker:  Anna Wheatley

It's time for HubrisWeen again, which means it's time to review 26 movies in 26 days, in alphabetical order. It's the fourth year I've done this, which means that I really ought to know better by now. And yet here I am again. We've got two new victims this year; Seeker of Schlock and Psychoplasmics are both trying out the artificial restrictions and massive series of deadlines for the first time. The returning participants this year are Web of the Big Damn Spider, The Terrible Claw Reviews, Micro-Brewed Reviews and Yes, I Know. I've got six times as many reviews to read as I do to write this time, so it's like a chain letter of B movie criticism. Welcome back and best of luck, gentlemen. Let's light this candle.


Settle down, Beavis. Yes, the movie title is pronounced "ass-fix". Okay. Get the "tire patch kits for butts" jokes out of your system now. Moving on.

The film starts out in (then-) present-day England, with a police car, siren blaring, going down a street. it's a few years too early for it to lead into "White Riot", unfortunately. There's some quite ambitious camerawork tracking the cop car from a vast distance as it passes by a bunch of tube trains; I'd never heard of Glendale Film Productions before and mentally put them below Tigon on my hierarchy of British film studios that made horror flicks, but that might have been premature. The officer arrives at the scene of a nasty head-on car wreck, with the drivers of both cars apparently dead on arrival, but the man underneath one of the vehicles still alive and in pain. Then it's time for the opening credits out of nowhere! I dunno, maybe Glendale had better camera workers than editors, because that brief scene didn't really tell me anything about anything before ending. It's a much colder cold open than I'm used to.

The credits run over shots of cobwebbed apothecary shelves inside some kind of manor house; there's something about dusty old glass jars and bottles that says "British movie mad science" to me. The lush, overripe piano and orchestral score sounds like it wants to start playing "Strangers in the Night" but is afraid of being sued. And we get an expected minor chord on a harpsichord before fading to the feature-length flashback that the main narrative is going to be. Maybe some people don't dig this kind of cliched sequence, but 1) it's just the opening credits and you gotta show something on the screen while the names show up in the titles, and 2) Being from the Colonies, I associate all this English horror filmmaking stuff with classy productions from studios like Hammer and Amicus. You're getting off on a perfectly fine start, movie.

Although the lengthy series of shots where a horse-drawn carriage approaches a manor house makes me think they only rented the horse for a single day and wanted to get as much footage of it as possible. The road going to the house is only wide enough for that carriage, which puts me in the mind of a society where only a small number of people were ever going to have the resources to even get to the mansion, and everyone apparently assumed that nobody would ever be leaving at the same time that someone else was arriving (there's probably a way to resolve right of way in that situation that English nobility is born knowing about, but I have absolutely no idea what that would be). The road leading up to the front door is also paved, but there's only so much a low budget production can do to make things look like they were taking place a century ago. I noticed a complete lack of dead animals or piles of human waste in the gutters, and if I were a lesser man I'd stop watching right now because they got it so wrong.

Sir Hugo Cunningham, the toff in the carriage, introduces his fiancee, Anna Wheatley) to the inevitable butler (named Mason, and who gets stuck carrying the luggage inside) and goes to a drawing room where he introduces her to his biological children Clive and Christina as well as his adopted son Giles. The meeting between the family members is a reinserted deleted scene on the blu-ray, integrated into the main narrative but looking shabbier since it spent time in a studio vault for 40 years or so and then got put back into the main film. Turns out the executives of 1972 didn't have a lot of patience for scenes not involving science fiction or horror in their period piece SF horror movie. I dig it, though; there's plenty of production value even if it's just a scene of drinks being poured in the study. The wide shots show off the inevitable high-backed leather chairs, fireplace tools and a globe that no self-respecting British period piece would be without (I like to imagine that it's got the British Empire outlined in bright red and all the other countries labeled in tiny handwriting).

