AKA: Crowley. This film is referred to as Chemical Wedding in film databases and in the U.K., and Crowley in the U.S.A. We have used the title Crowley in this review, despite Chemical Wedding being perhaps the more “correct” title.
NOTE: Those interested in the learning more about the roguish Aleister Crowley will want to read the Appendix to this post, which gives background on the occultist and his belief system.
DIRECTED BY: Julian Doyle
FEATURING: Simon Callow, Kal Weber, Lucy Cudden, Paul McDowell, Jud Charlton John Shrapnel, and Terence Bayler
PLOT: Aleister Crowley comes back to life and goes on a murderous rampage, ultimately warping the universal space-time continuum.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Crowley is a strange mix of serous sci-fi elements and over-the-top characterizations of a notorious and eccentric historical figure. Combined with a bizarre story of reincarnation, quantum physics and parallel universes, it’s an occult film that transcends the norms of the genre, providing a viewing experience that is funny, intriguing and peculiar all at once.
COMMENTS : Crowley is an imaginative and clever occult science fiction film. It is partly serious, partly campy, but not in a way that is meant to be silly or cheap. It is also witty and ribald. Well researched, the film draws its premise partly from the story of maverick rocket physicist and eccentric black arts follower, Jack Parsons (see Appendix). Mixing fact with fancy, Crowley is a fast paced, multi-genre, satirical thriller. Tawdry yet brainy, the movie proffers an oddball, but sophisticated mix of historical fact, occult fantasy and hardcore science fiction. Based on the infamous “wickedest man in the world,” master occultist Aleister Crowley, this film will entertain, amuse, and perhaps enthrall the unconventional viewer. Reflexively, it is sure to provoke and offend the mainstream audience.
In the present day, a Cal Tech scientist, Dr. Joshua Mathers (Weber) invents a sinister computerized, virtual reality space-time simulator in which the user steps into a creepy full body immersion suit. Mathers conducts experiments with a joint scientific team at Cambridge. There the virtual reality device is coupled with “Z93”, the most powerful, superconductor computer in the world. It works! It works too well.
Mathers’s rapaciously amoral assistant, Neberg (Charleton), surreptitiously introduces a virus that infuses a comprehensive binary transcript of Aleister Crowley’s biographical and personality into the data-bank, along with detailed instructions for all of the occultist’s magic rituals. When Cambridge professor Dr. Haddo (Callow), who is also a Crowley historian, plugs into the machine for a full immersion virtual reality experience, the virus thwarts the computer programming and reincarnates the spirit of the notorious Aleister Crowley into the professor’s body.
Crowley, now in possession of the professor, takes over his identity and embarks on a colorful rampage of lust, crime and debauchery in an attempt to enact an obscure magic ritual that will enable him to become immortal.
Confusion overtakes the Cambridge Trinity campus as the timid, stuttering Professor Haddo undergoes an abrupt personality change and begins to literally raise Hell. Stealing, raping, sodomizing, maiming and murdering in the course of conducting a series of prerequisite occult ceremonies, Crowley races against a cosmic time limit to achieve the fruition of his nefarious scheme. Pursued by a confounded trio consisting of Mathers, a former disciple turned Professor named Symondson (McDowell), and college news reporter Lia Robinson (Cudden), Crowley strives to stay one precarious step ahead of his detractors. With the aid of the virtual reality computer, the diabolical rogue employs black magic to harness quantum mechanical principles and undermine the very fabric of space, in order to suck his pursuers into a black hole. When Robinson is kidnapped by Crowley for use in a sex-magick ritual, Mathers and Symondson scurry through a profane wake of mounting chaos and corpses to save her before she gives birth to an immortally permanent manifestation of the beguiling madman.
Crowley delves into a couple of intriguing science fiction paradoxes, although it uses them as a vehicle rather than exploring them. Part of the plot is facilitated and embellished by a brief layman’s explanation of a scientific enigma at the end of the movie. This concerns Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, how it relates to the quantum physics concept of superpositions, and how the analogy of Schrödinger’s Cat (which ironically, Schrödinger intended as an illustration to refute the notion of parallel universes) illustrates the contemporary String Theory and M Theory demands for a “multiverse.” These ideas may not be readily accessible to all, but they could be easily explained in the film. They are not. Worse yet, the character who delivers the brief analysis of these concepts at the movie’s conclusion is nearly impossible to understand. He he speaks though a Servox, or artificial larynx. This is a serious flaw and it undercuts the imaginativeness of the story.
In addition to occult chills and science fiction thrills, Crowley features humorous and delightfully sordid elements which play up Aliester’s wanton, roguish, obscene manner. He hoodwinks women into having sex and urinates all over his students like a gushing fountain while presenting a lascivious lecture on Hamlet. More shockingly, he twists the fabric of space to profusely ejaculate on campus news reporter Lia Robinson through a fax machine, defecates on the Dean’s mahogany desk, sodomizes and blinds Nuberg, shoots heroin, depiliates prostitutes, and murders those who annoy or impede him. Eventually he perverts Einstein’s equation for relativity, creating a destructive singularity and threatening the order of our dimension.
Crowley effectively captures the historical sensationalism and personality of its namesake. Contextual layering presents itself in the historical facts used as the basis for the fantasy element of the film. Even the characters’ names are adapted from real figures in Crowley’s life. Crowley transcends the occult into the realm of science fiction with a clever, self-referential time paradox. Callow’s talent for portraying the dual demeanors of the mousy literature professor, Dr. Haddo in addition to the reincarnation of Crowley is impressive, and is topped by the accuracy of his portrayal of Crowley’s overbearing and eloquently theatrical personality.
