I am a person fascinated by bad movies.
On second thought, “obsessed” might be the more accurate word. I live for cheap, WTF-laden bizarro cinema. I’ve ranked every single episode of MST3K. I’ve seen films like The Room and Birdemic dozens of times in the last decade. I’ve written not one but two different bad movie columns for Paste. I’ve hosted regularly scheduled bad movie nights in my home for more than eight years at this point. Friends are consistently unnerved by the sheer scope of my bad movie collection.
And yet, I had never even heard whisper of 1975’s The Astrologer until this past spring. This film, like some kind of holy grail of directorial vanity project mythologizing, dropped miraculously into my lap during a one-time April screening at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre, and my mind has revolved around it ever since. It’s one of the strangest, most inexplicable films I’ve ever seen, but the really unique thing is this: It’s a film I may never get a chance to see for a second time—and in all likelihood, neither will you. The Astrologer is the rarest of all the forgotten, would-be cult classics; a film you can only see if your local, independent theater goes out of their way to host the one existing digital print of a movie that almost no one knows anything about.
So without further ado, allow me to make the barest attempt to explain what exactly it is you’ve been missing out on in The Astrologer.
You’ll most likely notice, attempting to look up The Astrologer online, that there’s some confusion as to what movie you should even be looking for. Various sources cite The Astrologer as having been released in 1975 or 1976, but things are immediately complicated by the presence of a second 1975 film that also happened to be titled The Astrologer, although its alternate title is Suicide Cult. That’s not The Astrologer we’re talking about here. You want this one, directed by and starring one Craig Denney. Accept no substitutes in this line of inquiry.
We’re talking about the one on the RIGHT.
The Astrologer, at its heart, is two things:
A. An earnest attempt at an epic, world-sprawling “rags to riches” story in the mode of Horatio Alger, chronicling the Citizen Kane-esque rise and fall of an internationally famous astrology media mogul; and
B. A directorial vanity project of grandiose, shocking audacity, unlike anything else you can find outside the works of Neil Breen.
The man behind it all was Craig Denney, the film’s mysterious writer-director-star. To look at the guy, you’d simply accept that he appears to be an average, somewhat dopey-looking member of 1970s white male society, but man, Denney had some ambitions in him. He seems to have viewed The Astrologer as nothing less than the linchpin to an effort that would catapult him into Hollywood stardom, and the film treats his character with dramatic parallels that are positively Faustian. It’s difficult not to be immediately reminded of the likes of Tommy Wiseau, in terms of how sincerely (but ineptly) Denney approaches his task as both an actor and filmmaker.
The film begins by introducing us to Denney as “Craig Marcus Alexander,” who explains via voiceover that he was “born to lie, cheat and steal.” He does this by bilking people out of their money at carnival side shows as an astrologer/fortune teller, but after meeting the love of his life (played by Denney’s real-life cousin, who he repeatedly makes out with), he aims for bigger things by joining a diamond smuggling operation, which he agrees to over an idyllic picnic set in a cemetery. The film then demonstrates one of its first instant classic moments of WTF editing by smash-cutting during mid-pan to a prison camp in Africa, where a shirtless Alexander is held prisoner, his diamond mission apparently having gone poorly.
It’s difficult to convey just how hilariously jarring this transition is without witnessing it in a theater full of other confused souls, but The Astrologer quickly inures the viewer to those kinds of jolts. In the scenes that follow, Denney shows off his doughy physique, battles snakes, steals diamonds from an ancient temple like he’s Indiana Jones, allows a woman to sink to her death in quicksand and pawns another woman off on a sexual predator in exchange for a boat, like she’s a piece of currency. That all happens in the space of five minutes, before an extended sailing montage set to the Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon,” which goes on for months of screen time. How do we know it’s months? Because of repeated shots of a hand ripping days and months off a flip calendar, that’s why.