Sir Hugo also announces that he's planning to marry Miss Wheatley that weekend; his children are surprised but happy, and Christina mentions that her father charges forth to do whatever he can when he puts his mind to it. And later that night after the kids have withdrawn from the drawing room the two older people chat a bit and snuggle while mentioning their relief that the "meet the kids and drop the bombshell about the wedding date" meeting went smoothly. We also learn that Clive is also going to marry soon (and Christina's probably going to set a date herself before too terribly long). That's probably really, really bad news. Anyone who's engaged in a horror movie might as well be a cop who knows Charles Bronson and has only two weeks to go before retirement.

A chiming clock brings Hugo back to reality; he's got a meeting of a "psychical research" society to attend that apparently won't start unless he's there. We also learn--thanks to some pretty leaden dialogue--that Sir Hugo is an amateur photographer. He tells Anna that he and the other psychical researchers take photographs of cadavers. He's barely able to articulate why he and the other fellows of his paranormal group do that, but at the meeting it seems pretty obvious--they're looking at numerous etched-glass photo plates of people at the moment of death, where a smudge on the film near their heads would certainly appear to be something like their soul departing, caught by the alchemical mixture of silver particles and photo-developing chemicals. Also, that's a totally boss looking old slide projector with glass photo plates in it--one of the things I really loved about the Hammer Frankenstein series was seeing what their prop builders would come up with in the way of 19th century scientific equipment. And the clunky yet obviously well-maintained camera looks quite cool in the brief moments we get to see it.

Sir Hugo tries an old rhetorical trick out, and it works--he says he's tempted to call the smudges on the photos the result of incompetent artisans using an unproven technology. But someone else at the meeting answers his "objection" by saying each photograph was taken at a different place, by a different person, with a different camera. So obviously there's got to be some other explanation. The president of the society, Sir Edward Barrett, swears that all the equipment was in perfect working order (and he's a knight, so he's staking quite a bit of his reputation on it). In the carriage ride back to the mansion, Sir Hugo and his son Giles don't agree on the cause of the distortions on the photos; kids those days thought they knew everything. Though, to be fair, "I took a photograph of a soul" is a pretty large pill to be swallowed.

Down in the threadbare and frankly unconvincing Cunningham family crypt, Sir Hugo and Clive have a heart-to-heart about social privilege and the need for the family to serve England by doing things that benefit society at large. Given that I'm writing this review during the Year of Trump, I have to say I quite like the Cunninghams.

A sudden cut to Giles and his Christina lying in a landed rowboat ensues. Man, this director doesn't like establishing shots. Or maybe he used up his entire quota with the horse-drawn carriage earlier. Anyway. Sir Hugo has a fancy new toy to try out--a camera that takes multiple pictures in rapid succession, so that they can be developed onto a strip of celluloid and shown sequentially, so fast that an illusion called "the persistence of vision" takes place. Yes, okay, it's a movie camera. But hey, that's essentially how they work. Checkpoint Telstar can teach you things.

At Sir Hugo's suggestion, Clive and Anna go out for a placid trip on a punt on a chilly March day so he can film them. And there's a piece of legitimate cinema history here, by the way--some of the absolute first motion pictures were called "actualities", and were simply brief snippets of film depicting ordinary people doing ordinary things. They could range from workers leaving a factory to the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; one mini-genre of actuality films involved installing a camera on a train car and recording a portion of a scenic journey. So Sir Hugo is, in his hobby as a photography enthusiast, actually doing what the first motion picture camera users were doing in real life around the same time the film would have taken place. Although the first motion picture cameras used by the Edison company weighed a literal ton, and were considerably boxier and uglier than the tripod-mounted specimen that Sir Hugo's using.

