The Astrologer (1975)
Studio: Severin Films
Release date: February 25th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The Astrologer is the familiar story of a young filmmaker attempting to realize a grandiose vision on a threadbare budget that betrays him at nearly every turn. Like so many ambitious filmmakers before him, James Glickenhaus—who now refers to this debut feature as a student picture—had big ideas that didn’t quite make it to the big screen. The good news, though, is that this just about the only thing about The Astrologer that feels familiar. Because despite those limited resources, Glickenhaus certainly accomplished something with a weirdo dispatch that feels like it was conjured from nether regions of cult cinema. It may not be exactly what its director set out to achieve, but you could argue that it’s actually more interesting because of that.
The grandeur is on display immediately, as an opening narration whisks us to the distant future, where government agency Interzod blends astrology with science to determine the “zodiacal potential” of everyone on the planet. Lead scientist Alexei Abernal (Bob Byrd) is particularly concerned with charting those individuals who may become the next genocidal despot. When Indian cult leader Kajerste (Mark Buntzman) appears on Interzod’s radar, Alexei dispatches other government agents to investigate. Kajerste’s emergence dovetails with Alexei’s own research into the imminent Second Coming, which may or may not involve his own wife (Monica Tidwell), a virgin with a unique zodiacal potential.
You just read that synopsis—which might only capture half of the madness here—and it’s not hard to see how The Astrologer is required viewing for anyone who craves idiosyncratic nonsense from the obscure corners of cinema. Even it if’s almost immediately obvious that Glickenhaus doesn’t have the resources to fully realize it, his vision is so grand and strange that you can’t help but be taken in by the imagination on display. It might rely on gobs and gobs of bullshit jargon and exposition, but there is the sense that we’ve been dropped into a fully-realized future world with a firmly established logic (forget for a second how illogically the film eventually proceeds).
The fact that Glickenhaus doesn’t have the means to make this world look too far removed from contemporary times actually heightens the effect: The Astrologer is one of those great, lo-fi visions of the apocalypse that’s actually scarier because it looks so much like our own world. I was especially reminded of A Thief in the Night, a series of Christian rapture/propaganda films from the same era that some of my overzealous family members forced upon me at a young age. Something about it was so powerfully believable, and The Astrologer taps into that same kind of energy, even if it involves silly asides involving a psychic who insists on her clients stripping down to the nude while she reads their futures (a wrinkle that mostly feels motivated by Tidwell’s status as a Playmate). There is something very particular about The Astrologer’s distinct form of weirdness that’s too compelling to deny.
The plot is schizophrenic and hazy, bouncing between the attempt to assassinate Kajerste and Alexei’s dry procedural research into the births of both his wife and the Virgin Mary. The former proves to be the most compelling, if only because Glickenhaus leans heavily on disquieting visuals here. He especially exploits Buntzman’s weirdly charismatic presence, pulling in close on his wild-eye, maniacal face as he leads his bizarre cult rituals. His magnetism looms large over The Astrologer, infecting the film with a genuinely untamed energy that Glickenhaus rightly harnesses to entrance the audience in a whirl of ritualistic delirium. The illusion is admittedly broken when he inserts what looks to be authentic snuff footage of actual dead bodies, a distasteful choice that nonetheless feels right at home with this grungy, disreputable effort from the cult fringes. At its best, The Astrologer is the sort of film that imprints itself on your psyche, where it lingers as something halfway between memory, daydream, and nightmare. You recall it not as a lucid experience but as a weird, fragmentary glimpse into the mind of a budding auteur doing his best on limited resources.
Those limited resources also linger, of course; in its least remarkable moments—and it’s usually all the ones involving Alexei’s attempt to untangle the mystery surrounding his wife—The Astrologer is leaden, bound by long stretches of exposition that’s as unwieldy as you’d expect form a script that routinely repeats the phrase “zodiacal potential.” To be fair, even this is guided by a wild imagination: the basic premise of The Astrologer is too compelling to deny even in the face of its wooden performances, threadbare production values, and a story that can charitably be called “incoherent.” Less charitable viewers will rightfully point out that the movie also ends just as it’s getting interesting: it promises a Second Coming from the opening credits and slowly builds towards a stark revelation, only to fizzle out.
In the interest of being that charitable viewer who realizes Glickenhaus simply didn’t have the means to carry out a satisfying climax, I will say that it ends on a positively diabolical note. It might be abrupt, but, in truth, it doesn’t really need elucidating because I’m not sure The Astrologer could end in any other fashion. It’s arguable that this film lingers on the brain precisely because it’s so confounding. Like a puzzle with missing pieces, it frustrates and fascinates all at once and refuses to simply trail off into the ether of your mind. Instead, it sticks in the craw: you might devise plenty of reasons to dismiss it, but you have to admit The Astrologer is unlike just about anything you’ve ever seen before.
When Severin announced a Blu-ray release for The Astrologer, it inspired a moment of pause once we all collected ourselves and realized that this isn’t the even more rare Astrologer from 1975 that’s found new life in recent years in repertory circles. While that would be quite a coup for any distributor (it is apparently highly unlikely to ever be released), the release of Glickenhaus’s film is a damn find consolation prize. Unreleased since the VHS era, it finally finds a more than suitable home on Severin’s nice Blu-ray, which restores the film to pristine condition and boasts a few extras to boot.
A 10-minute interview with Glickenhaus highlights a trio of interviews, as he recounts how the experience of making The Astrologer was invaluable to his growth as a filmmaker. He notes that simply doing it—lack of resources be damned—was worthwhile, if only to prove that he could do it. Tidwell also appears for a 6-minute sit-down to recall her journey from modelling to film, and she has fond memories of working on The Astrologer. Crew members Brendan Faulkner and Frank Farel discuss the ragtag nature of the production, which was full of amateurs just doing their best with limited knowledge and resources. Another feature features Fangoria’s Michael Gingold returning to some of the film’s locations to show how much has changed during the past 45 years, all while offering insight and trivia about the sites.
Taken all together, the features paint a decent portrait of the do-it-yourself nature of The Astrologer, a film that was essentially forged out of grit and determination by a cast and crew learning on the fly. Obviously, it worked out for Glickenhaus, who went on to have a brief but notable career doing genre work before moving on to work in the automobile industry, which has to be just about the damnedest career arc imaginable. Then again, once you’ve seen The Astrologer, you’ll believe anything is possible when it comes to James Glickenhaus.
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