Peeking out from Obscurity, Would-be Cult Classic Movie The Astrologer Resurfaces
By GREG BEAUBIEN Jan. 28, 2018
“YOUR DREAMS ARE MUCH TOO LARGE,” a carnival barker tells his sidekick Craig in the bizarre, laughably bad and yet thoroughly enjoyable 1976 movie The Astrologer. Craig Denney plays the main character and also directed this nearly forgotten curiosity that combines mysticism, international adventure and crime while telling a disjointed story of a megalomaniac’s rise and fall.
Denney’s own dreams may have been too large, as well. He didn’t secure rights to the Moody Blues songs he used in the film, so the movie was never officially released and has rarely been seen. But now the non-profit American Genre Film Archive has stepped forward to rescue The Astrologer from oblivion with a scratchy print occasionally being shown at festivals and midnight screenings.
Reportedly financed by a horoscope publisher called Moonhouse International, which Denney himself founded and chaired, and based on his novel of the same name, The Astrologer was acquired by now-defunct B-movie producer and distributor Republic Arts Pictures, which Denney led as chief executive. The film’s title theme, credited to orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, reportedly was used without Mehta’s knowledge.
The movie seems to have been destined to show only at midnight for giggling, stoned audiences. Shot in garish colors on 16mm film, The Astrologer recalls the early underground cinema of John Waters—with the main difference being that Waters was funny on purpose. Denney apparently took his material seriously and had no idea how awful it was. Dialogue in the script by Dorothy June Pidgeon is atrocious, with Denney declaiming in a suave newscaster voice amid abrupt, non-sequitur cuts.
The plot, as much as it can be followed, finds Craig discovering that his psychic powers are real, not just a con, when he accurately reads the palm of a beautiful woman, Darrien (played by Darrien Earle), who falls for the carny’s pitch in Long Beach, Calif. She joins him in the traveling carnival, taking part in Craig’s magic act and occasionally picking the pockets of people in the audience. But after two years she’s had enough and leaves him.
‘You’re not an astrologer;
you’re an asshole!’
Next, Craig improbably enjoys an afternoon picnic in a graveyard with a couple who has driven him there in a Rolls-Royce. They present Craig with an opportunity to become a diamond smuggler in Kenya, where he soon winds up in prison. His wealthy sponsors bail him out, and together they meet with a wild-eyed, loincloth-clad tribal leader whom they bribe with booze and a rifle to learn where priceless gems are hidden in the nearby jungle. Craig and his cohorts find the stones easily enough, displayed openly on a stone ruin but protected by a cobra. The other man in the trio is struck by the snake and falls dead. Craig shoots the serpent and makes off with the jewels.
He and the woman then meet with an unscrupulous character in a hut who says he’ll give Craig a boat in exchange for the woman. They agree, and when Craig returns a few minutes later to find the man on top of her, he charges in and shoots him in the face with a rifle. Blood drips down the frame like animation from an old episode of the Batman TV show.
Craig then spends an idyllic interlude aboard a sailboat at sea, to the unlicensed strains of “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues. He comes ashore in Tahiti, and tries to fence the jewels in a tiki bar awash in lurid pink and orange, where the camera zooms in on cigarette butts in a urinal and women bare their breasts at the tables. But Craig is pursued by the guard from the prison in Kenya, who has followed him to Tahiti. Remarkably, given the film’s overall amateurish quality and apparent low budget, it was shot on location in Africa, Tahiti and France.
Before long Craig is back in California, where he provides his psychic services to the U.S. Navy for lucrative fees. He becomes a millionaire mogul when a movie about him—also called The Astrologer—is a huge hit. He hires a private detective to find Darrien, who has become a prostitute, drugged in a seedy hotel room where the phrases “God is Dead,” “Hell is Earth” and “Shit on Life” are written in lipstick on the mirror, and a rat runs along the window frame.
They soon marry, and their honeymoon makes front-page headlines on newspapers around the world. A scene in a gourmet restaurant where their dinner conversation devolves in slow-motion into an argument—ending with Darrien throwing a glass of wine in his face—almost qualifies as innovative avant garde filmmaking. He turns her into a movie star, but she cheats on him, and Craig shoots her lover dead. From there it’s downhill for the psychic, whose old carny-barker accomplice berates him with the movie’s most famous line: “You’re not an astrologer; you’re an asshole!”
Craig Denney is rumored to have died, though information about him remains elusive. In the end, the irony of The Astrologer may be that the self-mythologizing of its main character, director and star—despite or perhaps because he was oblivious to his movie’s own awfulness—has now made Denney and his vanity project the subject of cult film fascination, more than forty years after it was made. Perhaps he really could see into the future, after all.
The Astrologer will be shown at midnight Friday, Feb. 2, and Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., in Chicago.