The Astrologer (1976)

I often wonder what, exactly, drives the rapid canonization of specific cult films.  Most batshit, off-the-rails midnight movies totally deserve their Cult Film status, but there are plenty of other titles that’re just as deliriously bonkers in their filmmaking but never grow the audience needed for that communal glorification.  Pinpointing what makes a cult movie like Birdemic or Troll 2 more worthy of crowded midnight screenings than underseen trash gems like Mardi Gras Massacre or The Flesh Eaters can be outright confounding. By contrast, the recent push to canonize the mysterious 1976(?) cult curio The Astrologer at least has some obvious indicators of how it so quick skyrocketed up the Cult Movie power rankings in recent years. 

As with other recently canonized Midnight Movies like Fateful Findings & The Room, The Astrologer is a self-aggrandizing vanity project from a mysterious weirdo whose life & persona only become more fascinating the longer you read (the largely unconfirmed, likely apocryphal) trivia about them.  Unlike with Breen & Wiseau, however, Craig Denney’s feature-length monument to his own ego has the added bonus of seemingly arriving out of nowhere.  Discovered by the American Genre Film Archive in a lot sale of assorted pornos, the film was first mistaken for another picture titled The Astrologer that was produced in the exact same year.  Delighted by the discovery, AGFA was frustrated to find The Astrologer unlicensable, thanks to Denney’s insane decision to use multiple tracks from the rock band The Moody Blues (and to advertise the band’s participation on the promotional poster) without ever compensating them or even asking for permission.  As a result, The Astrologer has built cult interest as an item of intrigue through its scarcity, unavailable for (legal) public screenings or home video due to the high price tag of its soundtrack.  It wasn’t until this year that the film was leaked to YouTube & torrent sites in a glorious HD scan, and by then it had enough articles written about it with titles like “1975’s The Astrologer is the Greatest Cult Classic Film You Might Never Get to See” that it carried a certain mystique as a “lost” cultural object.

Craig Denney was a so-called “self-made” millionaire astrologer who, according to his own PR, created a computer program that read the astrological charts of giant corporations to help them make crucial business decisions.  In The Astrologer, Denney plays a crook-turned-astrologer named Craig Marcus Alexander who becomes a millionaire by creating that very same computer program.  The film is, of course, all about how awesome Craig Denney is, including a third act plot development where he turns his awesome life into an awesome movie called The Astrologer that’s a runaway success, making him millions of more dollars.  The cast is populated by amateurs in Denney’s real-life social circle, including his longtime best friend (who has provided most of the available public information on the real-life Denney) and his first cousin (who plays his love interest, whom he makes out with for scenes on end).  What’s shocking about that is that it otherwise appears to have a massive budget & unusually respectable production values for outsider art of this nature.  Tommy Wiseau poured a grotesque amount of money into the production of The Room, but it looks like dog shit and makes use of three, maybe four locales.  Meanwhile, The Astrologer includes helicopter shots, underwater photography, and totally unnecessary location shoots in Kenya & Tahiti. 

Although it often looks like a legitimate production, you can feel the unchecked id of The Astrologer‘s outsider art status in its dialogue & editing.  There’s an urban legend that the film had no script, and that its daily shooting schedules & on-the-fly storyboarding were guided by Denney reading astrological charts for inspiration.  That claim has not been verified by a primary source, but it’s a great anecdote and it does seem to jive with how loosely improvised a lot of the dialogue can feel.  It’s the harsh, psychedelic editing that really makes the film sing, though.  There’s a punishing, Russ Meyer style rhythm to the way The Astrologer is structured, with jarring cuts to gunshots, picnics, and children working on chain gangs that take valuable seconds to register how they fit into the story before you’re thrown into the next thrilling chapter of Craig “Alexander’s”s life.  I get the sense that Denney believed his life was too full of adventure, cunning wit, and self-made success to fit snuggly into one movie, so he had to rush through it all with a Citizen Kane-esque gusto to make room.  It isn’t until 40 minutes into this 70min movie when Craig “Alexander” finally gets into Astrology as a profession.  By then, you’ve already seen two or three movies’ worth of swashbuckling adventurism from the conman cad, who presents himself as a carnie trickster who accidentally discovered he had a real-life gift of astrological premonition after he was already “reading” Tarot cards for local rubes.

I don’t know that I would have singled The Astrologer out as the one-of-a-kind trash gem its most passionate fans see it as, but I’m still glad it was rescued from the bottom of the bin.  This is high-budget, high-energy trash from a total weirdo who only gets more mysterious & stranger the more you read about his life.  While the scarcity of The Astrologer‘s availability has mostly been resolved, the allure of Craig Denney as an outsider filmmaker and entertaining conman remains as potent as ever.  There are even legitimate questions of whether or not he faked his own death in the 1990s, which means he very well may have lived to see his movie finally reach a wider, appreciative public all these decades later.  I like to imagine Craig Denney’s still out there, scrolling through Google alert notifications of his own name the same way his “character” Craig “Alexander” proudly watches himself on TV once he makes it big in the film.  Hi, Craig.  Thank you for making such an entertaining picture.

-Brandon Ledet

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