Wednesday, March 4, 2009

CROWLEY (2008) d. Julian Doyle

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Applying generalizations to any form of scholarly critique may not always be the most precise or the fairest method of analysis, but it can be immeasurably helpful in creating broad comparisons. As a result, this introduction must start with a few sweeping generalizations. 1) Films about Satan and his manifestation on The Mortal Plane tend to be dark, atmospheric and gloomy in appearance and tone. 2) Movies that deal with scientific machinery and its awesome power and potential are often sterile looking and appeal only to science fiction fans. 3) Motion pictures that incorporate time paradoxes, parallel universes and other mid-bending concepts can be supercilious and self-important despite their compelling premises. What if a film combined most, if not all, of the best elements of these three generalizations? Would it be a messy morass or a wildly entertaining hybrid? CROWLEY (aka CHEMICAL WEDDING) is not a mess and it does combine a wide variety of story concepts, and although it might not appeal to everyone, imagine taking the essence of OMEN III, blending it with the graphic scenery of ICHI THE KILLER and then sprinkling in an over the top but commanding performance akin to Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, and you’ve got an idea what CROWLEY is a little bit like, but even that analogy doesn’t do it justice.

CROWLEY is the story of the reincarnated spirit of the infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley. Two young academics are at the corrupt and debauched old man’s death in 1947 and witness strange events that occur at his passing. Some 60 years later, an American scientist named Joshua Mathers arrives in London to combine his computer programs dealing with virtual reality with a powerful computer known as Zed93. Before he can properly begin his experiments, his English assistant Victor Nuberg permits a quirky Literature Professor named Oliver Haddo to perform his own experiment, allowing the disembodied spirit of Aleister Crowley to leave the Astral Plane where it had been lurking and inhabit the body of Professor Haddo. The returned Crowley begins preparations for the return of Satan on Earth and the establishment of a Kingdom of Damnation, Excess and Perversity. Mathers teams up with a university coed and journalist named Lia Robinson in an attempt to thwart Crowley’s machinations, little knowing that Crowley needs Lia for the penultimate rite known as The Chemical Wedding.

CROWLEY starts off with a story that is a little choppy and has some jarring transitions between scenes and storylines, but it keeps its head above water by invoking all kinds of occult imagery and demonic/spiritual ideals wrapped around the deeply eccentric performance of John Shrapnel who plays the Aleister Crowley of 1947. While the tendency to transition roughly at times never fades, when the plot shifts gears into the present and adds new layers to an already complex introduction, those threads twist into a tapestry that has many rich characteristics. First, the story component that deals with Satanic Resurrection invokes so many good ideas of the past, whether it is the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft, the OMEN movies, the many atmospheric hammer films like BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB just to name a few. CROWLEY is rich in colorful and moody sequences and sublime scenery made all the more effective by the English interior and exterior sets, all of which help to sell the feel that the struggle against Ultimate Evil is old and never-ending. As the narrative gains momentum, even more interesting components are stitched into this luxuriant fabric. The science fiction elements dealing with computers, alternate realities and time have a mix that evokes flicks like ALTERED STATES or novels like SCHRODINGER’S CAT, making it so that CROWLEY is more than just your ordinary movie dealing with the occult and The Devil. Even as the plot becomes steadily “intellectual” at its heart, a hefty helping of heat-inducing harlotry and other pervasive pinches of pulchritude are slathered onto the surface so that the luridly atmospheric aura begins to also be profane, salacious and occasionally obscene. Naked women, bloody violence, sinful sex acts, all manner of bodily fluids erupting forth and blasphemous behavior are dappled liberally throughout the plot, making CROWLEY appealing to those expecting their Devil-worship movies to be licentious as well as lugubrious.

