The budding midnight-movie appeal of Craig Denney's impossible-to-find THE ASTROLOGER heralds the return of cult cinema's mystique.
In the age of the Internet, the era of the true cult film is mostly over – even the most obscure grindhouse dreck or direct-to-VHS exploitation schlock has a thoroughly-annotated Wikipedia page and a million streaming options to choose from. In the wake of institutions like MST3k and Shout! Factory exposing cult films to larger audiences with DVDs and ready-made riffs, it can be easy to miss that feeling of discovering the diamond in the rough, that transcendently bad movie you only share with a few people you know through hushed whispers and traded bootleg tapes. Fear no more: thanks to delusional auteur Craig Denney, the diligent efforts of the American Genre Film Archive, and The AV Club and Daily Grindhouse’s lineup of midnight showings at the Music Box, you can get that luster back with Denney’s transcendently terrible fantasy-drama The Astrologer – a film that’s as good a case as any for the value of keeping a little bit of mystery in your moviegoing experience.
Craig Denney is an enigma: he has virtually no presence on the Internet aside from his IMDb page, which lists The Astrologer as his sole credit. However, The Astrologer tells you everything you need to know about the man: much like Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen, Denney is/was a man with more money than talent, and the desire to produce/direct/star in a film that celebrates him in all his multiple facets. The Astrologer feels like a balls-to-the-wall distillation of everything Denney is, likes, and wishes to be, with all the talent of a first-time filmmaker with a penchant for shameless self-mythology.
Fair warning: If you want to know absolutely nothing about The Astrologer, read no more. Just go see it however you can, with the largest audience possible. Believe me when I say the appeal of this film is in discovering its casually escalating madness for yourself. If you do want an inkling of what’s in store, though, read on.
The plot is a Horatio Alger story by way of Miss Cleo: a poor con man and hustler for most of his life, The Great Alexander (Denney) ekes out a living by bilking customers as a carnival fortune-teller. However, after meeting the woman of his dreams and quitting the carny game, he teams up with a rich couple to go diamond smuggling in Africa. After a series of harrowing adventures, dodging poisonous snakes and lecherous boat renters, he returns with his newfound fortune to fulfill his dream: to “turn two million dollars into 200 million” in the form of a multimedia astrology empire – complete with military consultations, films, TV shows, and a ‘cosmic mirror’ in his office he can gawk at whenever he feels like. Of course, his ego starts to go to his head (I say starts), causing friction with his wife and his business partner, and his world comes crumbling down accordingly. It’s like There Will Be Blood, but really, really stupid.
Of course, all that just scratches the surface of The Astrologer’s giddy, pure-strain insanity. I didn’t mention, for instance, that he must rescue his wife from prostitution when he returns from Darkest Africa (in a room featuring a mirror with “Hell on Earth” and “God is Dead” scrawled on it with lipstick), or that his business partner proudly boasts a seventh-grade education. And it doesn’t even touch the Africa portions of the film, which feature poorly-puppeted snakes guarding mystic jewels resting lightly on the sconces of a chintzy temple, and a series of progressively abused female sidekicks who are alternatively romanced, raped or killed. Every single second of The Astrologer’s runtime contains new delights to behold, evidence of Denney’s uniquely childlike perspective on the world and what moves it.
At the center of it all is Denney himself, who’s right up there with Wiseau and Breen as an average-looking black hole of charisma that the camera focuses on solely because he’s the one who rented it. To be fair, he has a kind of handsome-for-the-70s appeal; if you squint, he looks like a puffier Chris Pine who’s lost the ability to emote. He spends most of the film in his signature bell bottoms (it is the 70s, after all), and seemingly finds every opportunity to take his shirt off and proudly display his string-bean arms and pot belly. It takes an admirable amount of self-delusion to proudly strut your dad-bod in a prison lineup shot, the camera panning across a bunch of strapping young Adonises with much better physiques, and expect you to come out looking impressive. His acting ain’t much better – even when he writes himself big, shouty monologues, he can’t ever bring himself to speak louder than a tamped-down monotone, his dead eyes conveying nothing but a telltale smugness that explains a little too much of The Astrologer‘s ultimate aims. Even his editors realize how bad an actor he is; so much of Denney’s performance is hidden behind quick cuts, voiceovers or awkward cutaways. It’s really something to see a vanity project turn on its subject so quickly and comprehensively, and yet it remains an object of awe-inspiring ego.
And, of course, there’s the music. The reason The Astrologer hasn’t become a huge cult hit is that Denney, in his infinite wisdom, chose to make copious use of licensed songs for the film’s “soundtrack.” Sailing home from Africa? Let’s set it to all five minutes of The Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon.” Silently slow-motion miming an argument with you and your wife over dinner? Procul Harum’s “Grand Hotel.” (Denney even has the brass balls to throw up a “Music by Procul Harum” credit.) And let’s not forget the stirring French horns of Holst’s The Planets – I mean, “The Astrologer Theme.” In Denney’s horoscope-addled mind, he probably just thought he could use these songs and shout ‘fair use!’ like a Youtuber making a Death Note music video. It’s actually kind of adorable.
With such pricey needle-drops saturating the film, it’s practically impossible to authorize a home video release, which may be to The Astrologer‘s ultimate benefit. This is the kind of film you actually have to see with a crowd; there’s no chance of plopping down on your couch to decipher its mysteries for yourself. In this state, The Astrologer takes on the quality of a shared hallucination, a group experience that’s difficult to believe, and yet impossible to ignore. Don’t worry – everyone else in the theater heard Alexander’s best friend/financial adviser shout, “You’re not an astrologer – YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!”, too.
I daren’t tell you much more about The Astrologer; I’ve barely scratched the surface of the complete and utter craziness contained within this cinematic monstrosity. All I can tell you is that I had to restrain my laughter for a good 70% of its runtime, and you’ll feel like you’re going insane. If that sounds like a bad-movie experience you want to have, all signs point to the Music Box this weekend.