Spectacular! Thrilling! Different! Who could have predicted? Craig Denney’s The Astrologer, a grand failure in its first act, might yet be destined to resist the dustpan and broom of history. Seemingly built from arrogance and ambition untempered by pesky self-awareness, Denney’s grandiose folly vanished in 1976, plunging into the depths of the collective unconscious, only to resurface 40 years later. Now it may take its rightful place in the top tier of the cult canon, unless its maker’s audacity, like some weird failsafe, keeps it from being seen except by the most faithful (or lucky).
A lot has been written about The Astrologer itself, at least since its recent rediscovery, though accounts will invariably suggests Denney’s film defies description and must be seen to be believed. A 35mm print was found in 2013, in a batch of 1,000 (pornographic) prints donated to the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA). It screened at AGFA’s Endangered Fest 2013 and then became the flagship title in their Indiegogo fundraiser aimed at preserving fragile 35mm prints of genre films in 2K digital transfers. In their words, “there’s no other movie like The Astrologer. It deserves to be seen.”
Self-styled celebrity astrologer Craig Denney directed himself in the self-funded, “autobiographical” tale of a carnival con man, Craig Marcus Alexander, who rises to fame as a presidential adviser, diamond smuggler and film producer/star. In the words of fan Nicolas Winding Refn, The Astrologer “pushes ‘auteurism’ to a whole other level.” Fantastic Fest’s 2014 guide promised, “It’s all genuine, it’s all passion, it’s all GOOD.” Jacob Knight, in attendance, later wrote, “What unspooled before this unsuspecting audience was beyond anything their psychotronic-addicted hearts could desire.”
Like YK Kim’s Miami Connection before it, The Astrologer is both a time capsule and a transcendent pleasure. A prophet without honour in its own time, it could never have worked in 1976. In 2018, truthfully, it still doesn’t work but its myriad flaws have aged like wine and merged with the story of its making – fittingly, since the film itself contains a film within a film, based on a book, supposedly based on a true story – to produce something much more than the sum of its parts. Maybe “story of its making” is the wrong phrase, as opposed to “the fact of its existence”, since very little seems to be known of its production or the life of Denney, its principal architect.
Details of Denney’s life and the making of his film are scarce, so I thought I’d try to gather what I could. Frustratingly, while the picture becomes bigger, much more remains out of focus even while the shape of a compelling story suggests itself. Surveying his various recorded statements, it’s also hard to escape the suspicion that Denney’s ambitions in fiction were not exclusive to his movie-making exploits.
According to one of his collaborators, Denney came from a rich family with a rich circle of friends. He was born 1944/45, so that by January 1976, he was reported to be 31 years old. A 1979 article, however, makes the same claim (it’s said that numerology made such an impact on Denney that he quickly decided never to reveal his birthdate). He may have been Canadian, since his company is later described as being so, or may simply have had Canadian ties. His publicist, Dustin Paul Milner, claimed Denney was “booted out of every school he ever attended and was fired from all 17 radio stations he worked for in a seven-year broadcasting career, as a “top 40″ radio personality.” This was before he made the leap into “the astrological charts business” in 1968, when he was around 25. Within ten years, he’d be a “self-made” millionaire and, wait for it, “one of the youngest studio heads in Hollywood history”. He’s described by friends as loyal, obsessed, generous and brilliant.
Between 1968 and 1972, Denney made his way in the astrological charts business, founding Moon House (or Moonhouse), described as “a computerized horoscope service which, for a price, whips out detailed astrological forecasts for individuals and corporations.” The latter of which, Denney claimed, paid as much as $20,000 for the service. By 1975, Denney was said to have made $31 million this way. Of all the computerised horoscope services in operation in the mid 1970s, Moon House was the “world’s largest”. And, according to his publicist, Denney also appeared on numerous radio and TV talk shows “to discuss astrology.”
Moon House was in operation throughout production on The Astrologer, which began in 1972 with a reported budget of $1.5 million. In late 1973 (November 28, to be exact), Variety reported that Moon House International – described as a Canadian “mini-conglomerate” with a Californian production subsidiary of the same name – was entering feature and TV production. Its slate was to include an eight-episode, 30-minute series “about the adventures of the horoscope-gazing Mr Alexander”, entitled The Astrologer. It was reported that the first of the $110,000 segments was “in the can”, alongside 26 half-hour shows called Craig Denney’s World of Astrology, “several of which have already aired in the US” (as of this writing, no trace of those broadcasts has been found). Moon House, meanwhile, was also attempting to resurrect Rainbow Bridge, a genuine 1971 film best known for exploiting some sparse live footage of Jimi Hendrix.
