I’m fascinated by Aleister Crowley. He exists in a unique span of time that was remarkably open to alternative spirituality.In this day and age we have plenty of wealthy and famous people tuning in to weird-ass cults like Scientology, and stars of stage and screen pledge devotion to the judaic mysticism of Kaballah but none of it has the air of menace or dangerous edge like an Aleister Crowley, Manly Palmer Hall or Jack Whiteside Parsons. Scientology exists solely to extort money from its followers and god knows what Kabbalists are up to. Crowley and the people who came in his wake were actually trying to achieve higher levels of consciousness and affect the bigger picture through sheer force of will. These are all very heady ideas, alive and well in this time, but without the outrageous characters that represented them in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Simply put, the occult just doesn’t seem nearly as fun. It just seems fucking weird.
And without the occult, where would heavy metal be? Would Stairway To Heaven be the enduring classic it is had Jimmy Page not bought the Boleskine house, former residence of Aleister Crowley? Would Ozzy Osbourne and King Diamond be the icons that they are without the rampant rumors of satanic worship? How about those photos of Venom’s Chronos mid-satanic ritual? The marriage of the occult and metal is like chocolate and peanut butter and horror has tried to pair the two up in the past with comical abortions like Rock and Roll Nightmare and Black Roses. So here comes Bruce Dickinson, the thinking man’s metalhead, a true renaissance man, frontman for one of the most important heavy metal bands of all time, Iron Maiden. He has teamed up with Maiden video director, Julian Doyle, and added to his impressive resume screen writing credits which probably sits somewhere on the list below licensed airline pilot or competitive fencer.
On Aleister Crowley’s last day alive he is visited by a young disciple who delivers the news that Crowley’s stateside protege, Jack Parsons has fallen off the path and under the influence of a “science fiction writer” (in actuality, L. Ron Hubbard). Together they have created a moon child (the central conceit of a novel by Crowley). Crowley dies. Flash forward to the present. Timid philosophy professor, Oliver Haddo secretly corrupts the mainframe operating system that controls an experimental supercomputer at Cambridge with a program that simulates every last detail of Aleister Crowley’s personality and life in order to experience the magus in a virtual reality setting. However, everything goes wrong and Haddo becomes possessed by the wild spirit of Crowley. He spends the next three days running wild on Cambridge, corrupting everyone he crosses paths with.
The premise that a virtual reality experiment transforms a timid Masonic wannabe into a brilliant, bold occultist sounded a little too Lawnmower Man for me to take upon initial inspection. But let it be known that as ridiculous as it is, and for all the faux science quantum physics jargon that Dickinson’s script slings in a casual attempt to explain the far fetched plot this is an arrestingly entertaining affair. I know a bit about Crowley and the things that he did and for all the misunderstandings that lead to people labelling him a satanist, Dickinson seems to know far more about the life and ritual of Aleister Crowley than most and his script is particularly well written and researched. Those looking for your usual horror movie representations of blood drinking and child sacrifices will be disappointed as Crowley’s actual thelemic rituals are presented here to the best of their cinematic ability. There are also more Iron Maiden references than you can shake a stick at which either goes to show that Dickinson plays host to some tremendous ego or that many of his lyrics were influenced by the work of early twentieth century occultists.
All clever scripting and research aside, though, the entire film is floated on Simon Callow’s wild portrayal of The Beast. I would imagine that playing a part like this must be a lot of fun because you get to yell and gesture wildly in the interest of entertainment. As Crowley’s personality was noted for a magnetic charisma, so too is Callow’s characterization. Yet the film falters in several key places. It’s fun to watch Callow’s performance but there are other things going on in the film. An American chaos mathematician serves as Crowley’s opponent, a completely boring plot element that insists on going back to the computer lab and slinging more crazy-ass jargon at us.
Doyle’s direction is also not exactly what it could be, often employing wild angles, lights and smoke in places that are completely inappropriate. The general aesthetic of the movie brings to mind old direct to video features or late 80’s music videos. It’s jarring and weird. A steadier hand would have delivered a more solid product. But Doyle is actually best known for editing Monty Python movies and Crowley represenents Doyle’s third shot at directing. It’s a tight cut, to be sure, but technical savvy does nothing to rescue it from its shortcomings of plot and acting.
Dickinson’s script eventually winds up careening wildly from one scene to the next, topping Crowley’s excessive antics as the film progresses but none of it seems to matter. It’s a horror movie but Crowley’s motivation to do what he does loses credibility with each passing second. One can only suspend their disbelief so far before it all becomes silly. If only he could have put as much research into the science presented here as he did the life of Aleister Crowley. The pseudo science wouldn’t have been so hard to listen to.
Sure, Callow is awesome as Aleister Crowley but what I’m wondering is if a feature about the actual life of Crowley would have been better than this exploitative horror movie. Bruce Dickinson isn’t exactly a screen writer but he does okay and is able to add another wildly divergent activity to his reputation as the most active man in metal. But Crowley’s ultimate problem is that it just doesn’t make much sense. There are hints of a plot that could have been throughout as the relationship of Jack Parsons and Crowley is explored through themes of reincarnation but there are some insane departures throughout that interrupt the proceedings time and time again and the ultimate tweest in the final act almost qualifies as the crime of the century. A plot device so shitty that it’s hard to believe anyone would even try and pass it off these days.