Junesploitation 2021: The Astrologer (1976)

June 6: Junesploitation’s topic of the day — as suggested by F This Movie— is free!

I’m always chasing the dragon, so to speak, when it comes to weird movies and no high has eluded me more often than 1975’s borderline insane vanity project The Astrologer.

Trying to find it led me to discover the other 1975 movie with the same title, which is also known as Suicide Cult. That film, in which a government agent tries to use biorhythms to find the Antichrist, may be the strangest movie I’ve ever seen.

And then I watched this.

The Astrologer is the very definition of a lost film, one that went away forty years ago and only was discovered again when a 35mm print was amongst a thousand pornographic movies that were donated to the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA). I can’t even imagine what it was like to be in the first few screenings of this movie, which starts somewhat normally and then suddenly lurches into heights of psychotronic madness the likes of which I have never seen before.

Trust me. I’ve been caught in hype for movies before, but this time, the time and energy and sheer waiting that this movie engendered all paid off. If anything, The Astrologer is even better than I thought it would be. Imagine if Miami Connection was not about how martial arts can save the world, make better friendships and repair families, but instead that auteur madness drove one man to make a movie about a carnival con man who learns that he really does have psychic powers when he isn’t becoming the President’s fortuneteller, a diamond smuggler, a movie star, a producer and a murderer.

According to Matchbook Cine Club, the man behind all of this, Craig Denney grew up rich in Canada — maybe — and was such a devotee to numerology that he refused to ever reveal his birthdate*. He was kicked out of every school he attended and fired from every radio station he worked at as a top 40 DJ, then went into the “astrological charts business” with his company Moonhouse. Working for individuals and corporations, Denney would use computers to create detailed astrological charts that portended to their future. By 1975, he’d made $31 million and became one of the youngest studio heads in Hollywood history.

The Astrologer seems to have gotten its start as an eight-episode TV miniseries — in a time before that became a normal thing — while Denney would also appear in a reality show called Craig Denney’s World of Astrology. Shooting started on the former in places as diverse as Tahiti, Africa and France.

Somehow, this film also sought to transform Republic Arts Pictures, which used a bald eagle as its mascot, into a phoenix. From 1935 through 1959, the studio released mostly westerns, serials and b-movies like The Quiet Man and Johnny Guitar. After they ceased making movies, Republic was bought by Victor M. Carter, a turnaround specialist, who transformed Republic into a business that encompassed plastics and appliances in addition to its film library and studio rental business. Within eight years, he’d increased the value of the company by 400%, then sold his interest to CBS**.

Meanwhile, Republic sold its library of films to National Telefilm Associates (NTA), which did so well with these films at the dawn of cable that it changed its name to Republic Pictures Corporation. From the 90s to the next century, Republic was part of the ever-growing world of multimedia mergers, becoming part of Spelling Entertainment, which was controlled by Blockbuster, which then became part of Viacom and then Paramount. Meanwhile, Lionsgate continued to license the Republic name. Today, the company is part of Melange Pictures, LLC, established by Viacom as a holding company for the Republic library, which the films sold to various media by Olive Films and Kino Lorber; the name remains licensed from Viacom/CBS.

But I digress.

In June of 1976, The Astrologer was reported as being the first of ten films from the newly revitalized Republic Arts Pictures. Funds were to come from Moonhouse and three French banks, as well as oil tycoon Ernest J. Helm Jr., who was the main money man for the movie that we should really be discussing instead of the intricacies of multi-media mergers.

Supposedly, the making of this movie was even more intricate, based on the aforementioned numerology, with even the numbers on cabs, how many people appear in scenes and even the length of cuts all based on important numerological concepts. Also, there was no script, other than the story that was credited to Dorothy June Pidgeon, but instead, horoscopes that were scried each day would determine what was filmed.

So what’s it all about?

Well, Denney plays Craig Marcus Alexander, who we first meet as a helicopter flies above a carnival, where we learn that he’s gone from picking purses to fleecing people via fake psychic shows to getting married to Darrien (Darrien Earle, who was Denney’s cousin and a restaurant owner who was married at one point to Lee Iaccoca****) to being told about stealing diamonds to being in jail for the second time for jewel theft. If it seems like we’ve missed big moments in time and that things have escalated quickly, just hold on. This rollercoaster is only going to get faster. And stranger***.

While in Kenya, Alexander takes the gems that will bankroll his empire, defeating corrupt cops, quicksand and cobras to sail to America — always sailing, a movie more obsessed with sailing than Christoper Cross in 1980 — to start his new career becoming the world’s most famous astrologer. He does this by allowing a woman to drown in said quicksand and selling another for a boat, which we watch sail endlessly as ripped calendar pages fly at us while listening to the Moody Blues “Tuesday Afternoon.” Keep in mind the music in this movie, as we’ll get to it in a bit.

At this point, you may think that you have watched five movies worth of material. Well, hold on.

When he isn’t conducting secret missions for the Navy, Alexander has become a multi-media mogul, making the movie of his life within, well, the movie of the life of the real Denney. To make sure that his money is safe, our psychic protagonist hires his friend Arthyr***** to be in charge of his cash, which is weird because the man has a tenth-grade education, but Alexander remarks that there’s no difference between ten bucks and ten million dollars, which is the most false statement that nearly anyone has ever uttered ever.

Meanwhile, being a star leads our hero to rescue Darrien, who is now a prostitute, her room filled with rats, graffiti and, oddly, Milk of Magnesia. He decides to make her the star of all his movies, learning nothing from William Randolph Hearst nor his fictional analogs.

At some point, Florence Marly — the Queen of Blood herself — shows up.

