Finally, a film where the gerbil did it.
A retrospective screening of The Asphyx (1972) provides an intriguing look at what actually happens to your soul at the moment of death.
A prologue begins in 1970s London where police respond to a multiple car accident. Two cars have collided head to head with both drivers being fatally flung through the windshield. Yet the police find a body underneath the car, and upon pulling the man out, declare, “He’s still alive.”
The film proper beings in 1875, and the period clothing and sets are authentic enough in the sense of a Hammer Films production, a British movie company known for their Gothic style movies. However, this particular production comes from Glendale Films.
Sir Hugo Cunningham has found a way to photograph a shadow that approaches the body at the moment of death. Successive experiments, including filming a convicted man being hung, show a specter that hovers above the person in their moment of death.
Please note that Sir Hugo refers to the apparition as an “asphyx,” a term allegedly derived from Greek myth. There is no such being in mythological Greek culture, however, and there were no hand crank movie cameras in 1875. But that doesn’t matter — The Asphyx totally nails the spirit of mad scientists playing with mortality.
Sir Hugo captures the “asphyx” by using a “spotlight that freezes the death creature using phosphorus stones beneath a drip irrigation valve.” By imprisoning the apparitions, our mad doctor guarantees immortality for the intended victim. The first immortal being is his pet gerbil, followed by himself. Methods of near death used to capture the asphyx include electrocution, beheading and lethal gas.
In rapid succession, The Asphyx goes from the mere macabre to the truly bizarre. Robert Stephens, an accomplished movie and theater actor, plays Sir Hugo, with Robert Powell as his assistant Giles. Stephens also played the lead in the 1970 Billy Wilder film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Powell also portrayed Capt. Walker in Tommy (1975) and Jesus Christ in the Zeffirelli helmed Jesus of Nazareth (1977).
The Asphyx provides the slow burn of old school horror, perhaps just when it is needed most.
Phantom Thread may not be the Paul Thomas Anderson film we want, but it is the Paul Thomas Anderson film we get this year.
You can say this for Anderson: He rarely makes the same movie. Two years ago, his previous film Inherent Vice was my top film of the year. Phantom Thread may take a bit longer to grow fond.
In 1950s London, top fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) has reached the pinnacle of his career. His dresses are made exclusively for royalty along with the rich and famous.
The House of Woodcock is run with steely efficiency by Reynolds’ sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Meanwhile, his latest lover Alma (Vicky Krieps in a star making role) realizes much to her chagrin that she’s become intimately involved with a control freak that demands total obedience right down to the way she butters her toast in the morning.
Anderson can be loose and jazzy in his directorial style, yet with Phantom Thread he seems as downright severe with the mise en scène as his lead character. Fashionistas will gravitate towards the film, but even fans of Anderson and Day-Lewis will have to admit it’s a trudge uphill.