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

Mucho Mucho Amor (2020)

I can’t be the only American philistine who wasn’t aware of Walter Mercado before he was lovingly parodied by drag queen Alexis Mateo on the most recent season of Drag Race All Stars. That’s why the timing of the Netflix Original documentary Mucho Mucho Amor mere weeks after that episode aired was such a beautiful, unexpected gift. A sexually ambiguous television astrologer with a love for modeling extravagant capes, Mercado fits snugly within the parameters of drag artistry, making Mateo’s signal boost of his legacy a perfect use of Drag Race‘s annual, wildly uneven “Snatch Game” segment. Even without a previous awareness of Mercado’s public persona, Mateo’s impersonation and costuming made Mercado immediately comparable to other enigmatic public figures who’ve skirted the edges of drag pageantry – mainly in pop music (Little Richard, Elton John, Liberace) and in pro wrestling (Gorgeous George, Goldust, Cassandro el Exótico). A breezy pop-doc arriving to provide the details of Mercado’s particular place within that familiar pop culture paradigm so soon after I had first discovered his existence was a pure delight. On a more superficial note, so was getting a closer look at his closet full of fabulous capes.

It almost seems like a willful ignorance on my part to not have heard of Walter Mercado until now (or to have forgotten him from fuzzy childhood TV broadcasts), considering that he was a celebrity of note for four decades: 1969 – 2007. After a brief career as a suave telenovela star, Mercado quickly rose to fame in Puerto Rico (and, not too soon after, internationally) for his gently flamboyant horoscope readings, wherein he would dress like a drag mystic and assure each astrology sign that peace, love, and positive changes were heading their way. In a rare candid moment of Mucho Mucho Amor, Mercado explains that the costuming, wizardly hand motions, and mystical sets from these horoscope & tarot readings were merely “Stupid Stuff” that he would use to help get his message of love & positive thinking in front of as wide of an audience as possible. He’s not wrong. That Stupid Stuff is his schtick’s main attraction, and the driving force that puts audiences under his spell. He’s much more guarded during the rest of the doc, though, making sure to not reveal too much about his age, sexuality, gender identity, or personal vendettas against former colleagues who ransacked his television fame for easy cash-outs. Mercado strives to present a kayfabe version of himself in Mucho Mucho Amor that floats freely between any strict definitions of identity, so that he is more the spirit of pure all-posi love than he is a corporeal human being, and the doc does its best to oblige him as much as possible.

I get the sense that this documentary was originally intended to be a career revival for Mercado. Unfortunately, it proved to be more of a memorial service than anything, since Mercado did not survive long enough to see its completion. It’s very fitting to his all-posi messaging to have such a sunshiny posthumous documentary about his career’s upward trajectory, though, and it thankfully gives the film something else to fixate on besides the “What Happened?” true-crime investigation of the mysterious legal troubles that derailed his career. It also helps the film that Mercado was virtually omni-present on television for decades, reading daily horoscopes to his mesmerized fans, so that there is a glorious wealth of retro footage to mine for visual fodder. The ways Mucho Mucho Amor fills the time between those vintage clips of Mercado doing his thing achieve varying levels of success. The staged reenactments of 1980s households and the out-of-nowhere Lin-Manuel Miranda vanity tour that interrupt the flow of the narrative are a little distracting, but other gambles like the animated tarot card chapter breaks and the glimpses into Mercado’s contemporary home life work beautifully. Most importantly, the film allows Mercado himself to have the final word on his own persona & legacy in a lengthy series of interviews, so that the whole thing plays more like a document of a fascinating art project than a real human being, which works perfectly for the subject at hand.

Since I didn’t know much of anything about the subject going in, Mucho Mucho Amor could have just been 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling extravagant capes and I would have been just as pleased with the result. Actually, looking back, I’m not sure that it wasn’t just 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling capes, and I’m convinced its portraiture photo shoots deserve to be converted into a coffee table look book. It was wonderful getting to know this enigmatic astrologer mystic in such an intimate, loving way so soon after discovering his existence, and the movie mostly does a great job of showcasing what made him fabulous without getting in his way with its own theatricality.