So, after the first actuality of Giles and Cristina goes well, it's got to be the one with Clive and Anna Wheatley that turns horrible. (Also, before I forget, I loved that both of the men, when being filmed, struck a suitably melodramatic pose and asked "Like this?" before Sir Hugo started turning the crank on his camera.) Clive's pole gets stuck on the bottom of the river, and while he's trying to pry it out of the schmutz that it's stuck in, he doesn't notice a tree branch at head height and gets walloped out of the punt. Anna follows, as Sir Hugo continues filming--aghast at what's happened. Giles runs into the river himself, but can't find either person. Clive's body washes up on the riverbank later, but Anna's is never recovered and the search is called off after a suitable interval.

Speaking of suitable intervals, a couple of weeks later Sir Hugo develops the film he took of Clive and Anna's deaths. Giles thinks that's ghoulish and can't possibly do any good for his father to watch the movie, but the older man says it's the only memento he has of them so he's going to view it. Hugo gets a shock he wasn't expecting when he projects the film, though; one of those smudges appears on the film just as Clive strikes his head. But Hugo's grief gets blasted away in a torrent of scientific curiosity and drive--because the smudge was going in the wrong direction. The still photographs of dying people didn't capture a soul escaping the body, but rather something moving towards people who were at Death's door and knocking loudly. Sir Hugo wants to know if Clive knew he was going to die and wants to take a closeup of his late son's eyes to see if the image of Death is branded in there somehow, wanting to know if that blur that only showed up in photographs is somehow visible in the cadaver's eyes.. I don't know why he thinks this will help anything, but I recognize an obsessive personality when I see it.

The photo of Clive, two weeks dead (pale and waxy in his crypt), reveals nothing useful to Sir Hugo. But when Giles presses him about how useless this research is going to be, the scientist drops the movie's title on us, claiming that ancient Greeks thought the spirit of Death was an entity called the Asphyx. Which turns out to be untrue but a convincing-sounding back story for the blurry distortions on the still and moving photographs that were taken. The only Google hits for "asphyx" are a death metal band from the Netherlands and this very film. And, given that metalheads like horror movies, the band might well have named themselves after the movie. Over some really incongruous gentle flute music, Sir Hugo explains that the Asphyx finds people who are about to die, and gravitates to them to relieve its own suffering by possessing them as they perish. How exactly the ancient Greeks figured that out, I don't know. But if you don't roll with it, you don't get to understand what's going on in the movie.

Sir Hugo utterly loses his shit when Giles calls his adoptive father's proposed ideas to film another Asphyx pointless. It's quite a change of pace from the earlier subdued paternal love and shattered grief from the researcher. Then, because Sir Hugo and Giles are English, they apologize to each other and get back to talking about the subject at hand. Sir Hugo theorizes that his particular mix of photographic chemicals is accidentally able to capture the image of the spirit as it approaches a dying person. Something in the acids that etch the photographic plates can show the image of the Asphyx as well (and Sir Hugo mimes that he's going to drink a cup of that acid to see if a photo of him will bring the Asphyx around before rejecting the idea because the spirit would know he wasn't going to go through with it--which is not exactly a hypothesis I'd ever want to test).

Giles and Hugo do some pretty cool Victorian-age Scooby Doo reasoning that they'd need to find someone that was incontrovertibly about to die in order to be certain that they could summon an Asphyx on demand, and Giles gets nervous about exactly how one would do that until Sir Hugo says he has no intention of killing someone just for a photograph. The two men try to hash it out but don't come up with anything useful until Sir Edward stops by to denounce a public execution that's to be held the following day. Sir Hugo is appalled to hear that such a barbaric practice is going to be carried out, and the social reform movement has been powerless to prevent it.

Sir Edward says he wants his friend to film the hanging to give all of England a good hard look at the real consequences of judicial whim. If enough English people see how horrible the execution is, they'll make sure no more are carried out. I'm sure the audience is several steps ahead of the narrative here, in that we all know that a public hanging is precisely the kind of situation that Sir Hugo was looking for. He doesn't seem to realize it, though, and maybe that's a credit to his philanthropic nature. I think it makes him look like kind of an idiot, though.