Returning home, Alexander parlays what is apparently now immense wealth into creating a sprawling astrology empire, which includes a feature film starring himself, literally titled The Astrologer, which we’re told has immediately become a $145 million box office smash. Not bad, in 1975 numbers! Along the way, he also takes a bit of time off to rescue his former lover/cousin Darrien, who is now living in a den of prostitution and has physically written “God is dead,” “Hell on Earth” and “Shit on life” on her boudoir mirror in neatly legible lipstick smudges.
This act begins the downward cycle driven by Alexander’s hubris, as he quickly grows accustomed to a life of extravagance. The perks of that lifestyle include a fabulous, Xanadu-esque home, complete with some kind of “galactic mirror” in his office that magically shows images of various places in the cosmos at the touch of a button. This device is idly mentioned to Alexander’s longtime business manager Arthyr (himself a real-life astrologer), who displays no surprise at the existence of an interdimensional portal in his boss’s office, and the device is never mentioned or used again afterward. Perhaps they’re just common fixtures in the homes of astrologers?
In short order, Alexander overextends himself, failing in both business and personal matters. His astrology ventures collapse, and he splits up with Darrien during the film’s most unique and instantly iconic sequence: a slow-motion restaurant dinner/argument scene where the dialogue is entirely muted, replaced by the thunderous strains of Procol Harum’s prog rock “Grand Hotel.” Denney shows the anal genius of a savant (or possibly someone on the spectrum) as a director in this sequence, matching lyrics of the song to the events on screen in the most literal manner imaginable (“We drink fine wine and eat rare meats” accompanies shots of the couple eating, while the line “It’s mirrored walls, and velvet drapes” seems to have decided how the restaurant set would be decorated). You can see segments of this dramatic battle in the below trailer, which appears to be the only footage of The Astrologer available anywhere online, as far as I can tell. More on that later.
In the end, Alexander is left as a broken man—or as his business manager magnificently puts it, “You’re not an astrologer, you’re an asshole!” We close with some contextless quoting from King Lear, which I can only imagine was Denney’s way of saying, “I have created a magnum opus of equal merit to the works of Shakespeare.”
The final pretentious image in The Astrologer.
So, who was this Craig Denney fellow, really? As obscure as The Astrologer is, reliable information on its creator is even harder to come by. Although a number of pieces have now been written by fellow film geeks on the surreal joys of the film itself, very little has been written about Denney. The one good, very well-researched piece is this one, written by Sean Welsh of Glasgow, Scotland’s Matchbox Cinema Club. In it, he does as good a job as anyone has done of digging up the basic history of Denney, which I’ll attempt to summarize here.
Craig Denney was born in 1944-1945, which would have made him roughly 30 or 31 at the time of The Astrologer. He was born in either the U.S. or Canada; his company Moon House was later described as “Canadian,” but the truth is unclear. Somehow, he had come into quite a lot of money at this point in his life, with some sources suggesting that most of it was the product of a wealthy family and privileged upbringing, while Denney himself apparently liked to claim that his astrological earnings were behind the Wiseau-esque resources he had to work with. As Welsh writes in his piece:
His publicist, Dustin Paul Milner, claimed Denney was “booted out of every school he ever attended and was fired from all 17 radio stations he worked for in a seven-year broadcasting career, as a “top 40 radio personality.” This was before he made the leap into “the astrological charts business” in 1968, when he was around 25. Within ten years, he’d be a “self-made” millionaire and, wait for it, “one of the youngest studio heads in Hollywood history”. He’s described by friends as loyal, obsessed, generous and brilliant.
The veracity of these claims is very much in doubt, but perhaps in a time when “new age” interests in astrology and the occult were reaching their zenith, a 25-year-old making a fortune in the astrology business wasn’t so far-fetched. Regardless, Welsh describes Denney’s company Moon House as “a computerized horoscope service which, for a price, whips out detailed astrological forecasts for individuals and corporations,” and by 1975 he claimed to have made $31 million as a result. Denney’s friend and associate Arthyr Chadbourne (who plays business manager Arthyr in the film) has disputed these figures, suggesting instead at L.A. screenings/Q&As that Denney was notorious for exaggeration and self-aggrandizing. As Chadbourne reportedly said then, “Craig was wonderful with hype. Everything was millions … you should read some of the things we used to send out to investors.”
