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Chemical Wedding
cast: Simon Callow, Kal Weber, Lucy Cudden, Paul McDowell, and John Shrapnel

director: Julian Doyle

106 minutes (18) 2008
widescreen ratio 16:9
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
At the time of his directorial debut Julian Doyle was better known as a film editor and effects knock-up man on the films of Terry Gilliam going back to Monty Python And The Holy Grail. That directorial debut was in 1987 and the film was a British horror called Love Potion. It would be a couple of more years before the film found a video release under the title Shock Treatment and subsequent to that was frequently found on satellite and cable in clusters of screenings. It was not a great period for the British horror film and the armpit-full made during the 1980s were experimental and uneven in content.

Love Potion momentarily stood out as its experimentation came in its denouement and took the form of a postmodern twist. It told the story of an American heiress with a heroin problem who nearly dies of an overdose. A friend is not as fortunate as she and is found alongside her dead. Her father books her a place in a rehab centre based in a remote English mansion. Her fellow recovering-addicts are the usual motley bunch but no sooner has she settled in then the others begin to disappear or the treatment appears to be having disconcerting side effects. Something sinister is afoot and as the building empties of residents the girl makes a desperate attempt to escape. Love Potion stood up to several repeat viewings at the time but when last it was seen it looked a little low-rent and dated, and its twist, original at the time, might now be predictable to the warier modern filmgoer. Doyle was a director that I hoped would buck the trend and come back soon with more of the same if not better. It took 20 years for that second film to come, but it was worth the wait.

Chemical Wedding is an outrageous horror fantasy but, contrary to some of the baffling reviews, it also files under intelligent entertainment. The writers are Julian Doyle and Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson who between them have surprised us with a focused script that is relentless in its ingenuity and wit. Doyle's execution is bold and acuminous. In the news we learn that Hammer films is back but it might as well be peopled by diddy men and ostriches given its current wrong nuts staffing and slate. If they want to know what kind of films Hammer should be making they should see Chemical Wedding and promptly headhunt Doyle and Dickinson as the new directional force behind the company. Chemical Wedding takes the sex and supernatural that was de rigueur to 1970s' Hammer and stocks it with the kind of acting talent and the smart dialogue that made the company's name in the 1950s and 1960s. Let Dickinson and Doyle find the scripts, Doyle directing, with Merlin Ward, Michael Bassett, Andrew Parkinson and Julian Richards as the replacements for Gilling, Fisher, Sykes and Francis, and that is all you need to get Hammer back on track.

Chemical Wedding opens in 1947 with two Cambridge students visiting the aged Aleister Crowley (an excellent performance by John Shrapnel). One is Symonds (Geoff Breton), an acolyte, and the other Alex (Sean Rea), a student of science setting himself up for the evil one's acerbic tongue. The moment that he discovers Alex's leanings Crowley is insidiously upon him: "You're no scientist. You ooze disbelief. A good ritualised fuck would expand your consciousness not to mention your constricted orifices." He encourages Symonds to know his bible because in his estimation the 'good book' is "the last remaining source of primeval magic." Crowley is unaware that time has about run out for him, and that in the following minutes he will die, robbing him of his immediate plans to conduct a chemical wedding, to create an elemental, a creature of non-carnal union, a virgin birth through sexual magic: a moonchild. In his death throes he curses and Alex, the young man suffering a crippling stroke.

Forward to 2001, and Dr Haddo (Simon Callow) is a stuttering classics lecturer with a curiosity for Crowley and his writings. Victor (Jud Charlton) is also drawn to the perverse philosophies of that same Earl of Boleskine and is not only a friend of Haddo's but also a key technician on Doctor Joshua Mathers' (Kal Weber) Z93 project. The American Mathers is new to Cambridge where he will conduct an experiment in 'cyberia', a virtual reality environment. Haddo and Victor collude together to test Mathers' deep-space suit, one night before the official experiment but their experiment is botched and Haddo awakens the next day, his curls lost to a completely bald pate, minus the speech impediment, and with a new strut in his step. He announces himself as Aleister Crowley returned. Cyberia treads dangerously close to dimensional space and that border is irreparably and disastrously breached the moment that Crowley's teachings are converted into binary and imported into the computer. In four days Crowley will complete the scarlet ritual and create another moonchild taking Earth to hell. His activities over those four days see him live up to his reputation as he infects others with his wickedness.

The real Crowley often gave himself away in his writings as infantile and crass, cracking bad jokes and making snide and pathetic references to his critics. This is a more effective Crowley: the myth, the monster. His return is announced in an audacious "Pentacostal Eucharist," ah yes, one of those 'pentacostal eucharists' restricted to 12 participants, with a cute nude violinist, every combination of sex and the Theatre of Hate front-man Kirk Brandon urinating on everyone. A complicated juggling act of rude shocks, a stream of ideas, visual excitements and wicked amusements is kept up for the entirety of the running time. Science fiction and the supernatural are welded together, as are heavy metal music and George Formby; don't try and tell me something alchemical isn't being achieved here. Chemical Wedding is a wild ride. Facts fly, theories converge, and an orgy of horror puts your brain in a sling.

For me the most interesting relationship in the film is that between Crowley and Victor. It is the underling doing the occultist's bidding and yet it is not the usual servant and master combo. Just as he was appreciative of the younger Symons, who returns to the story now a veteran Cambridge lecturer (Paul McDowell) who recognises the true threat they are all under, Crowley is generous to Victor, creating circumstances for Victor to pleasure himself and more privileges that others are denied. Neither goes Victor behave like the usual henchman. The moment that an he is asked by an adversary he tells them exactly what is in occurrence, proud of his part in the coming chaos and certain of its unstoppability. The screener only includes one of the supporting features: a behind the scenes featurette in which one producer confesses his awareness that Jud Charlton often stole scenes. Charlton, Callow and McDowell are particular good in their roles and while following my earlier suggestions Hammer might well go knocking on their doors, too.

Old school camerawork dominates with occasional frugal allowance to modern effects work. The balance is to perfection. The wild sex and horror at the film's middle are hard to top and the film dips marginally towards the end where a couple of other faulty notes are heard (a plot development puts Mathers' age as 52 which is considerable off by at least a decade or he looks exceedingly good for his age). Late blips do not overly spoil the film and it is a by and the large a contentious joy. We can only hope that Julian Doyle doesn't make us wait another 20 years for his next one. See Chemical Wedding now! Particularly so if you run Hammer!
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