How many times have you had the same conversation in the pub with mates? “Why isn’t there a movie about Aleister Crowley?” Everybody gets a biopic these days, from Ray Charles through to Betty Page all the way up to Marley The Dog. So why not Crowley? Well, your evil prayers are answered. There’s now a Crowley movie, although a straight biopic it most certainly isn’t.
Chemical Wedding, quite unrelated to his musical masterwork of the same name, is Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson’s first crack at writing a screenplay. Directed by Terry Gilliam protege Julian Doyle, it’s a stylish but, ultimately, not brilliant time travel romp set amongst the halls of Crowley’s university, Cambridge.
The sci-fi tinged storyline involves an experimental Virtual Reality suit that is never well explained. Somehow, a crazy lab guy has managed to infect the computer that runs the VR software with an evil virus, having translated some Crowley rituals into binary code. As a result, when a meek and stammering professor (Simon Callow) steps into the suit, he somehow becomes possessed by the wandering spirit of Aleister Crowley. Yeah. Did I mention that you’ll need some suspension of disbelief here?
This awkward premise sets up a film that’s basically just, “What would Crowley do in modern day Cambridge?” The answer is fairly predictable. He’d steal a natty suit, have tons of sex, perform some arcane rituals and maybe kill a few people to boot. Sadly, from the point where Callow’s character is possessed onwards, the film takes on a tired, familiar formula and becomes – basically – a cheap slasher flick, as “Crowley” hacks, slashes and screws his way through the University. A kind of Voorhees in velvet.
There’s a dull American scientist (Kal Weber) who’s trying to stop him, but to be honest, I’ve already forgotten anything else he says and does. A flat, one-dimensional adversary played by a plank of wood is inevitably going to be overshadowed by the wonderful Simon Callow who, here, is on top form as The Beast. It’s just a crime that such a masterful leading performance doesn’t have a better script to support it and that everyone else in the cast appears to be sleepwalking.
The story’s clumsy and whilst there are numerous cute in-jokes to appeal to those with an interest in the occult (ie: the VR suit’s computer is called the Z93), one can’t help feel that Dickinson has tried to cram too much in. When studying Crowley, it’s difficult not to be confronted with a welter of interesting conspiracies and connections, but throwing so many of them into the script just made me feel the writer was too close to his subject and didn’t have the heart to apply more prudent editing. For example, whilst the link between Crowley and the Masons is an interesting one, it serves no purpose at all in this film and just adds clutter, like so many other dead avenues in here.
This is all a great pity, as the film isn’t entirely without merit. Callow, as I said, is phenomenal, some of the photography is pretty, it’s evidently well-researched and there are one or two very funny scenes. In fact, the film is at its strongest when playing up the comedy angle (a sick gallows humour that the Mega Therion himself would have guffawed at) but weak when it tries – and fails – to be scary or thrilling. A shame because the ideas are sound – it just feels like it was shot from an unpolished first draft. Do what thou wilt probably shouldn’t be the whole of the law when it comes to writing coherently…