At the execution, Giles stomps off after dressing Sir Hugo down for wanting to film the dying man as a way to pursue his research into the Asphyx--even though he's also there in an apparently sincere role of a social reformer. It occurs to me that if Sir Hugo could film himself killing two birds with one stone, he might be able to get more than one Asphyx on film to examine. Giles leaves in the carriage (which I think strands Sir Hugo at the courthouse unless he can hail a cab), and the condemned man is brought out to the gallows. The sun goes behind a cloud, and Sir Hugo turns on an electric light that he brought along with him to illuminate the hanging; when he does there's a weird shape in the circle of light reaching for the prisoner. Even worse, when the man drops through the trap door he continues twitching at the end of the rope until Sir Hugo turns the light off; then the Asphyx is able to get to the man and bring about his death. Back in the mansion, Sir Hugo paces in the drawing room as he waits for Sir Edward to come by; when his friend does show up, Hugo tells him that the still photos of the hanging are free for the reform society to use, but that the motion picture film must be his property for his purposes. He also doesn't tell his friend exactly what those purposes are (though Edward, and everyone else at the execution, saw the figure in the light reaching for the hanged man, so it's not much of a mystery what Hugo's up to).

Down in the crypt, Sir Hugo arranges a hanging for a cat (He doesn't even leave a note reading "Executing cat. Details later.", the cad), and is disappointed to see that the Asphyx isn't visible in the photo he takes--possibly because the amount of time it took him to set up the camera shot. He surmises that the creature is only visible or active for a second or two before it fades out of existence by merging with the animal that's about to die. The still shots of the hanged prisoner don't show the creature, but the movie of the hanging clearly shows the blurry shape of the entity trying to reach the prisoner and being trapped by the light shining on it. Sir Hugo deduces that pretty easily, so most audience members won't mock him for being three beats behind the band. The clunky apparatus he uses as a studio light drips water onto "phosphide crystals", which produce a bright blue light focused by a big lens on the front of the device. Although he didn't know he was doing it, Sir Hugo built a himself the distant ancestor of a Ghostbusters wand. Also, that makes two things that Sir Hugo has built in his workshop that affect or depict supernatural entities, both by sheer accident. He's either the luckiest or unluckiest inventor in the history of the world.

After showing Giles the setup in his chemical light projector device thing, Sir Hugo swears the younger man to silence about what he's up to, and also doesn't tell Giles what he's up to. But in the next scene both he and Giles are wearing matching green Science Aprons and feeding poisoned food to a hungry guinea pig. Sir Hugo's planning to capture an Asphyx on film. When the animal starts to feel the effects of the toxins in its system, Giles turns on the light projector and catches the rodent's Asphyx in a circle of blue light; once it's trapped in the light beam, Sir Hugo has his adopted son move the light beam until the Asphyx is guided into a coffin-shaped box with a miniature crystal-and-water light projector on top of it.

Sir Hugo then outlines a plan to put the Asphyx trap down in the crypts where a pipe supplying an infinite source of water can be connected to the drip feed on top of the apparatus. With the crystals always shining light down onto the Asphyx in the box, the guinea pig has been made forcibly immortal. (Which I'm not going to buy entirely, since whatever's happening to the crystals to make them produce light is a chemical reaction that will use up the crystals at some point--but having a 300 year old guinea pig is quite an achievement on its own terms.)

Sir Hugo assumes that every living thing has one and only one Asphyx for this to be true, incidentally, and that trapping the sole Asphyx for a creature means that it will be unkillable. The movie hasn't contradicted him yet, but that's an awfully big theory to pin on such a small sample selection. While he and Giles leave on some kind of Science Mission to a charity hospital / orphanage, Christina remains behind and lets the guinea pig out of its cage. At the hospital, an orderly bullies a tuberculosis patient into scrubbing floors (and also witholds food from the poor bastard); when Sir Hugo shows up he tells the bullying thug that he's taking the sick man home with him. The plan, as you may have guessed, involves keeping the man comfortable until his Asphyx shows up, and then trying to capture it to see if the process works on a human being as well as the obligatory guinea pig.

