J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Macabro ’15: Chemical Wedding

While the fact is strenuously ignored by his subsequent devotees, L. Ron Hubbard was once an ardent follower of the notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley. That was when Hubbard and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) founder Jack Parsons were traveling in the same Pagan circles, so to speak. The relationship between the three men is indeed referenced in Iron Maiden lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s screenwriting debut, but it is the connection to Parsons that will have greater significance in Julian Doyle’s way-better-than-reported Chemical Wedding (a.k.a. Crowley, trailer here), which screens as part of a retrospective tribute (or whatever) to Crowley at the 2015 Macabro, the International Horror Film Festival in Mexico City.

In 1947, Crowley’s earnest young understudy Symonds was present at his death, but it will not be the last time he sees the dark magus. Flashing forward to 2000, Symonds has forsworn the occult as a respected Cambridge professor. As the Florida recount rages, Dr. Joshua Mathers arrives from Cal Tech to test his Virtual Reality simulator using the university’s powerful super-computer. Unbeknownst to Mathers, his Cambridge colleague Victor Neuman is also a budding occultist, who performs an off-the-books experiment, programming Crowley’s information into the computer while twittish classics professor Oliver Haddo is wearing the VR suit.

As you might expect, Haddo is a different man when he steps out of the Z93. His stutter is gone, replaced by an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and a voracious sexual appetite. He is indeed Crowley and he has big plans. Symonds understands how dangerous it will be if he completes the resurrection process, so he advises Mathers and Cambridge student journalist Lia Robinson as best he can. Unfortunately, her red hair will attract Crowley’s attention, in a very bad way.

Frankly, the prospect of revered British character actor and Orson Welles biographer Simon Callow going all in as Crowley is reason enough to see Chemical, but Doyle & Dickinson also wrote a considerably inventive narrative around him. Admittedly, the logic and believability of their pseudo-science is hit-or-miss. However, ambition of its scope is rather impressive. Chemical stakes out the territory where metaphysics and theoretical physics intersect—and it is quite a bloody crossroads.

Perhaps realizing he will not have many more opportunities to exercise his Hammer Horror muscles, Callow makes the most of Chemical, luxuriating in Haddo’s agonizing stutter and feasting on scenery as the reincarnated Crowley. Similarly, John Shrapnel is aptly malevolent and larger than life as the 1947 Crowley. Although the film’s aesthetics are stacked against their conventionally unassuming characters, Kal Weber and Lucy Cudden still manage to show some presence and energy as Mathers and Robinson, respectively. However, it is Paul McDowell who really anchors the film and sells its third act revelations as the older and wiser Symonds.

For a demonic horror film co-scripted by a heavy metal rock star, Chemical Wedding is surprisingly tweedy and thoroughly British. It is indeed a throwback to old school Hammer-Amicus films, but one informed by post-Uncertainty quantum mechanics. Pretty cool really (and also available on DVD), Chemical Wedding screens this Thursday (8/27), along with the wonderfully eccentric Karloff-Lugosi vehicle The Black Cat, as part of the Crowley-inspired programming at this year’s Macabro.

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