THE ASTROLOGER And The Death Of The Secret Handshake Movie

Jacob celebrates a legend while lamenting the current state of cult movie accessibility.

Growing up as a cult film fan, there was a certain thrill to the hunt, and catharsis that came with finding a movie you’d been searching for forever. Mind you, this was back before streaming offered up everything at the click of a button. Battle Royale (’00) wasn’t simply there on Shudder, waiting to be ingested on a random Thursday. This was the period when you went to horror repertory screenings and bought bootleg Region 0 Korean DVDs from other nerds who scrawled their $25 price stickers by hand. If you wanted to see Peter Jackson’s uncut Kiwi iteration of Braindead (’92) (Dead/Alive is for tourists), you had to order a VHS bootleg and wait ten days for it to come in the mail, praying to God before delivery that the ancient VCR in your basement wouldn’t eat the tape upon arrival.

These days, that type of devotion is mostly relegated to print heads, the hardened rep devotees who seek out 35 and 16mm reels of more obscure catalogue titles, instead of settling for the latest newfangled DCP (which, while undeniably crisp, is really no different than watching a Blu-ray in a crowded auditorium with strangers). On one hand, this constant availability of work that was previously scarce allows a new generation of viewers to (hypothetically) educate themselves much easier than those of us who came up in an analog age. On the other, the term “cult film” now owns little to none of its original meaning. Because you can’t start a secret society whose doors are open to everyone. You have to earn your way in, scraping and clawing through beat up celluloid and magnetic tape, the titles to each operating like magical passwords when you meet another member of your tribe. These “secret handshake” pictures are few and far between anymore, so when they do come along, you have to cherish their existence.

In 2014, there was a single Fantastic Fest screening hosted by Nicolas Winding Refn (representing the American Genre Film Archive) of a movie called The Astrologer (’75). Going in, nobody really knew a thing about it, other than what the guide promised:

A carnival con man discovers that he has genuine psychic powers and uses them to become an astrology bigwig. But the plot isn’t necessarily the focus of The Astrologer. It’s the kind of film where the main character makes a movie that is basically The Astrologer within the movie and then we get to spend a few minutes watching The Astrologer watch The Astrologer inside the movie The Astrologer! It’s the kind of movie that has an entire dynamic dinner scene shot entirely in slow-motion. It’s the kind of movie where someone shouts, “You’re not an astrologer... YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!” And it’s all done without an ounce of irony. It’s all genuine, it’s all passion, it’s all GOOD.

Sold. Having spent numerous hours watching both gems and complete trash from the DIY exploitation era, this sounded like the usual megalomania that drove these pet projects, often helmed by individuals who had no right making a film, due to both the lack of resources and know-how to bring their idiosyncratic visions to life (the cinema of former lounge lizard Duke Mitchell instantly comes to mind). In his intro, Refn explained that the movie was made by a man named Craig Denny, and “took auteurism to a whole new level.” There was even a scene that the Danish provocateur threatened to steal for The Neon Demon (a claim I’d call him on years later, only to receive a typically tongue-in-cheek response). Then the lights went down, and I held my breath, wishing for the best.

Holy. Fucking. Shit. What unspooled before this unsuspecting audience was beyond anything their psychotronic-addicted hearts could desire. Craig Denney’s work is a maniacal act of self-mythologizing, charting a sort of rise and fall story about Alexander – a carnival side show act who becomes a diamond smuggler, political prisoner, star reader to the rich and famous, film star himself (in a movie called The Astrologer, which he does in fact watch in The Astrologer), and finally a has been – all in the span of ninety minutes. While the guide was incorrect about our man being psychic, he certainly gets to buy an astral window, which allows him to gaze out at the cosmos whenever he gets bored. There’s a genuine madness on display, as Denney pours the contents of his brain onto celluloid, scoring it all to stolen Moody Blues tracks, while lingering on these rather beautiful tableaus of him hanging out shirtless on a pleasure boat after diving for jewels at the bottom of the ocean. How this movie could afford a helicopter is beyond this writer, but we’re certainly all better off because of it.

What’s most marvelous about The Astrologer is that it escalates without ever really knowing it’s doing so. The movie begins rather tame, but then slowly ramps up the crazy, as our man of fortune befriends a racist female criminal accomplice, wrangles with poisonous cobras, and then dives head first into making a motion picture about his own life. There are languid dissolves of memories regarding lost love that overtake the frame, multiple wipes that artfully transition us from scene to scene, and then the aforementioned dinner fiasco, which is easily of the greatest acts of unintentional avant garde cinema this side of Neil Breen (Fateful Findings [‘13]). As we slowly push in on Alex and his new wife while they fight in a restaurant, the edits blurring into one another as another Moody Blues instrumental rises to near deafening levels, an argument turns into a break up before our very eyes, played out completely silent until drinks are tossed in Peckinpah slow-mo. Imagine the bickering back and forth long take in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (’63), brought down to gutter cinema levels of incompetence-cum-genius.

After The Astrologer finished playing, a few of us were so bowled over by its insanity that we started searching for more information on Denney. However, there was almost none to be found. Some weird records indicated that he died some time ago (possibly at sea), yet there’s no grave to visit. Rumors started to circulate that Denney had even faked his death, adding layers to the legend of this brand new discovery. Co-star and astrological advisor Arthyr Chadbourne showed up to a post-Fantastic Fest screening at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles, to explain that every number mentioned in the movie has a specific meaning. Weirder yet was how limited the release of The Astrologer apparently was (a not uncommon element of DIY works from this era): running briefly in Australia in 1975, before resurfacing as a CBS Late Movie in June of 1980, before almost vanishing entirely. It would take one of Drafthouse’s celebrated “Reel One Parties” – where the initial rolls from unwatched prints in AGFA’s archives are projected to see if they’re worth watching in their entirety – for the movie get reclaimed forty years on by a new sect of rabid film freaks.

A handful of screenings around the country followed in the wake of Fantastic Fest 2014. Then the showings just stopped, as a dispute arose over who actually owned the rights to the movie. It’s still unclear where Denney actually sold The Astrologer, as distributors toiled behind the scenes to sort out a home video package. We’re now three years removed from that incredible initial screening, and still no closer to ever seeing a release for the movie beyond one off (probably unauthorized) rep house showcases. Many blame the uncleared musical cues for its continued stay in distribution purgatory. Others link its scarcity to a particularly large studio, who’s been reluctant to sell the film as a single title, hoping they could package it with other catalogue entries (thus rendering the investment a rather silly one for such a niche release). Perhaps the greatest magic trick Craig Denney ever pulled was completing his magnum opus in a fashion that will probably ensure it never sees the light of day (at least for a modern audience).

To be completely frank, that’s totally fine. The lack of genuine cult film artifacts in the streaming age marks The Astrologer’s inaccessibility as something of a selling point. Now, whenever another fan of Denney’s DIY insanity brings it up in conversation, it’s an automatic indicator that they’ve done the legwork to see something very few others have. Most will view this valuing of the picture’s paucity as a kind of hipster bragging right, and that’s all good and well, too. These types of movies aren’t for everyone, so not everyone is going to understand the beauty of the pursuit, and the satisfaction that comes with enjoying these rarities in a crowded room once your quarry has been captured. The digital age is one of comfort, but that coziness has turned even some of the hardest core film fans soft and content. For those of us who still pride ourselves in trying to discover the next bona fide facemelter, it’s good to know something like The Astrologer is out there, growing in legend for others to seek out as well.