Back at Cunningham Manor, Giles and Christina talk around a couple of subjects--one being their mutual attraction and desire to be married, and another one being the weird box in the laboratory that Christina saw while petting the guinea pig. Giles, having been sworn to secrecy about the experiments with Asphyx capture, refuses to tell his adopted sister anything about what's going on; he just tells her that she was never meant to see the artifact and that he can't say anything more.

For his part, Sir Hugo has been taking quite good care of the terminally ill patient. And he is terminally ill; after a doctor examines the man offscreen, we learn that he's got no more than a day or two remaining before the germs in his lungs kill him. Sir Hugo has offered him good food and wine and as much physical comfort as is possible before the disease runs its final course, and in exchange for a gentle passage out of this world, the Cunninghams will observe the man's death in the mansion's laboratory. Soon enough the man's in the final stages of tubercular hemorrhaging (though in a tasteful film with a low budget there's no blood pouring from his mouth or nose). Giles and Sir Hugo manage to trap the man's Asphyx in a beam of light, scaring the living shit out of the dying man. Unfortunately the blu-ray does absolutely no favors to the barely articulate puppet that was used for the effect. The tiny, seconds-long clip of film that gets run back and forth to show the Asphyx moving--more or less--is also unconvincing in the extreme. It's too bad, because that's the first really awful effect in the film. All the sets, costumes and props have ranged from adequate to extremely good. I think they were trying to duplicate the banshee from 1959's Darby O'Gill and the Little People, but didn't really manage that feat.

At any rate, the dying man decides he's had enough of this mad science Asphyx trapping nonsense (and neither Sir Hugo nor Giles told the terminally ill guy exactly what they were going to do with him in the experiment, so he doesn't know that they're planning to help him). He throws a beaker full of acid at Sir Hugo, splashing his face and burning him painfully. Giles runs to help Sir Hugo and the Asphyx gets out of containment. The man dies, finally achieving some measure of peace, but if they'd just told him what to expect he might have been the first human to avoid death entirely. Which might have meant decades of agony until antibiotics were invented and his tuberculosis could be treated, or it might have meant that he'd be perfectly fine. I don't think trapping an Asphyx heals people--it just means they won't (or can't) die.

Oh, and all the screams and commotion from the Asphyx, the doomed tuberculosis patient and Sir Hugo once he's got a beaker full of acid chucked at his melon have woken Christina up so she knows that Giles and her father are up to some kind of insane mad science thing in the house laboratory. She watches over Sir Hugo as he rests up from what was honestly a really busy night. He still doesn't tell his daughter what he was up to, though, which is most likely a tactical error. When he takes the bandages off there's an ugly burn mark on his left cheek, and Giles recoils from the scar (but in a moment of dark humor, Sir Hugo says he's not concerned because he doesn't have to look at it).

During the time that Sir Hugo's been resting, Giles has been putting two and two together and getting the correct arithmetical result--his adoptive father wants to conquer death, and was using the experiment with the tuberculosis patient to see if it was possible to do so. Giles doesn't know why Sir Hugo would even want to do something like that, and the older man says that if one never died, one could reform society and steer it in the right direction so that thousands of lives could be improved incrementally. He even seems to mean it; I expected him to just be terrified and reflexively wanting to avoid death after losing a wife in the past as well as a son and a fiancee so recently.

Giles doesn't think that's a good idea; he says that part of the human condition is knowing that it's supposed to have an end. Sir Hugo makes him an offer he can't refuse--in exchange for helping him become immortal, Hugo will do the same for his daughter and adopted son, so that they can get married and be together literally forever. In order to make sure that nothing happens to Giles or Christina, Sir Hugo says he'll subject himself to a lethal process first--if he dies, then it's God telling him not to screw around with immortality. If it works, then he'll use the process on the two younger people and they'll all live happily forever after.