A complex film in genre and plot, Crowley both posits and convincingly explores the absurd, but intriguing proposition, “what would happen if Aleister Crowley came back to life and merged his dogma of magick with quantum mechanics?” T he story is based on an original screenplay by, of all characters, Bruce Dickinson, frontman for the music group, Iron Maiden. Director Julian Doyle edited Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil, Time Bandits, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when trying to make sense of the strangeness of Crowley is that the film does not take itself too seriously. Aleister Crowley was a rascal and the over-the-top depictions of Crowley are intended to capture the roguish nature of his personality and mystique. At the same time, the film has a serious side. There are genuine elements of the occult and of science fiction. This is an unconventional mix and not one that blends easily without some confusion. During interviews in which Bruce Dickinson promoted the film, he departed from his usual joking demeanor to wax in an uncharacteristically academic fashion over Aleister Crowley facts and lore. As a heavy metal band however, fans claim that in the album Crowley, Black Sabbath adhered to the formula that most heavy metal bands subscribe to: form and content are deliberately presented as over-the-top, yet seemingly serious to the uninitiated. The subtext for perceptive followers is that the presentation of the subject at hand is “this is really just mean to be exploratory, inciting, and all in good fun.” The same methodology is evident in the movie and recognition of this phenomenon will make for a more rewarding viewing experience.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…one of the most bizarre movies to come out of a British studio in recent years… unintentionally funny and indifferently acted, except by Simon Callow… But it’s never boring.”–Phillip French, The Observer (contemporaneous)
No background in quantum physics, or knowledge of Crowley’s life is necessary to enjoy the movie, but Chemical Wedding will be most deeply appreciated by those who have done a little reading up. Aleister Crowley was a very naughty man. Superbly educated, he was culturally influential and intellectually misunderstood. Crowley was an accomplished and stylish author, scholar, social critic, satirist, chess master, magician, hedonist, satyr, black priest, mountain climber and medical heroin addict. In addition he was also a wily trickster and showman. The forceful presence and enigmatic nature of his personality put Crowley in a league with Rasputin and the Marquis de Sade.
Crowley’s father was a wealthy shareholder in a family brewery, but spent his time as an itinerant pastor and taught his young son the principles of the ministry. As part of his education, Crowley supposedly memorized The Bible by the age of seven. Having been trained in spiritual leadership by his professional vicar father, Crowley went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and established himself as an intellectual.
With his background as an apprentice of the cloth, Crowley deduced like any good proselytizer that there is more profit and power to be had by telling people what they want to hear than by telling them the truth. Despite being a well-read rational thinker, Crowley was destined to chose an ecclesiastical professional path over a secular course.
Crowley selected the occult as his evangelical vehicle rather than conventional Christianity. This enabled him to promote himself and to profit in a fashion that would further, rather than hinder his insatiable appetite for controversial forms of debauchery. An accomplished magician, he concealed his abilities and used his skill at illusions and magic to convince followers that he was a bona fide maven of the black arts. He succeeded in intriguing and recruiting wealthy and influential followers.
Crowley broke social taboos by legitimizing, albeit in a dubious and corrupt manner, very risqué behaviors in a time when such indulgences were still generally verboten. His gullible but racy flock enthusiastically embraced his occult preachings and rituals which offered plenty of outlet for their carnal and chemical appetites. Aleister’s unique approach enabled him to earn a lot of money, have a lot of sex and take a lot of drugs. Now why the devil didn’t I think of this?
One of Crowley’s acquaintances, L. Ron Hubbard, was influenced by Crowley’s philosophy. Hubbard decided to take a cue from Crowley and establish his own oddball ministry which evolved into the Church of Scientology. In so doing, he diverted some of Crowley’s affluent, and otherwise notable patrons, including Cal Tech founder, notoriously idiosyncratic rocket scientist Jack Parsons. Parsons is remembered for helping to launch the US space program, for being an avowed practitioner of the occult and for accidentally blowing himself up in his home lab with mercury fulminate while developing rocket fuels. Before his violent demise, however, Parsons was preparing to enact Crowley’s Scarlet Ritual to produce a Moonchild. According to Crowley, the Moonchild would be a new messiah. Crowley was enraged that Parsons was performing the ritual without his authorization, and in collusion with the competing L. Ron Hubbard. Crowley pretended not to want the competition of a messiah, but the real problem was that Parsons had come under the spell of L. Ron Hubbard, and Crowley didn’t want Hubbard to divert the revenue that Parsons collected from California members of Crowley’s Agapé sect. Crowley died on December 1, 1947, about the time that Parson’s was reportedly enacting the Moonchild rite.
Taking its cue from this precedent, Chemical Wedding fast forwards to the present day, with Crowley being reanimated by a Cal Tech professor’s subverted virtual reality program. Upon his resurrection, Crowley immediately strives to set up and enact the Chemical Wedding ritual, a rare, ancient Egyptian, non carnal union through which Crowley will attain immortality. The film cycles the antecedent events into a paradoxical enigma, with the date of Crowley’s death being the date of Mathers’ birth. Mathers is Parson’s Moonchild, and in bringing the instrument of Crowley’s enablement to Cambridge, he unwittingly fulfills Parson’s supposed legacy to Crowley.
The film’s saucy, carrot-topped reporter Lia Robinson, represents a recurrent key figure in Crowley’s ecclesiastical theories. She is Crowley’s “Babalon”, the “Scarlet Woman”, who Crowley had prophesied would help to fulfill the post-Christian Aeon of Horus. Her collusion is key to Crowley’s’ convoluted Scarlet Ritual and Chemical Wedding. In the film, Robinson is sought after by Crowley, who stalks her and contrives to lure her so that he may perversely exploit her body as a sexual receptacle in his twisted Chemical Wedding.