-Brandon Ledet

Bloody Birthday (1981)

The lineage of films borrowing from the killer-children British chiller Village of the Damned has echoed thunderously over the last half-century – from the Euro-grindhouse provocation of Who Can Kill a Child? to the corny folk tale of Children of the Corn to the cosmic Christmas horror subversion of The Children and beyond. If 1986’s Bloody Birthday does anything especially novel with this Evil Children subgenre it’s in the way it retrofits Village of the Damned into the post-Halloween slasher format. If you cut the killer children angle out of the film entirely, this picture would be unmistakable as a cheap-o Halloween knockoff. Its designated bookworm Final Girl archetype walks down suburban streets fending off invitations to party & sin with her promiscuous friends, scenes that look like half-remembered recreations of specific Halloween moments. Her doomed-to-die neighbor friend’s dad is even town sheriff, like in the John Carpenter classic, and the final showdown with the film’s pint-sized killers is a harrowing night of babysitting gone awry. Swapping out the looming presence of Michael Myers with a small cult of toe-headed rascals is a pretty substantial deviation from the Halloween slasher template, however, offering the Village of the Damned formula an interesting new subgenre avenue to explore. It’s an unholy marriage of two horror sensibilities that likely shouldn’t mix, and that explosive combination makes for a wickedly fun time.

Unlike in Village of the Damned, there isn’t much explanation provided as to why the murderous tykes of Bloody Birthday are evil. The three unrelated miscreants are born simultaneously in a small town during an absurdly windy solar eclipse, and their wickedness is waved off with Astrological babblings about cosmic alignments. What’s more important than their origin is the Lawful Evil characterization in their costuming & murder tactics. They dress like shrunken-down Reaganite adults and sidestep the traditional slasher weapon of a glistening kitchen knife for more pedestrian tools of chaos: skateboards, baseball bats, shovels, cars, etc. One of the little tykes even hunts down his elders with a stolen handgun – which would be a disappointing weapon in the hands of a Michael Myers but is genuinely horrifying when operated by a child. It’s unexpected details like that gun that keeps Bloody Birthday exciting even if you’re already over-familiar with the slasher genre at large. It’s not interesting enough for teens to make out in a graveyard in this film; they have to make out in a grave. Not only do the children have an unsettling prurient interest in adult sexuality, peering in on sex & private stripteases; they also fire a bow & arrow through their peephole. After two 2019 releases (Ma & Psycho Granny), this is the third film I’ve seen this year where a killer maniacally scrapbooks about their crimes – a very unsettling hobby for a child. This is a deeply ugly, unwholesome glimpse at Reagan Era suburbia, and the kids are not alright, not at all.

That spiritual ugliness also extends to the film’s look & sound. This is a repugnantly colorless affair, dealing almost exclusively in muddied browns & greys. The sound quality of my blind-buy DVD copy left the dialogue outright indecipherable, prompting us to switch to Severin’s digital restoration currently streaming on Shudder (which was only slightly better, but at least audible). Unlike in most first-wave slashers of its era, the murders in the film actually weigh on the community they terrorize, which mostly manifests in teary-eyed funerals, public meltdowns at kids’ birthday parties, and hospitalized psychiatric retreats to aid recovery. It’s a sense of grief & despair that keeps the mood harshly grotesque & rotten, even when the Evil Children’s wicked deeds stray into over-the-top camp. I personally never tire of the killer-children horror genre and had a lot of fun with this film’s peculiar melding of Village of the Damned tradition with Halloween modernism. It’s an ugly watch in both texture & sentiment, though, one that’s bested as a bygone nasty in its genre only by Who Can Kill a Child?. It works wonderfully well as a genre deviation for both the killer-children thriller and the traditional first-wave slasher, and there are plenty of cartoonishly excessive joys to be found in its intergenerational kills. It’s just also a nasty slice of schlock in its own right, though, so be prepared to squirm between your guffaws.

-Brandon Ledet