Of course, all good things must end. Alexander gets overextended and the love of his life ends up hating him, summed up in an astounding montage of dinners that goes from romantic to face splashing horror. You really need to witness it for yourself. It’s set to Procol Harum’s “Grand Hotel” and literally is a music video — made in 1975 — that follows the exact words of the lyrics.

The moment that blows my mind the most in this movie is when our hero is meeting with his financial analyst in the middle of his gigantic new home and shows off his galactic mirror. Yes, he has a window into the galaxy itself that shows the stars as if you are standing next to him and this revelation is brushed off within seconds, while extended sleeping in a bed and eating sequences seem to last for hours.

Soon after, with his business manager screaming at him, “You’re not an astrologer, you’re an asshole!” after he murders his wife’s lover, Alexander can only stare into the sun — hey, it’s a star too — as he contemplates his life as a quote from King Lear fills the screen.

This movie cost $4 million dollars, which is about $19.5 million in today’s money, and nothing in this film looks cheap. It has crane shots, helicopter shots, underwater photography and so much more. And as for the music, well, the movie has the aforementioned Moody Blues and Procol Harum on the soundtrack, as well as Tommy Edwards, Conway Twitty and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets Suite” performed by The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Beyond the fact that none of these artists were paid for their music, Denney went the extra mile of trying to get paid for using their songs.

Showings of The Astrologer were sparse, but it did play theaters. There was also a rumored airing on the CBS Late Night Movie that has to be an urban legend. So what happened to Denney after this movie pretty much disappeared?

According to that amazing Matchbox Cine Club article, Denney continually referred to himself as 31 years old and continued making money under the Republic banner. Four of the films that are known that were to be made include Attack at Shark’s ReefDeath Rays from the SkyDeath Star and The Lucifer Project, which became Barracuda, which also had Denney and Ernest J. Helm Jr.’s names attached to its original promotional materials.

Denney also got married around this time to Donna Sue Whisman, who joined his company as a nutritionist and became the president of the motion picture division, not unlike the character of Darrien (who was played by his cousin who is also a restaurant manager, which is what Whisman went to school for; maybe Denney really was psychic as this turn of events also mirrors the way his character in the movie gives his wife a job she is not able to do).

The follow-up to The Astrologer was a movie called  Oceanic Opera, A Sea Odyssey. It would have starred no actors or actresses, but an all-nature cast and would have a traveling orchestra play during screenings of the film. It was supposedly nearly done when it all fell apart. According to an article in Variety, Denney and his wife had shot “sunken Japanese ships, undersea Greek temples, submerged Wells Fargo stagecoaches, hard hat divers and all forms of marine life from Alaska to Australia.”

The real end of that movie was when Denney and Republic Pictures Industries filed a $50 million suit against DeLuxe General Inc for “alleged unauthorized release of his film negatives from its vaults.” This is because Denney said that cinematographer Chuck Keen was given the film he shot. Around this time, Denney supposedly died in Ohio.

Guess what. Even that is disputed.

According to Young Hollywood, Denney told Chadbourne that he “was very interested in escaping the FBI and IRS by faking his own death.” Later, when he stopped to visit his old friend, he was told that he was dead and his sister said, “We’re all very upset,” in a way that indicated that no one was really that devastated.

Can there be any more?

Sure there can.

Beyond the fact that Denney convinced people to pay him to be in this movie, that mob money was used to potentially film it and that an IMDB poster hinted that Denney was his neighbor and “was really cool in many ways that I cannot divulge since I was a minor but a lot of fun to be around******,” this film has been impossible to see, something of an anomaly in today’s always-connected, everything is always available way of life.

When this movie leaked to YouTube******* this year — it was down in a few weeks. Going back to that multi-media merger we hinted at before, there’s now a black screen that says, “This video contains content from Paramount Pictures, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.”

There aren’t many movies left that need to be hunted down. This is one that is so worth it. I watched it at least three times in the last 24 hours, often rewinding things back and pausing them so I could discuss what I just watched with my wife. All of the time that I spend obsessing, waiting and thinking about The Astrologer paid off. I can only imagine that Denney is still alive, hilariously happy that the movie that he created decades ago that went nowhere somehow has become such a quest for so many.

Immortality is something we all seek as human beings. Who knew that Denney’s quest for fame would end with a movie that so few could see, even today, but that nearly everyone who discovers it can’t wait to watch?

*One would assume that he was involved in some shady circles like in the movie Pi and needed to make sure that the other occult mathematicians would have magick power over him if they knew what day he was born.

**The former Republic studio lot is now CBS Studio Center.

***My theory is that the entire ten-episode TV series was actually filmed and what we are seeing is the edited down version, like how canceled TV shows would air in Europe as theatrical movies or, inversely, how Yor Hunter from the Future went from four eighty-minute episodes to one nearly incomprehensibly awesome 98-minute film.

****Honestly, when you learn that Le Iacocca’s Cordon Bleu-educated ex-wife and relative of the film’s auteur is in this movie and it’s the least surprising thing, you’re truly watching a movie packed with weirdness.

*****Arthyr Chadbourne, a real-life astrologer who still has a website where he discusses the fact that he “was astrological director as well as the star in the motion picture, The Astrologer. He has also worked as an executive producer for the independent television series Meet The Astrologer.” Notably, he does not mention Denney, but does say that he worked in early Star Trek productions and designed watch faces for Paramount’s Dark Shadows, whatever that means.

****** That IMDB commentator was tracked down by Paste and interviewed and…yeah, the story is just as wild as you’d imagine.

*******It’s on the Internet Archive now, but who knows for how long?

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