Regardless, Denney certainly had money coming in from somewhere, and you can see quite a lot of it on screen in The Astrologer. It’s one of the things that makes the film so fascinatingly inexplicable, and so different from zero-budget garbage movies of the same era: Like The Room, The Astrologer had some serious (misspent) money behind it. This is apparent from the opening helicopter shots, right on through the sailing sequences, filmed in Kenya, Tahiti, France, California and more! It’s even got underwater cinematography. How Denney convinced investors this was a good idea is a mystery, but the film’s final budget was slotted as somewhere around $4 million, and, again, that’s in 1975 dollars. Factoring in inflation, Denney probably spent even more of his own money on this project than Tommy Wiseau did on The Room.
The actual title card of The Astrologer.
There are all sorts of other amazing nuggets scattered throughout Welsh’s piece—such as the claim that The Astrologer was shot entirely without a script, with horoscopes informing each day’s shooting decisions—but many are apocryphal. It’s difficult to even confirm with certainty that the film screened widely in the U.S., although newspaper advertisements suggest that it in fact did. One thing that is known is that Denney eventually met his wife in the period following the release. Donna Sue Whisman came aboard on Denney’s company as a nutritionist in 1977, and by 1980 she held the title of “president of the motion picture division”—not bad for someone with a degree in restaurant management.
In the years that followed, it seems that Denney’s company had a hand in the distribution of a few lower-budget films of little renown, although Craig Denney himself wasn’t involved in production. His glorious return to production was meant to be an $11 million film titled Oceanic Opera, A Sea Odyssey, that Denney promised would feature “no actors or actresses, but an all-nature cast” and be accompanied by “live orchestras,” but this was ultimately not to be. After spending millions and being quoted in Variety saying that the film was “three-quarters finished,” Denney’s company filed a $50 million lawsuit against its film developer, claiming that the company had “wrongfully released the footage” to cinematographer Chuck Keen. As Welsh notes:
Keen, who died in 2003, was an Alaska-based freelance cinematographer who wrote, produced and filmed documentaries across the world. The nature of the dispute isn’t clear, nor is the truth of it, though the Denneys do seem to have won a $50,000 judgement against Keen personally sometime prior to August 1986. Oceanic Opera, suffice to say, never materialised and if footage did exist, it seems to have been wiped from the face of the earth. Denney never made another film.
Then comes the matter of Denney’s mysterious death. Numerous pieces online pin it at different times and places, although Welsh’s piece cites the most likely time as “mid-1980s,” survived by his wife Donna. No official death certificate or grave site has been identified, but a prominent clue can be found in the documents of the Denney vs. Keen lawsuit, which in 1989 state that Denney had passed away. All in all, the information on hand would mean that Denney passed away at around only 40 years of age, from causes unknown.
But then come the conflicting accounts. First there’s Arthyr Chadbourne, who said at an L.A. screening that he long suspected his former friend may have faked his death. Welsh writes:
Denney, his friend explained, “was very interested in escaping the FBI and IRS by faking his own death.” At some point after The Astrologer failed—exactly which point isn’t clear—Denney told Chadbourne that he wasn’t happy living in America anymore. “I think what I’m going to do,” Denney said, “is get into Republic Airlines and leave.” Not too long after that, Chadbourne dropped in on Denney, only to be told flatly that he had recently passed away. Pokerfaced, his sister said, “We’re all very upset.”
Was Chadbourne just spinning the kind of silly yarn that Denney would have spun in his own lifetime? It does make for a good story, after all, that the guy who made The Astrologer might still be running around somewhere today, now in his 70’s.
Chadbourne, as he appears as Alexander’s business manager in The Astrologer.
