There are certain works in the history of cinema that are just insane; pictures that probably shouldn’t exist except for the fact that their creators birthed them through sheer will alone. Duke Mitchell’s Gone With the Pope comes to mind — a hodgepodge of ‘holy fucking shit’ that could’ve only come from the singular vision of one whacked out individual (and delivered to us via the hard work of one Academy Award winning editor). These are movies whose viewers are part of an elite club once they’ve sought them out, as the works never formally made their way to home video. It’s a rarity in the age of all-access digital media that any picture is relegated solely to celluloid, but they certainly still exist; “cult films” in the truest sense. Now another movie can be added to this exclusive list: Craig Denney’s 1975 work of wanton megalomania, The Astrologer. As Nicolas Winding Refn put it in his introduction to the film at this year’s Fantastic Fest: “it’s a movie that pushes ‘auteurism’ to a whole other level.”
According to Temple of Schlock (who helped host a screening of the movie at Alamo Drafthouse’s ‘Endangered Fest’ in 2013), The Astrologer only received a VHS drop in Australia and a single CBS Late Movie showing on June 23, 1980. Outside of these two wider releases, the movie was a ‘regional’ release in certain parts of the United States, gracing the screens of drive-ins and dive theaters during the mid-1970s. Recently, The Astrologer was utilized as a sort of centerpiece by the American Genre Film Archive (which is headed by Drafthouse CEO Tim League and counts Refn as one of their chair-people) during their Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the digitization of their rarest 35mm film prints. This successful fundraiser resulted in a 2K restoration of The Astrologer, helping to preserve and present what may be one of the absolute weirdest movies ever to grace the screen.
To try and reduce The Astrologer to a synopsis seems like an impossibility for a mere mortal man of letters. It revolves around the life of the titular celestial student, Alexander (director/producer/star/newly cemented legend Craig Denney), who seems to be making it all up as he (of course) narrates his existence to the audience. Don’t get me wrong, The Astrologer certainly follows a linear path. But the road the picture travels is nothing less than a crooked highway of a mental patient’s delusional ramblings after having hidden his meds under a mattress for the last twelve days. Alexander’s life began in a carnival trailer, where he was raised to read palms and relay the potential futures of drunken attendees. But as the poem goes, Alexander contains multitudes, his drive to become the greatest astrologer the world has ever known leading him to pursue careers in diamond smuggling, film production, financial portfolios and straight up murder.
There’s a smash cut to Kenyan prison in the first thirty minutes of the movie that will have most audience members thinking that a reel is missing, but this is simply not the case. The Astrologer jumps continents and fast forwards through time in such a fashion that it becomes downright dizzying. Where the first act plays as a kind of straight-ahead adventure movie (complete with venom spitting cobras that guard the jewels Alexander seeks), the second revolves around the astrologer’s mercurial rise to fame (which involves him making an autobiographical motion picture about himself called The Astrologer that the character actually watches during the movie). In-between, Denney peppers moments of psychedelic cinematic experimentation that border on avant-garde. A dinner conversation in which Alexander splits from his wife (Darrien Earle) is edited into a slow-motion operetta, scored by the Moody Blues (whose music makes up the entirety of the film’s soundtrack). There are never-ending helicopter shots of Alexander’s yacht crossing oceans with no end, and long takes of him diving beneath its surface to discover even more oceanic treasures. It’s a cavalcade of DIY filmic nonsense that still somehow congeals into a maniacal, somewhat coherent whole.
In spirit, The Astrologer feels closest to Timothy Carey’s World’s Greatest Sinner, as the back half becomes a moralistic play regarding a man becoming too powerful for his own good. But Denney’s vision seems dwarfing to even that portrait of folie de grandeur run amuck. And like all self-produced delves into delusions of greatness, there are genuine moments of over the top beauty to be found amongst the endlessly quotable bits of inept thespianism. The sheer scope of The Astrologer boggles the mind by itself, and the lack of details (outside of ancient newspaper articles dug up by folks who attended the screening immediately after it ended) only adds to the air of mystery. Denny unfortunately is no longer amongst the living, so we may never get any kind of insight into the truly idiosyncratic vision that fueled this WTF masterpiece.
Sadly, Denney’s death is also going to render releasing the picture a near impossibility for any distributor who doesn’t want to get the shit sued out of them. There’s absolutely no way in hell Denney had the rights to all of those Moody Blues songs (despite crediting the band with the original score), which makes exhibiting the movie a possibility, but a physical edition something of a dangerous proposition. While certainly a shame (as I’d love to revisit The Astrologer countless times and show it to anybody born with eyeballs in their head), one could also argue that film fans might be better off for it, as the aforementioned endless rabbit holes of digital media available to anyone with an Internet connection has robbed much of what we now know to be “cult film” of its clandestine nature. Maybe The Astrologer is destined to be something of a holy grail picture, only meant to be witnessed by those with the drive to seek it out at screenings across the country. Suddenly, Denney’s masterpiece becomes a litmus test for true cinephilia, separating the fly by night fanboys from the diehard connoisseurs of WTF insanity. We need truly rare movies like this to exist, as they become secret handshakes amongst the devoted, all hoping that vinegar syndrome doesn’t rob them of their badge of honor.