The Crazy Family, Sogo Ishii’s provocative, oddball satire, hasn’t screened in Scotland for 30 years
Having just relocated to a comfortable new home in suburbia, the Kobayashi family – Katsuhiko, his wife, Saeko, and their two children, Masaki and Erika – appear to be the picture of middle-class success. But the family’s comfortable bourgeois veneer begins disintegrating when grandfather Yasukuni and white ants infest their home, eating away at the woodwork. As the Kobayashis’ house begins to crumble, so does the sanity of its inhabitants. Katsuhiko takes it upon himself to keep them from the asylum…at any cost.
The Crazy Family (逆噴射家族, Gyakufunsha Kazoku) Sogo Ishii’s provocative, oddball satire, hasn’t screened in Scotland for at least 30 years. Born Toshihiro Ishii, now known as Gakuryū Ishii, the avant garde filmmaker spearheaded the Japanese New Wave with his early punk features Panic In High School (1978), Crazy Thunder Road (1980) and Burst City (1982). Ishii’s reputation arguably rests on these early films, although he’s still active and his influence can been seen in the filmmakers whose international success has surpassed his own.
Described as “one of the most genuinely demented movies to ever emerge from Japan,” The Crazy Family‘s original title (literally “The Back-Jet Family”) was a reference to an incident at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in the early 1980s. The pilot of a short, internal flight fired the plane’s back-jet just before landing, crashing the plane and killing many of its passengers. Pressure of work was blamed for the pilot’s action. “With Crazy Family,” Ishii later claimed, “I wanted to show the Japanese family as I saw it.” Co-writer and manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi, now a controversial, conservative figure in Japan, told Monthly Film Bulletin in 1986:
Kramer vs Kramer, Ordinary People and The Family Game are all admirable films dealing with family problems. They are serious films, much praised by critics, and some people regard them as masterpieces. But some of us think differently. We consider them timid films, more or less like the TV family dramas made for middle-aged audiences, and the critics like them more than we do. And so Sogo Ishii and I decided to make a more radical film on the same subject. We wanted film about the family that would be filled with fun and poison… There are four things that traditionally frighten the Japanese: earthquakes, thunder, fire and fathers. This list is as valid now as it ever was.
Though it didn’t lose money, The Crazy Family was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not hugely popular domestically. “Everyone in Japan just complained that they didn’t understand my films,” Ishii later reflected. Though the film made a bigger impact abroad, according to writer David Cairns, “Most western critics found it wearisome and baffling”. As related by Shock Cinema’s Steven Puchalski, “its New York City engagement consisted of a one-week run at an upscale arthouse theatre, and a sparse, thoroughly confused audience of blue-haired Upper West Siders.”
In the UK, however, critic Tony Rayns saw its value immediately, noting “a major step forward for Sogo Ishii”. Writing in early 1986, Rayns observed that The Crazy Family “is a live action comic strip, each sequence shattered into component images like panels on a page and edited to rock rhythms.” Rayns continued:
The stylistic attack is matched, blow by blow, by the ruthlessness and cruelty of the humour: satire, slapstick, pain and black comedy are primary elements, but the film goes beyond them all into an area harder and more vicious than anything seen on screen since the early days of Monty Python. Its triumph is that it is (a) consistently funny, and (b) sustained as a narrative, rather than collapsing into a series of sketches.
if…. director Lindsay Anderson was also a fan. As recorded in Michael Palin’s diaries, Anderson preferred it to the then-recent A Room With A View, An Englishman Abroad, and even the Python’s own Private Function. Ishii’s film was the only one he’d liked recently, Anderson told Palin, since “the violence is so productive!”
Though it’s never been released on DVD in the UK, The Crazy Family is a landmark in Ishii’s ouevre and Japanese cinema. It was his first commercial work, following the trio of dystopian punk films that made his name, but was immediately followed by an almost 10-year gap before his next feature, the thriller Angel Dust (1994). Thwarted from making the films he wanted to make, Ishii concentrated on experimental short films, music documentaries (notably Half Human, with Einstuerzende Neubauten) and TV movies. The next phase of his work would be his self-proclaimed psychedelic years, before a slight return to his roots with Electric Dragon 80.000 V (2000). In 2010, he announced his “artistic rebirth”, Bowie-style, as Gakuryū Ishii, before returning to features once more with 2012’s Isn’t Anyone Alive? With his latest,Punk Samurai Slash Down, due this year, it’s the perfect time to (re)discover his weirdest.