By November 1974, location photography on The Astrologer had been completed in Africa, France, and Tahiti, and was currently underway in Southern California. Described then as “a spinoff from an unsold half-hour tv pilot produced by Moonhouse under the same title,” it had been sold to Republic Arts (chief executive, Craig Denney) and a distributor was being sought for a Spring 1975 release.
Then, in June 1975, it was reported that The Astrologer, “a $4 million production centred on the rise and fall of a prominent gypsy fortune teller” was the first of a 10-film, $22 million slate projected in 1976 for Republic Arts Pictures, a company getting “another start in the movie business”. “Funds are being supplied,” the Independent Film Journal explained, “by Moonhouse Horoscopes, a mail order operation, and three French-controlled banks.” RAP apparently planned to produce “murder mysteries, science fiction and action adventure projects”. RAP’s board chairman and chief executive was named as one Ernest J Helm Jr, whose sole credit on IMDb remains The Astrologer. Helm, described elsewhere as an “oil tycoon”, was later said to have co-funded The Astrologer with Denney.
Of the production itself, we have a lot of what seems to be hearsay, but it’s all pretty great. According to the poster, it was filmed in Astravision, recorded in Astrasound. Numerology, “the study of the occult meanings of numbers and their influence on human life,” heavily influenced the making of The Astrologer. Numbers are carefully and significantly featured throughout. Take, for example, the cab number (38) in the Long Beach scene: 3 + 8 = 11 and 1 + 1 = 2. 3 represents communication, 8 represents giving or taking money to or for another person. 3 also represents siblings, so Alexander’s sister, while 11 is the house of friends and 2 the house of money, each of which have relevance to the discussion in Alexander’s mother’s home. Even the number of people in a scene is often deliberate and each scene timed to represent whichever house number (see diagram above) to which it refers. Much of the filming and editing was apparently accomplished with stop-watch in hand.
The script, credited to Dorothy June Pidgeon (a relation of Forbidden Planet star Walter Pidgeon), was supposedly based on Denney’s book of the same name (“The publication of Denney’s novel,” the American Film Institute drily notes, “has not been determined.”). Allegedly, though, The Astrologer was shot without a script – with horoscopes as a guide for each day of production – and Pidgeon’s credit was given in exchange for budgetary contributions. The cast was filled out with amateurs, many of whom supposedly paid for the privilege. Among those, in the role of love interest Darrien, Denney cast his own cousin, Darrien Earle. It’s also said that Denney was so embarrassed by the end product – or its reception – that he tried to destroy every copy of the film.
At the start of 1976, though, the director still seemed proud of his work and its subject matter. On Sunday, January 11th, LA’s Channel 9 (then KHJ, now KCAL) broadcast the 30-minute Meet The Astrologer special, a “plug for the R-rated movie” featuring the “young tycoon” himself. The Astrologer was set for release on January 14th, a Wednesday, and very deliberately so. “The astrological aspects for the picture’s release were considered,” Denney confirmed for United Press International’s Vernon Scott. “Even though it includes some heavy knowledge about astrology,” Denney told Scott, “the film is entertaining… I’m sure the picture has a basic appeal for everyone, including non-believers.” Scott reported the picture’s final budget at $10 million, and described Denney as a handsome and intelligent man, whose “eyes gleam with teal.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s release day review, however, questioned the producers’ claim of a $10 million budget. Their review, representative of the general critical reception, deemed The Astrologer “a vanity production, made to showcase one man’s talent – and ego.” As if that wasn’t enough, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner’s review of January 17th revealed that the film’s title theme, credited to orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, was used without Mehta’s knowledge, according to an unidentified spokesman for the orchestra. Someone close to the production claims The Astrologer ultimately made $98,000, in Los Angeles at least.
It’s sometimes suggested The Astrologer never received an official release, due to these rights issues. A full-page ad in a 1975 edition of Variety had credited Procol Harum with the end title theme, though this doesn’t appear to have come to fruition (though Denney made judicious use of their Grand Hotel). And although Denney credited The Moody Blues – indeed featured them prominently on his marketing – any agreement with their record company seems to have soured, with Denney begrudging their business practices and retaliating with some contractual chicanery. The same is possibly true for the Tommy Edwards and Conway Twitty songs featured. However, the film did screen and continued to roll out throughout 1977, proven by newspaper ads collected by Temple of Schlock.1
Meanwhile, in July of that year, one Donna Sue Whisman began working as a nutritionist for “a division of Republic Industries Inc”. Whisman had graduated with a degree in restaurant management from Ohio State University one month earlier. Just six months later, she was named assistant secretary-treasurer of Republic Pictures and its parent company, Republic Industries, the first woman and youngest person to hold that title. In May 1980, Whisman was named president of the motion picture division, which would release no films during her short tenure. It was a meteoric rise for someone so young, but then she had the support and encouragement of her new husband, the incumbent president – Craig Denney.
