ICFIFC: The Asphyx (1973)

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Monday, April 14, 2014

ICFIFC: The Asphyx (1973)

Peter Newbrook, who died at age 88 on Friday 19 June 2009, was a camera operator and cinematographer and worked alongside the director David Lean on two of his classic films, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and the Oscar-winning “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962).

Newbrook was born in Chester and educated at the Chester, and Worcester Cathedral schools, and the Ewell Castle School.  He began his career as a trainee cameraman and focus puller1 with Warner Brothers British studios at Teddington in London.  During the Second World War he made Army training films with the Army Kinematograph Service and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.  In 1947, with drummer Carlo Krahmer, he co-founded Esquire Records which specialized in jazz.  He was also president of the British Society of Cinematographers from 1984 to 1986.

After the war Newbrook returned to Ealing, and was focus puller on “It Always Rains on Sunday” (1947); but in 1948 he went freelance and worked with the directors Charles Crichton, on “Against the Wind”, and Charles Frend, on “Scott of the Antarctic” (both 1948).  In 1950 Newbrook made “Changing Face of Europe”, a series of five documentaries shot in Technicolor to show the Americans how money from the Marshall Plan was being spent.

By 1951 he had joined London Films and was working with David Lean on “The Sound Barrier” (1952), for which Newbrook's Arriflex camera was mounted in the rear of the last surviving Lancaster bomber.  Returning to freelancing after the death of the company's founder, Alexander Korda, Newbrook continued his association with Lean through the 1950s as camera operator and second unit director. “Lawrence of Arabia” was their final project together.

In the 1960s Newbrook became a director of photography, and produced several feature films himself, including “Gonks Go Beat” (1965), the first to be made by Titan productions, which he founded with Robert Hartford-Davis, and in which the pop singer Lulu2 made her film debut.  He also produced “Press for Time” (1966), starring the comedian Norman Wisdom, on which he was also director of photography.


The Asphyx (1973)

  • A.K.A.: The Horror of Death
  • Genre: Sci-Fi – Horror
  • Directed: Peter Newbrook
  • Produced:
    • John Brittany 
    • Maxine Julius
  • Written:
    • Christina Beers 
    • Laurence Beers 
    • Brian Comport
  • Starring: Robert Stephens, Robert Powell, Jane Lapotaire, Alex Scott, Ralph Arliss, Fiona Walker, Terry Scully, John Lawrence, David Grey, Tony Caunter, Paul Bacon
  • Music: Bill McGuffie
  • Cinematography: Freddie Young
  • Editing: Maxine Julius
  • Studio: Glendale
  • Distributed:
    • Paragon Films Inc.  
    • Cinema Epoch  
    • Hen's Tooth Video  
    • Magnum Entertainment  
    • Market Video  
    • Odeon Entertainment  
    • Redemption Films 
    • United Entertainment  
    • VCL
  • Rated:
  • Release Date: February 1973 (US)
  • Running Time: 83 minutes
  • Country: United Kingdom
  • Language: English

In Victorian England, philanthropic scientist Sir Hugo Cunningham is a part of a parapsychological society that studies psychic phenomena.  As part of their latest investigation, the men have begun photographing individuals at the moment of death; done properly, the resultant photo depicts a strange blur hovering around the body.  Though the society concludes that they have captured evidence of the soul escaping the body, Cunningham is skeptical.

At a party to celebrate his recent engagement, Cunningham is making home movies with a primitive video camera of his own invention when his fiancĂ© and son are killed in a boating accident.  When Cunningham views the film, he sees that not only has he captured the blur, but that it is moving towards his son, and not away from him.  From this, Cunningham concludes that the blur is not the soul but a force known in Greek mythology as an "Asphyx," a kind of personal Grim Reaper that comes for every individual at the moment of his or her death.

While filming a public execution as a protest against capital punishment, Cunningham activates a spotlight that he has crafted using phosphorus stones beneath a drip irrigation valve.  Later, when viewing the film with his ward, Giles, Cunningham sees that the condemned man's asphyx was briefly held suspended in the spotlight's beam. Concluding that an individual's asphyx is an organic force and therefore subject to the laws of physics, Cunningham theorizes that some property of the energy released by the combination of phosphorus and water renders the asphyx immobile.  If correct, this would mean that an asphyx could be trapped, and that an individual would be immortal so long as their asphyx remained imprisoned.

Giles and Cunningham successfully capture the asphyx of a dying guinea pig and seal it in the family tomb, beneath a spring fueled by the lake.  Seeing immortality in his grasp, Cunningham tasks Giles with helping him to capture his own asphyx, deciding that his contributions to science are too important for him to pass away. Cunningham commissions the construction of an impenetrable vault door on his family tomb, with a complex combination lock as the only means of opening it; once he has captured his asphyx, Giles is under instruction to seal the asphyx inside, so that no one can ever set it free.

Using an electric chair to slowly kill himself, Cunningham summons his own asphyx; however, Giles is only experienced in capturing an asphyx with two men, and is forced to rely on his fiancé, Christina, for assistance. Christina is horrified with the experiments, but agrees to participate when Cunningham tells her that he will give his blessing for the two to marry if they allow him to make them immortal.

Theorizing that imminent death, and not actual death, will summon an asphyx, Cunningham places Christina on a guillotine operated by Giles.  During the experiment, the guinea pig chews through a hose pumping water onto the phosphorus stones being used to capture the asphyx.  In the resultant panic, Christina is decapitated.

Despondent, Cunningham insists that Giles open the vault and free his asphyx.  Giles agrees, on the condition that Cunningham first grant him immortality.  Unbeknownst to Cunningham, Giles rigs the procedure, removing the phosphorus stones from the spotlight.  As Cunningham attempts to gas Giles to death to summon his asphyx, Giles activates a lighter.  The resulting explosion kills Giles and destroys all of the equipment required to capture asphyxes.

Though Giles ostensibly left behind the combination to the vault on a slip of paper, Cunningham destroys it, resolving that his own immortality is God's punishment for the deaths of Giles and Christina.  In an epilogue set in the 1970s, an ancient, disfigured Cunningham roams the streets of London with the guinea pig.  He wanders into the path of an imminent car collision, which kills both of the drivers; a police officer responding to the scene is shocked to find that Cunningham, crushed beneath the two vehicles, is still alive.

The Asphyx



1.  A focus puller, or 1st assistant camera, is a member of a film crew’s camera department whose primary responsibility is to maintain image sharpness on whatever subject or action is being filmed.  "Pulling focus" or "rack focusing" refers to the act of changing the lens’s focus distance setting in correspondence to a moving subject’s physical distance from the focal plane.  For example, if an actor moves from 8m away from the focal plane to 3m away from the focal plane within a shot, the focus puller will change the distance setting on the lens during the take in precise correspondence to the changing position of the actor.  Additionally, the focus puller may shift focus from one subject to another within the frame, as dictated by the specific requirements of the shot.

2.  Lulu Kennedy-Cairns, best known by her stage name Lulu, is a Scottish singer, actress, and television personality who has been successful in the entertainment business from the 1960s.  She is internationally identified, especially by North American audiences, with the song "To Sir With Love" from the film of the same name and with the title song to the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun.  In European countries, she is also widely known for her Eurovision Song Contest winning entry "Boom Bang-a-Bang" and in the UK for her first hit "Shout".

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