Well, it's a horror movie, so I don't think it's going to work out quite like that. That night, Sir Hugo writes a letter enclosing his last will and testament and seals it in an envelope at considerable length. In the morning, he tells Giles that a vault in the crypts of Cunningham Manor will be sealed off so that once he puts his Asphyx trap in it, he'll never be able to open it (he asks for a combination lock on the vault door, and wants the combination to it written down and then burned without him ever seeing the paper that it's on). With that detail settled and out of the way, Giles wants to know exactly how Sir Hugo is planning to kill himself--it's not like he can go and contract fatal tuberculosis on purpose.

Christina, for her part, winds up with the escaped guinea pig in her bed. It looks quite cute but she knows it's supposed to be somewhere else, so she lets it go on the front doorstep. Meanwhile, in the laboratory, Sir Hugo's gone from protesting executions to building his own electric chair (!). He's got controls on the damned thing so that he can build up a fatal charge--if it goes from zero to "barbecue" too quickly his Asphyx won't be summoned properly and he'll just wind up dead. Giles will have to trap the creature in the light beam while Sir Hugo puts it in the trap box. Oh, wait, Hugo's strapped down in the electric chair. I think perhaps he needed to put a little more time in on the drawing board. That puppet doesn't look any better this time, either. Thankfully, Christina intrudes on the mother of all "This isn't what it looks like" moments and with her running the spotlight, Giles is able to sneak the Asphyx into its trap. And the film stays scientifically reasonable during this sequence--Sir Hugo's body begins to smoke in the electric chair, and Giles turns the control level off by pushing it with a glass rod, which won't conduct electricity and kill him deader than disco. I really admire the steps the filmmakers took in order to keep wiseguys like me from criticizing the science in their movie about trapping the spirits of Death on an individual basis.

While Sir Hugo sleeps off his experience, Giles describes the scene that Christina walked in on as "an experiment in electricity that got out of hand". Technically that is true but his sister calls bullshit on him instantly. Giles enlists her aid in carrying the Asphyx trap down into the cellar (another design flaw--it's got a flimsy glass water tank on top of it that could easily break, and almost does). He stores the trap in the vault, as promised, behind a sturdy metal combination-locked door.

The next morning or so, Sir Hugo wakes up and seems to be little the worse for wear after his near-immolation. He tosses his "open this when I die" letter into the fireplace while Giles and Christina rig up the dripping water pipe above his Asphyx trap in the vault. The next scene has Giles justifying his own spilling of the beans to Christina, sensibly pointing out that the process takes more people than his adoptive father had planned on using and that if she hadn't  stumbled onto the scene when she did, Sir Hugo likely would have died. I wonder exactly what they were planning to tell Christina when they hooked her up to the electric chair to make her immortal.

While Sir Hugo's off giving a lecture to the psychical research society (probably not on the subject of "I can't be killed any more, so I'm going to live on gin and bacon from now on", but you never know) Christina expresses doubts of the tampering-in-God's-domain type now that the experiment worked. Giles is at least partially won over by the thought of what good deeds the Cunningham family could accomplish over the centuries and tries to talk his fiancee into becoming immortal along with him.

Christina eventually needs to be brought into the fold about what the heck is going on with her father's absence and the creepy shit that everyone was up to in the laboratory; turns out that Sir Hugo had himself sealed in a coffin while he recuperated from the electrical shocks he suffered (!), which also proves that he's unkillable because oxygen deprivation didn't do anything to him. The next morning he asks his daughter if she came to a decision on the whole "don't ever die" question and she's still not sure (me, on the other hand? I'd take immortality in a second if it was offered, although one must always be careful what one wishes for). The elder Cunningham gives Christina and Giles permission to get married, but as you, me, and people who haven't even heard of the movie yet probably guessed, Sir Hugo won't let his daughter marry unless she lets him make her and her husband immortal.

