Ambition is not a shortcoming of "Chemical Wedding," the Bruce-Dickinson-scribed sci-fi/horror film that builds its plot on the reputation of occultist Aleister Crowley. Aiming for the majestic scope of Iron Maiden's best metal epics, the film waffles between sinister prophecy and flaccid plotting only to wind up stumbling over its own pomposity. In short: "Chemical Wedding" has gotta lotta problems. Chief among these problems is the fact that this could have been a really cool movie if it had been approached with a stronger aesthetic pimp hand. Knock off a good 20 minutes of talky exposition, strengthen the visuals enough to cover up the plot holes, and cast a leading couple with more than symmetrical features to their collective credit, and you could have a psychedelic romp to compare favorably to the continental output of the early 1970s. Sadly, the finished product can't find its footing between splattery comedic excess, New Age scare tactics, and tepid melodrama (HINT: that first one would've been the direction to take--just sayin').
Scientists at Cambridge University in England have created a supercomputer capable of storing memories recovered from the human mind. Fifty-some-odd years after his death, Aleister Crowley's spirit inhabits the machine and enters the brain of Mason-obsessed classics Professor Haddo. It falls to Cal-Tech scientist Joshua Mathers and university newspaper reporter Lia Robinson (both of whose names I had to look up on IMDb--such is the strength of their characters) to prevent Crowley's spirit from bringing about some sort of ill-defined but nevertheless apocalyptic event involving a virgin birth.
That, my friends, is a plot that's ridiculous enough to be excellent. How can you not approach a movie that's essentially "Lawnmower Man 3: SEX MAGICK!" with anything other than affection and hopefulness?
It becomes pretty clear pretty early on that the science of the movie is a hott mess. I can forgive that--sometimes you just need a device to get you to the good shit. Such is the nature of genre story-making. This film relies almost entirely on convenient devices, however, and the sheer volume of happenstances and deus ex machinae just winds up being more than can be overlooked. I raised an eyebrow when the school newspaper reporter just waltzed on in to the restricted lab, but when characters repeatedly find precisely the right books that contain key pieces of information about how to stop Crowley's magickal plans, I winced. This sloppy plotting might not be such a problem if the film wasn't committed to being so literal. It lacks a visual style that would elevate the nonsense to... well, at least to good-looking nonsense. The overall mood of the film mixes that of the screen versions of "The Da Vinci Code" and Clive Barker's "Lord of Illusions"* if envisioned as a long episode of "Dr. Who."
*I think I may actually hate this movie to an unreasonable degree. Objectively, it's not that bad, but every time I think about it, I start to froth at the mouth a little bit. What a fucking mess.
Ladies and gentlemen: your flavorlessly attractive, teevee-ready leading couple. They're as baffled to be here as you are to see them here.
I realize that not ALL British movies have bad sound and creaky cinematography, but ENOUGH British movies have bad sound and creaky cinematography to justify my prejudice of thinking of British movies as being characterized by these features. "Chemical Wedding" certainly doesn't test this rule. There are moments when the sound mix makes pieces of dialogue impossible to understand, and while I dig Dutch Angles as much as the next person, I found that they were over-used here. In fact, skewed angles were really the only cinematography flourish that I noted. Throw me a fisheye lens, dude! I WANT TO LOVE YOU, MOVIE. Don't make this so hard on both of us!
Give me a moment to catch my breath, and I'll address the un-terrible things about this movie.
As you might expect from a flick about Aleister Crowley, a person dubbed "The Wickedest Man the World" who was known for such outrageous behavior as crapping on people's rugs during cocktail parties and chasing William Butler Yeats with a knife, there's some weird shit that goes on here. Much screen time is devoted to Crowley's theories on the spiritual and magical powers of sex in the form of orgies, floggings, nudity and the faxing of semen.* Credit where credit is due--the nudity on display here is pretty fine (thank you, Page 3, and your legacy of pulchritude). The world offers far more efficient bare-breast delivery vehicles, to be sure, but this offers a better-than-average array of bosoms.
*This is not a typo. It is also very gross.
Unsurprisingly, given its authorial pedigree, "Chemical Wedding" features a tasty Iron Maiden-infused soundtrack. It's an odd pairing with the 1920s jazz music that plays in some of the Crowley scenes, but for my money, it works. At any rate, I'm going to put the soundtrack in the PLUS column and leave it at that.
Simon Callow's unhinged portrayal of Crowley-inhabited Haddo is the highlight of the movie, and the film's real saving grace. Without Callow, this would be an entirely unwatchable mess. Beginning the movie as a stuttering, fussy parody of academic eccentricity, his Haddo character is a long way from the sly, punning Crowley. I was reminded of Monty Python's Terry Jones, both by Callow's appearance as well as his ability to convey comedic range from anti-aplomb to stentorian grimness. It's a great performance in a movie otherwise inhabited by bland, uninteresting characters.** There's a great montage bit where Crowley-Haddo takes a stroll through town, stealing the purple velvet suit off the back of a latter-day dandy, impressing the owners of a local occult shop, and generally causing mischief. If more of the movie hit notes like this, "Chemical Wedding" would've been a quirky, fun, and thoroughly recommendable flick!
**And women with very nice breasts--let's not forget that.
"Chemical Wedding" ranks pretty high on the wasted opportunity scale. I'm baffled by the consistency with which filmmakers screw up a good Satanic Apocalypse story in bringing it to the screen. It'd seem a no-brainer--there are opportunities for blood, boobs, sex, and all the things that generally make a horror movie worth watching. And yet, for the most part, these movies fizzle out with their mystical babble and too-defined good-versus-evil characters. I'll look on the bright side, however--there's still room for a future filmmaker to create the ultimate statement on resurrecting dead occult madmen using supercomputers. Get to work, folks--I know *I* want to see your movie.
Now, because some of the actors in this film (along with Ozzy Osbourne fans) can always use a helpful reminder regarding the pronunciation of Crowley's name, here's "CrowleyMass" by Current 93: