Retro Review: The Astrologer

The Astrologer
Craig Denney

United States: Directed by Craig Denney, 1976. Starring Craig Denney, Darrien Earle, Arthyr Chadbourne. 96 minutes. Rating N/A

Some bad movies are just, well, bad. Others are bad, but fun to watch. Then there is that special category of film which exhibits such disregard for the conventions of cinema that it falls down a metaphorical rabbit-hole and comes out the other side as, if not exactly a good movie, then the sort of cinematic experience which is uniquely compelling, drawing certain cult-like swarms of weirdoes to seek them out. You know the kinds of movies I’m talking about: The RoomManos: The Hands of Fate, After Last SeasonTroll 2. Add to that Craig Denney’s 1976 magnum opus and sole filmmaking effort, The Astrologer.

The film stars Denney as one “Craig Marcus Alexander,” following him through his youth as a street urchin and pickpocket, to his young adulthood as a fortune-teller at a carnival, to his eventual recruitment by a ring of jewel thieves. After two stints as a guest of the Kenyan correctional system, he smuggles a small fortune in gemstones out of Africa. Once he shakes the shady characters vying to relieve him of his bounty, he returns to California a millionaire, ready to pursue his lifelong dream: build a reputation as the world’s foremost astrologer and build a media empire. And that’s just the first thirty minutes of the film.

No written synopsis of The Astrologer can prepare the viewer for the sheer disregard for the basic fundamentals of film grammar Denney exhibits. He ruthlessly repeals the laws of cause and effect. Alexander’s rise and fall takes place over the course of months, but exposition fails to clarify which months, or what order they go in. Mood, tone, and even genre conventions change seemingly at whim: one minute, the film presents a Papillon-style examination of brutal prison conditions; the next, it’s high adventure in the jungle, like an Indiana Jones movie directed by Christopher Mihm. Denney crassly presses two songs and most of the orchestral bits from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed into service as incidental music. “I’m going to put those tropicalists where they belong: out of business!” Alexander says at one point, as if that were a thing a real person would actually say, even in the mid-’70s.

Sure, I can describe in mere words the restaurant argument scene—the slow motion, the cuts perfectly timed to match the dramatic bits of Procol Harum’s “Grand Hotel”—but I can’t ever come close to conveying the actual emotional resonance of that sequence.

It becomes clear that The Astrologer is the work of a man who has no idea what the hell he’s doing, other than taking money and turning it into whatever he thought the movie was going to be. Yet Denney’s amateur status makes the film more, not less, riveting. Is it good or bad? The question’s moot.

Sadly, it has never seen a home-video release in any format and is unlikely to ever do so, apparently due to music-licensing costs. Your only option is to pray that the American Genre Film Archive brings it to a theater near you sometime during your lifetime. If it does, I sincerely urge you not to miss it.

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