While Sir Hugo and Giles talk about whether or not it's moral to force someone to accept eternal life, Sir Edward drops by to talk to his colleague (who has told his butler to politely inform all callers that he is not at home). Christina wants to tell Sir Edward what's freaking her out about her dad's experiments, but probably fears that she'll wind up in a nut house if she tells the truth. She winds up not even being able to hint at what's really going on, and Giles refuses to explain as well, even when asked directly by a social superior. The last thing Sir Edward knows about is the movie taken of the hanged man and the weird image caught on film; he says that he needs to know what's going on to determine if it's for the good of mankind or not. Sir Hugo charges out of his study (putting paid to the "I am not here" polite fiction and tears into his friend and colleague, excoriating him for daring to judge Hugo without knowing what's going on--oh, and also refusing to enlighten Sir Edward so there's no chance that he'll figure it out.

I think we're supposed to be shocked by Sir Hugo's descent into shouting and bullying his family, but it comes an hour and twenty minutes into the film and it's really not enough to convince me that he's anything but an asshole. I expect newly minted immortals to declare themselves God-Pharaoh of London, not chew out their friends and offspring. You don't have to be a self-made miracle of science to get shouty with your kids (I have proof of this from my childhood). His shaky-voiced "I will make you and all your kids immortal too" speech is at least a change of tactics while trying to browbeat his daughter into accepting a few moments in an electric chair in order to become just like dear old Dad.
The movie also makes the tactical error of having Sir Hugo state--twice--that he wants to make Giles and Christina into immortals because he can't bear to lose them after losing his son and fiancee earlier. We all got it, guys. We know the subtext, and you don't have to make it text.

At any rate, Christina agrees to let her father remove her capacity to die. For reasons that I cannot begin to understand, Sir Hugo builds another execution device in his study; this time it's a guillotine. It's rigged so that pulling one lever drops the blade and another level stops it partway down. I mean, the dude has a fully functioning electric chair in his lab already. Why not just use that again? It's even been determined that someone else can turn the control lever on the electric chair, so it's not an issue of Christina's control of the situation needing to be removed for the Asphyx to show up. Giles tells his fiancee that he and Sir Hugo have full control over the guillotine and that nothing at all can go wrong.

So, thanks to the escaped-and-returned guinea pig eating through the rubber tubes feeding water into the Asphyx trapping spotlight and Giles bumping into the wrong lever while trying to quickly move the spirit into its container, the process fails just in time for Christina to get a haircut from the neck up. Giles is in shocked denial, as you would be, of course. And the film's got one nasty gimmick going on in this scene, because the blade falls all the way through Christina's neck and then the Asphyx gets released. If Sir Hugo hadn't decided to let the spirit go and bring about her death, his daughter would have been condemned to immortality as a deathless severed head.

Giles takes this really really badly once the numbness wears off and tries to strangle Sir Hugo, who wearily tells him that it's not going to take (I have no idea why this was a deleted scene; it's great). Going back to the main narrative, Sir Hugo has changed his mind again, and wants to get access to the locked vault so he can free his Asphyx, which will apparently kill him instantly. Giles won't let him die until he himself is made immortal (telling Sir Hugo that he will need decades or centuries to atone for bringing about Christina's death). The two men arrive at terms:  Giles will be made unkillable, and then he will release Sir Hugo's Asphyx and allow him to die.

Which, uh, doesn't quite go like that. Giles replaces the proper chemicals in the Spotlight of Ghost Trapping with Folger's crystals, and then burns the only piece of paper with the combination to the vault on it (tipping the ashes into an envelope that Sir Hugo will open after Giles' death). Somewhat tardily, Sir Hugo has also modified the spotlight so that the operator doesn't have to hold the trigger down in order to keep the beam on; that means he will be able to trap Giles' Asphyx by himself instead of needing a second pair of hands.