Despite what IMDb suggests, in early 1979 Helm and Denney were involved in releasing Barracuda (Wayne Crawford, Harry Kerwin, 1978) in the US. These days, you would be hard pressed to connect either man (or Donna, for that matter) to Barracuda or to Republic (which otherwise had a long and varied history as a distributor), if it wasn’t for contemporaneous news reports and the original one-sheet, which credits them:
Then, in July 1979, an extraordinary report from Boxoffice, headlined “Republic Pictures campaign aimed at shedding ‘B’ image,” credited Craig Denney as “chairman, president and chief executive of the film company”. Boxoffice’s report refers to The Astrologer as, emphasis added, “a £13 million exploitation feature”, and cited the losses made since its release as one of the main reasons Republic Pictures had been “reactivated and has embarked on a campaign to change its image from a producer of “B” or exploitation pictures, to multi-million dollar productions.”
Denney, still somehow 31 at this point, had big plans for the outfit, which had apparently released 14 pictures since The Astrologer, “eight of which have been losing propositions”. None of those pictures, saving Barracuda, can be easily traced. Republic Art’s IMDb only lists The Astrologer alongside, confusingly, The Astrologer. It seems likely this is an error on IMDb’s part. Like John Paizs’ Crime Wave, which has to contend for search engine status with Sam Raimi’s Crimewave, released in the same year, Denney’s film is often confused with James Glickenhaus’s 1975 film of the same name, also known as Suicide Cult. And while Barracuda is listed on IMDb among Republic Picture’s releases, The Astrologer is not.
Denney’s plan for Republic involved a $3 million sea epic, Attack at Shark’s Reef, and a $4 million science fiction thriller called Death Rays from the Sky, both due to commence production in late summer 1979. September 1979 would then supposedly see the release of a pair of science fiction pictures, Death Star and The Lucifer Project, “that the studio hopes will be the last of its smaller pictures.” The Lucifer Project was an alternative title for Barracuda, so this may have been a re-release, though it isn’t science fiction (and good luck googling “Death Star 1979″).
The really big news in Boxoffice’s report, though, is the announcement of “Republic’s major effort under its new banner,” an $11 million project set for release in 1981, entitled Oceanic Opera, A Sea Odyssey. Financed by “various subsidiaries and divisions of Republic Industries”, the film will star “no actors or actresses, but an all-nature cast”. This, amazingly, is Denney’s planned follow-up to The Astrologer.
However, it seems Denney then sold – or tried to sell – Republic/Republic Arts, or his stake in it, sometime in 1980. On Wednesday July 29th, 1981, Variety reported that Denney and Donna had been in Singapore the previous week “to negotiate for facilities and pick up crew for their $11,000,000 project, Oceanic Opera – A Sea Odyssey.” The husband and wife team planned to shoot some Singapore harbour scenes and footage of local fishermen in their junks. According to Variety’s reporter, Denney claimed that the film was three-quarters finished and that he’d travelled round the world, “shooting sunken Japanese ships, undersea Greek temples, submerged Wells Fargo stagecoaches, hard hat divers and all forms of marine life from Alaska to Australia.”
Denney told Variety that he and his wife invested $4,000,000 in Oceanic Opera, while Air America had invested $11,000,000. The couple had arrived from Australia, having spent six months in Port Lincoln waiting to film a 24-foot long Great White shark. “It’s the real thing, four feet longer than ‘Bruce’ in Jaws,” Denney boasted. “We’re making a G-movie, a movie the whole family can see. It will be spiritually uplifting.” The article suggested Oceanic Opera would see domestic release in 1982, “to be accompanied by live orchestras”.
But then, disaster. On September 21st 1982, 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.” The director claimed that he deposited several thousand feet of raw stock negatives for Oceanic Opera at DeLuxe in 1979, only for them to wrongfully release the footage to one Chuck Keen in October of 1980. Keen, who died in 2003, was an Alaska-based freelance cinematographer who wrote, produced and filmed documentaries across the world. The nature of the dispute isn’t clear, nor is the truth of it, though the Denneys do seem to have won a $50,000 judgement against Keen personally sometime prior to August 1986. Oceanic Opera, suffice to say, never materialised and if footage did exist, it seems to have been wiped from the face of the earth. Denney never made another film.2
The Astrologer has been described as “The Room of 1975” (sic) and the comparison is instructive to an extent. If Denney was able to enjoy, like Tommy Wiseau, the late appreciation of his masterwork, he might also choose to retcon his intentions to align with the audience’s sniggers. But, though details are scarce, we know he died in Ohio in the mid-1980s, survived by his wife and business partner, Donna. We know this because he passed while still embroiled in the Chuck Keen lawsuit. And that, sadly, is where the Craig Denney story ends.
