The Astrologer

| January 30, 2018

The American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) has been doing the Lord’s work for the better part of a decade now. Their mission is to help preserve and exhibit cult and exploitation film history, which they do through renting out rare prints for theatrical screenings. In 2017, they launched their own home video imprint to release restorations of some of their catalog on Blu-ray (including the recent release of Turkish action film Lionman, aka The Sword and the Claw) and worked closely with Something Weird Video to give some truly bizarre cinema (such as, ahem, Bat Pussy) the royal treatment. But there are some films out there that can never be released on home video for one reason or another, often due to issues with music rights. Such is the case with The Astrologer, a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that AGFA ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to save. They had a single 35mm print–probably the only one in existence–and scanned it to create a high-def digital version. This allows audiences to see the film when it plays theatrically, but it will likely never see a home release, making it a true cult rarity in a world where seemingly anything can be found online somewhere.

Craig Denney stars as Craig Alexander, who narrates the opening scenes of himself as a teenager picking pockets at the carnival. Years later, he’s working there full-time as a pro astrologer with his partner Arthyr (real-life astrologer Arthyr Chadbourne) until Arthyr gets a gig with an oil tycoon and Alexander meets the love of his life. But after a few years of barely scraping by in the carnival life, Darrien (Darrien Earle) leaves Alexander to find her own fortune elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, Alexander is enlisted by the same oil tycoon who hired Arthyr away to help smuggle precious stones from Kenya, leading to a period of globe-trotting adventures that leave Alexander richer than he ever could have hoped. When he returns to the States, he reunites with Arthyr as business partners and rapidly becomes a one-man astrology industry. Alexander is advising the military, producing television series, and even making a movie called The Astrologer that becomes a massive box office hit. But there’s still something missing in his life: Darrien. Will Alexander find Darrien and bring love back into his life? Or has success corrupted him beyond redemption?

The Astrologer is a staggeringly misguided film of such unimaginable ego that it makes The Room look like a Maysles Brothers documentary. Denney both directs and stars, although he looks less like a Hollywood leading man than the rough mathematical mean of Matt Berry and David Harbour. Looks aren’t everything, of course, but Denney has zero screen presence and precious little emotional range. Mostly Alexander is either smugly superior or screaming angrily, with not much in between. The form of the film is pure outsider cinema; this is the kind of movie where Alexander meets with the oil baron in America in one scene, and the next shot is in a Kenyan prison where Alexander has been arrested for smuggling for a second time. Massive jumps in time are standard, and major characters appear and disappear constantly. The writing is extremely simplistic and always at the service of Denney’s ego. When Alexander finds Darrien, she’s not just gone on with her life, she’s the saddest prostitute on Earth and living in a squalid room with “GOD IS DEAD” and “SHIT ON LIFE” scrawled in lipstick on her mirror. This truly is the Citizen Kane of asshole astrologer movies, a jaw-dropping spectacle that must be seen to be believed.

And it’s here that The Astrologer is set apart from other such 70s cult oddities. The film was given a small regional theatrical release in the States in the 70s, and afterward was released on video in Australia and screened on TV in the early 1980s. Packed with music by The Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Conway Twitty, and others, the film is doomed to linger in a legal netherworld. Untangling the rights issues with all of that music would be a hugely expensive endeavor, and releasing the film on home video would probably not be enough to make back all the money that would be sunk into ironing them out. So in a world where torrents of weird cinema from all over the world are at the ready for anyone with a decent internet connection, The Astrologer is one of a rare class of cult film that can only be seen at a public screening. There are a few other films making the rounds on the Midnight Movie circuit that are in a similar state, but most of those had at least an American VHS release at some point. For example, watching a nth-generation bootleg VHS rip of Skatetown, U.S.A. may not be ideal, but at least it’s possible. Like any such film, Skatetown, U.S.A. is best watched on the big screen from a film print in the company of a game audience. The Astrologer is not only best watched that way, but can only be watched that way. Such an experience is something every diehard paracinephile should make a point of seeking out. If The Astrologer hits the big screen near you, you owe it to yourself to go see it.

The Astrologer is playing the Music Box Theatre in Chicago at midnight on Friday 2 February and Saturday 3 February. This screening is part of a series presented by The AV Club, Daily Grindhouse, and The Front Row Presents.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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