There's yet another execution device in Sir Hugo's study now; this time it's a gas chamber rigged to poison Giles until his Asphyx can be trapped. Again, I'm not sure that they needed to build Yet Another Deathtrap but they did. Possibly it's to add a little bit of production value to the film, but it really just gets goofy at this point. Why not just stick with what both men know already works, especially after the disaster that occurred with the previous attempt to make someone immortal?

Anyway, the Asphyx trapping attempt goes just as badly as one would expect with the chemicals swapped out for something useless but Sir Hugo floods the chamber with pure oxygen instead of methane in an attempt to save Giles' life. But he brought a box of matches into the chamber with him, which results in checkmate (and a really dire matted-in explosion effect). Sir Hugo, once he recovers from the explosion, burns the envelope from Giles without reading it, so he doesn't even learn about Giles' terminal double cross. All that he has left is that immortal guinea pig, with whom he walks the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu.

Which leads to some of the shittiest old age makeup ever seen on film, as Sir Hugo wanders around present-day London and is smashed between two cars (there's a freeze frame just before the stunt man earns his Italian hazard pay). And that means the poor son of a bitch hauled out from that traffic collision at the start of the film is Sir Hugo, still alive and capable of suffering more than anyone ever has. Which would be a pretty cool ending if it wasn't so abrupt, and if it didn't show that utterly, utterly horrible makeup job on him. And we never learn if the guinea pig is okay.

I guess we're gonna call this one an honorable mention. If you're predisposed to like British period piece horror movies there's lots to keep your attention, but the low budget means there's essentially four speaking parts for the last four-fifths of the movie or so, and essentially two sets (the study / laboratory and the crypt, which is mostly dark empty space). I'm not hugely surprised that the production company only made three films (of which this is the third); 1972 was just on the cusp of The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changing the way movies were made and marketed in the entire genre, and a sub-Tigon studio wasn't going to be able to revitalize the genre, even with a hell of a concept and a script that only really stumbles a couple of times.

And that's one review down, with twenty-five more to go. If the HubrisWeen project kills me this year, don't bother making me immortal. I could use the rest.

The last word, of course, will go to JoeMeek, my Neopet, who is occuping a place in this year's HubrisWeen reviews that he did in my Month of AlloSundays reviews from a while back--that is to say, a mascot that gets to drop one last joke.

"Sorry, Tim. If you die I don't get fed, so get ready for some really heinous old-age makeup if this project kills you. On the positive side, you'll definitely be around for The Winds of Winter."


  1. Sounds like they really didn't think it through. Are you still alive if someone vaporizes your head with a shotgun? If so, in what form? Anne Rice touched on this more thoughtfully in Ramses the Damned.

    (lol Winds of Winter)

  2. I had to watch the prologue / epilogue a couple of times before I realized what was going on with that part of the story. I'm guessing that, like having your internal organs and boned pulped by two cars, you'd be alive in agony forever (or for however close to "forever" you get with the chemical reaction taking place for centuries until it runs out of ingredients and your Asphyx grabs its car keys).

    Having your head completely blown off might just mean your body didn't rot because it wasn't dead? Maybe? There's an issue of SANDMAN where Morpheus and an Englishman named Hob Gadding (who becomes immortal based on a whim of Death's) meet once a century to catch up and have dinner together. One of those times Hob mentions that he's been starving for years but still hasn't eaten, so he's been suffering for a long, long time.

    I forget exactly what myth it was in the ancient Greek cycle, but there was a consort of a goddess who got eternal life without eternal youth. He aged forever, and that would suck.

    JoeMeek gets to have the last word for all the HubrisWeen reviews, and I get to show off another goofball nerd hobby of mine by giving him a different outfit to tie in with the various movies.

  3. For all that I know how trudgy and boring even the best of British horror from this period can be, I feel like I shouldn't want to see this, but I'm still kind of curious. Also, the band Asphyx is awesome.

  4. If you're the kind of person who sees a movie's from Amicus or Tigon and it makes you happy, you'll probably dig it. It's worth watching, but keep your expectations nice and low.