What CROWLEY also has going for it is a cast that is a mix of seasoned, talented veterans and some talented newcomers too. In addition to recognizable British performers like John Shrapnel, there are seasoned thespians Terence Bayler (Professor Brent) and Paul McDowell (Symonds) who lend stateliness and stability to the cast. American Kal Weber (Joshua Mathers) and lovely Brit Lucy Cudden (Lia Robinson) both give very strong performances in their roles as well, and it doesn’t hurt that Miss Cudden has an attractive face, a trim and sinuous figure and a river of lustrous and fiery hair. Overshadowing all there these impressive and competent portrayals is the magisterial and malevolent acting effort of Simon Callow (Oliver Haddo/reincarnated Crowley). I have seen Mr. Callow in many films since the 1980s, AMADEUS, ROOM WITH A VIEW, MAURICE, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE to name just a few and I have always been impressed. Mr. Callow’s portrayal of Aleister Crowley returned and openly consorting with Powers Dark and Sinister is the most sadistically enjoyable and immorally delightful example of character acting I have seen in some time. It wasn’t long after I first saw BLUE VELVET that I began memorizing Frank Booth’s many memorable lines and finding ways to weave them into the warp and weft of daily life. Simon Callow’s absolutely marvelous mix of becoming the dissolute dabbler in the Dark Arts, depraved defiler of the dismally devoted and a death-wielding demon driven to direct despair and dismay, all the while playing an alternate role at the beginning and end of the film, is an pleasure to revel in and enjoy for his facial expressions, line delivery, body language and even the way he wears his costumes. There isn’t a time during CROWLEY where you aren’t looking forward to seeing him engage in his next act of wickedness, even when it is cringe-inducing. So, whether it is a somewhat convoluted but still engaging narrative that grabs the senses and the intellect, or it is a splendid mix of performers who do their jobs well, or even camera work that is consistently competent and helps to create imagery I can appreciate and take pleasure in, CROWLEY fires on all cylinders. It is not an instant classic, but it is not B-level cinema either. It is entertaining and I was surprised how quickly the hour and forty-five minute runtime passed.

CROWLEY has a surprisingly rich set of extras. There is an excellent audio commentary with director/writer Julian Doyle, writer Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden fame) and producer Ben Timlett. There is a 21 minute “Making of Crowley” featurette that is one of the better mixes of “behind the scenes” footage and cast & crew anecdotes/interview clips. What distinguishes this featurette from its brethren is the deeply appreciated lack of film clips. Too many “making of” documentaries are so heavily loaded with clips from a movie I just watched that it becomes an exercise in time wasted. The jewel of the bonus features is the 29 minute “Deleted Scenes” reel which is accompanied by text comments and comedic quips of the director. This featurette was one of the best looks into the mental processes of a director I have viewed, for I was able to see the scenes/segments that were cut AND read the director’s rationale and/or reminiscences about the experience. More bonus features need to do this. Finally, there is the film trailer to round out the supplements. After watching a film that I mentally connected with, I felt that the extras section also had respect for my intelligence and I left CROWLEY feeling like I had experienced a smart horror film, which doesn’t happen too often today.

While I have had a chance to meet many actors and actresses to whom I have been able to offer my admiration for their efforts, there are so many others whom I have not had a chance to pay my respects. The list is longer now, for while I have always liked Simon Callow, I now have a reason to remember him to the end of my days. When I watch a motion picture like CROWLEY during one of my many battles with insomnia and nearly ALL of the film stays with me the next day after I’ve had a chance to sleep on my viewing that is a VERY good sign. In addition, when I am bombarded by the sights and sounds of a bizarre, bombastic but still beneficent performance and a smile follows me through the exhaustive stretches of a gray and dreary morning that is worth a positive shout too. Not everyone will enjoy CROWLEY and there are some who will probably be shocked by some of its imagery. For those who like their horror to be a strange admixture of smart and a little sick reminiscent of BLUE VELVET, then CROWLEY may be worth watching late one night when the winds are howling through the bare branches of the trees, there is no moon in the sky and the stars look wan. Imagine that the Forces of Darkness are prowling the Cold Hour before Dawn and then turn on CROWLEY. My hope is that you are left somewhat unsettled after the viewing, for that is what a horror film should do.

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