Then there’s the curious case of one Lew Gordon. A man by that name appears in the comments sections of several stories written about The Astrologer online, including being one of only two user reviews for the film on IMDB (the other being someone who saw the exact same screening of the film that I did in Atlanta). In his comments, Gordon claims to have been 15 in 1975, when his family lived in the same neighborhood as Denney, who they considered “a close family friend,” along with Arthyr Chadbourne, who Gordon refers to as “Sandy Chadbourne.” One line in particular of his IMDB review inherently makes one curious: “Craig was really cool in many ways that I cannot divulge, since I was a minor.”
Curious about what kind of connection to/memories of Denney and The Astrologer that Gordon might possess, I contacted him via email. He was cordial about being looked up, and it turned out that I was by no means the first person to do so. He simply warned me that previous writers had “freaked out” because “there was too much gay shit involved” in his story.
As it turns out, Gordon, who identifies as gay, did indeed have a pretty close relationship with Denney. Saying that when he met him he was “15 going on 40,” Gordon was immediately attracted to the older man, and they began an occasionally sexual relationship in secret, which Gordon estimates to have begun in 1975. Although Gordon was aware of The Astrologer, and recalls that Denney may have tried to get Gordon’s parents to invest in his company at one point, Gordon never actually had a chance to see the film. He was more interested in Denney as a friend and lover than as a filmmaker. Likewise, by his recollection, Gordon thought Denney passed away as early as 1976, “or shortly thereafter.” This certainly doesn’t jibe with Welsh’s evidence from the Chuck Keen lawsuit, but it could theoretically sync up with Chadbourne’s recollection of being told that Denney had passed away…if those events happened around 1976. Or perhaps Gordon has simply misremembered how/when he heard about Denney’s death? The mystery won’t likely be solved anytime soon, so I’ll simply leave you with Gordon’s description of Denney:
Craig was very weird. I mean really weird. Always seemed nervous. He did not seem like he was in his right mind. Just a weirdo! Even though I have a memory like an elephant this whole Craig Denney deal seems so vague to me. Would Craig fake his own death? Sure! He was just that weird.
Near the end of his email, Gordon closes with the following: “It is just so weird that after 43 years, The Astrologer is coming to light again.”
That it is. Though most of the details surrounding the film and its creator are still in the shadows, it seems to leave a confounding, memorable impression upon anyone lucky enough to see it.
But seeing it at all? Now that’s the trick.
Quite honestly, I’m perturbed by the fact that, while writing this piece, I can’t choose to go back and consult the mysteries of The Astrologer again. I have no idea if I’ll ever get a chance to see the film for a second time, thanks to the curious position in which it rests.
Until 2013, it seems as if The Astrologer had been well and truly forgotten by the world. That year, it was discovered in a batch of 1,000 pornographic 35mm prints donated to an organization called the American Genre Film Archive, which works to save forgotten films, and it screened at their Endangered Fest 2013. After a positive response, AGFA used The Astrologer prominently in a 2014 IndieGoGo campaign aimed at turning endangered 35mm prints into new 2K digital transfers. In their words, from that campaign: “There’s no other movie like The Astrologer. It deserves to be seen.”
However, as much as a growing fanbase might clamor for a commercial release of The Astrologer, it may never be possible. Most prominently, there’s the problem posed by music licensing, as a shortsighted Craig Denney never successfully acquired the rights to the Moody Blues or Procol Harum tracks spread liberally through the film. You could try to release the film without those musical segments, but that would be presenting The Astrologer without its very heart and soul. Trust me when I tell you that the slow-motion dinner argument would not be the same without “Grand Hotel” blaring behind it.
Even in private torrenting communities that are specifically dedicated to obscure and bad films, there’s zero availability for The Astrologer. In truth, I’ve barely run into anyone online even aware of the film at this point. We may still be years away from The Astrologer qualifying as a “cult classic,” but we’ll be here waiting for it, if it does.
Until then, obscure film geeks will be at the mercy of their local independent theaters. If you happen to be tight with an exhibitor, give them your best pitch: Book The Astrologer, the strangest, most delightful vanity project that no one in your town has ever seen. You might technically “regret” it—but you’ll never forget it.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident bizarre film geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.