Or is it? Threads left dangling by The Astrologer mostly lead to dead-ends or through strange eddies. Rocky Barbanica, who played the young Alexander, sadly passed earlier this year. For Florence Marly, earlier the eponymous Queen of Blood (1966), The Astrologer Diana Blair was her final film role and she died in 1978. Darrien Earle continued as a restauranteur, through a brief marriage and high profile divorce from businessman Lee Iacocca in the early 1990s. For Alan Gornick Jr, it’s his sole credit as cinematographer, though he spent the next 20 years as a successful underwater cinematographer – including on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which I guess means he shot Cameron’s sojourn in the swimming pool. The best link through link to The Astrologer, though, is perhaps Arthyr Chadbourne, who played himself and consulted on the film (credited as “astrological director”). Chadbourne, who also worked as an executive producer on the series Meet The Astrologer, still practices astrology (check out his website or his YouTube channel). Here’s a day in his life:
Chadbourne even took part in a Q&A, at Los Angeles’ now-defunct Cinefamily, after a screening of The Astrologer. There, he offered a personal insight into Denney’s world. It was Chadbourne who suggested Denney came from a rich family with rich friends, all of whom he would call upon for funding and many of whom appear in The Astrologer. And although Chadbourne confirmed Denney spent a lot of his own money on the production, he was sceptical Moon House was any kind of cash cow. Instead, he said, the astrological enterprise more or less broke even on the cost of printing and distribution. “But Craig was wonderful with hype. Everything was millions… You should read some of the things we used to send out to investors.”
Chadbourne shed some light on the contractual switcheroo that got The Moody Blues credited as composers on the film but thwarts the film’s distribution to this day, involving, incredibly, invisible ink. Supposedly, Denney doctored the contracts so that the record company had to pay him royalties. As is sometimes the case even for entirely legitimate films (see Alan Arkush’s Get Crazy, which sadly remains trapped on VHS), music rights are now one of the major obstacles facing any home release for The Astrologer. So, paradoxically, some of the audacious qualities that so hold our attention may also keep The Astrologer from a wide audience, preserving its “secret handshake movie” quality for ever.
And then Chadbourne, as reported by Young Hollywood, offered another potential twist in the tale. Denney, his friend explained, “was very interested in escaping the FBI and IRS by faking his own death.” At some point after The Astrologer failed – exactly which point isn’t clear – Denney told Chadbourne that he wasn’t happy living in America anymore. “I think what I’m going to do,” Denney said, “is get into Republic Airlines and leave.” Not too long after that, Chadbourne dropped in on Denney, only to be told flatly that he had recently passed away. Pokerfaced, his sister said, “We’re all very upset.”
The Astrologer screens at Matchbox Cineclub’s Weird Weekend on Sunday 3rd June. Tickets from £5, day and weekend passes are available. All tickets available from CCA’s box office, 0141 352 4900, or online: bit.ly/weirdweekend. #makeitweird
It’s been claimed The Astrologer screened as the CBS Late Movie on June 23rd of 1980, but that’s not backed-up by an online episode guide (according to which it never screened in that slot), which suggests an episode of Harry O, “Material Witness”, screened instead. Similarly, an Australian VHS release can’t be confirmed, though it did screen on Australian television at least once, in the early hours of August 28th, 1987. Temple of Schlock, who do invaluable work and were instrumental in bringing The Astrologer back from the dead, are probably the (credible) root of these facts. In 2011, ToS posted an old newspaper ad and put the film on their Endangered List. Their research at the time had reportedly found The Astrologer, with Denney credited, on a list of foreign videocassette releases, though that source has since been lost.
On Christmas Day 1982, it was reported that the United Artists Corporation (with United Artists Productions and Capitol Records) had sued Denney and his wife, along with Dustin Milner, charging infringement. The Denneys lost, and the court “enjoined the defendants from using the United Artists trademark or name in any of their activities and required the defendants to notify customers that they had been divested of the usage by court order.” The defendants had apparently been associated with, if not running, “United Artists Music & Records Group, Inc” and “United Artists Records Inc”. An enterprise called Air America Holdings was also embroiled in the dispute (suggesting his Oceanic Opera co-funder was perhaps not the Air America), the reporting of which tantalisingly suggests yet more inexplicable drama in Denney’s later life.