The Crazy Family 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.
John Paizs’ unsung deadpan masterpiece screens from fully-restored 2K DCP.
“If the great Canadian comedy ever gets made, John Paizs might be the one to make it.”
Jay Scott, Globe and Mail, 1985
In 1986, a cult film named Crimewave was released. Though it bombed, critically and commercially, it was a notable stepping stone in the careers of a many of its key players, who, despite its ignominious failure, went on to have glittering careers that left it only a curious blip in their CVs.In this case, the term “cult” applies only in the sense that completist fans of the Coen Brothers (writers), Sam Raimi (director) and Bruce Campbell (producer, star) will keep its faint flame burning for a good while longer than it demands on its own merits. Meanwhile in Canada, another film, similarly-titled, received blazing reviews on its festival debut then all but disappeared without trace.
John Paizs’ Crime Wave was the culmination of themes and style developed by Paizs in a series of shorts starring the director himself as a ‘silent man’ character, Nick, the predecessor of Stephen Penny, mute protagonist of Crime Wave. Penny is an aspiring screenwriter, afflicted with a peculiar kind of writer’s block – he can only write beginnings and endings for the “colour crime pictures” he aspires to make, and no middles. When he takes a room above a suburban family’s garage, his landlord’s daughter, Kim (Eva Kovacs), discovers his abandoned script pages in the trash and takes it upon herself to help him realise his potential.
The synopsis, however, barely sketches the experience of Crime Wave. Paizs painstakingly shot and styled his film to mimic the Technicolor of classical Hollywood. He also re-recorded all dialogue in post-production, inspired equally by the highly-controlled sound design of radio dramas. The tone, meanwhile, is deadpan absurd, the construction post-modern. Paizs interpolates Penny’s travails and Kim’s enterprise with sequences realising the opening and closing scenes from Stephen’s script fragments. When Kim introduces him to a mysterious Dr Jolly, who promises a solution to Stephen’s dire straits, the film accelerates towards a manic and hilariousclimactic montage.
Crime Wave debuted at the 1985 Festival of Festivals (later to become the Toronto International Film Festival). The screening was also, according to Paizs, essentially a test screening. Writing and producing his own work, he’d gotten used to unusual creative freedom. “I used to just get to the end and I would not show the script to anybody and I would not do another draft, I just applied to the Arts Council for the money and they were less concerned about, ‘Does it have a coherent story?’ They were more into, ‘Well, is it kind of different?’” Crime Wave, like its creator, was certainly different. Following the (successful) festival screening, Paizs was dissatisfied enough to entirely rewrite, re-shoot and re-cut the film’s final 20 minutes.
Justifiably, though unjustly, it remains the high water mark in Paizs’ filmmaking career. “After Crime Wave, expectations were quite high for me,” explains Paizs. “According to the Globe and Mail reviewer, I had to make the great Canadian comedy, and, I’ll tell you, that was the best thing that someone could possibly say to any film-maker, right, but also the worst. And because I decided not to do the ‘silent man’ thing anymore after Crime Wave, not only did I have to come up with something new that I could invest myself in passionately, but it also had to be great and, you know, that in a nutshell is why there was no follow-up to Crime Wave.” Which is a genuine tragedy for cinema, especially since the Globe and Mail review was based on the first, unrefined cut of Paizs’ masterpiece.
Crime Wave could only have been made in Canada, in Winnipeg and by John Paizs, though it’s so much more than just a great Canadian film. Though its theatrical release was thwarted by an ill-advised distribution deal (which complicates its home-viewing release to this day), Crime Wave’s timeless originality,meticulously-crafted aesthetic and the singular voice of its creator stake a claim for it in film history, exclusively on its on terms.
Crime Wave 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
A 1976 UPI article by Vernon Scott on Craig Denney’s The Astrologer, as it appeared in The Ottawa Journal (14/01/1976)
If you are Aquarian with Uranus in the third house, the sun in Capricorn, bestride Scorpio with Virgo ascending and the moon over Miami, you are probably in deep trouble or at least about to meet a tall dark stranger. