By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Bob Byrd, Mark Buntzman, James Glickenhaus
Directed by James Glickenhaus
Written by John Cameron (based on the novel)
It’s difficult to imagine a time when Astrology wasn’t just the slightly ironic, endlessly meme-able religion substitute of the Instagram influencer, but a dangerous fad sweeping an America disenchanted by the Vietnam War and the failures of the free love era. Nowadays, we remember the study of the stars as the harmless pet pseudoscience of disco divas and swingers alike, but it wasn’t all key parties and fondue: in the post-Exorcist, post-Omen, pre-Satanic Panic zeitgeist, the zodiac was still mysterious enough to spark moral outrage in those who took Time Magazine’s 1966 cover story (Is God Dead?) as a declaration of war. It christened the heyday of the hippie “The Age of Aquarius,” which met its brutal end at the hands of the Manson Family. Most obviously, it lent its name to one of the country’s most infamous, unapprehended serial killers. Out of this paranoid miasma of New Age spirituality and senseless violence comes THE ASTROLOGER (1975), James Glickenhaus’ adaptation of John Cameron’s “realistic” sci-fi novel. Not to be confused with the Craig Denney film of the same title which was released virtually the same year, Glickenhaus’ picture stages the eternal battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil with a messianic, astrological (or zodiacal, to use the film’s favored verbiage) twist.
Opening with a portentous, head-spinning voiceover THE ASTROLOGER introduces us to Alexei (Bob Byrd), a scientist and founder of InterZod: a cabal of government agents who use the study of Astrology to predict and influence global events. A firm believer that each person has an inborn “zodiacal potential” that predisposes their capability for good or evil, Alexei sets his sights on India where a cruel mystic known only as Kajerste (Mark Buntzman) seems to be grooming his followers for some sort of messianic birth. Alexei is determined to find this child, and discover whether the stars map out its destiny as one of holy redemption or destruction on a planetary scale.
Glickenhaus’ debut feature (he would go on to wider success with 1980’s grim and gritty revenge pic The Exterminator) is a potpourri of apocalyptic anxiety, pseudo-scientific gobbledygook, and hallucinatory dream sequences. Largely made up of people talking in rooms and nearly nothing else, THE ASTROLOGER flirts with a kind of anti-cinema in which things like narrative propulsion and thematic cohesion don’t apply. Complicated without being complex and stalling out right at what feels like it should be the climax, it would be easy to call Glickenhaus’ film an unholy dud if it weren’t so sneakily entrancing. Made for about 30,000 dollars and largely self-distributed, this torpid cosmic adventure feels much bigger than it is and would make a dynamite double feature with Larry Cohen’s similarly nervy God Told Me To (1976).
Severin Films presents THE ASTROLOGER in a 4K scan from the Glickenhaus’ personal answer print. The image is soft overall with some stubborn damage and image flutter present, but it shines up remarkably well for a film that survived being shuttled about in the director’s own trunk. It should be stated that there are shots here that appear taken from secondary sources (including some tough-to-stomach Mondo style footage of what appear to be actual human corpses, be warned!) so variable quality is to be expected.
Special Features include new interviews with Glickenhaus, actress/model Monica Tidwell, and Spookies (1986) co-creators Brendan Faulkner and Frank M. Farel, who cut their teeth working on this film. All speak fondly of the process and give worthwhile insight into the landscape of independent cinema at the time. Topping it all off is a wonderful tour of THE ASTROLOGER’s filming locations hosted by Rue Morgue’s own Michael Gingold. The disc comes with a reversible cover featuring alternate art with the title Suicide Cult which the film was redubbed in the wake of the Jonestown Massacre.
Even if end-of-days prophecies and virgin births don’t exactly ripple your star chart, THE ASTROLOGER is an intriguing cultural artifact that manages to distill the various anxieties of the 1970s into one eerie theosophical creepout. Presented in 4K, James Glickenhaus’ debut feature is a welcome addition to the Severin Films library, and worth a look for conspiracy theorists, cult aficionados, and anyone who wants to unlock their own zodiacal potential.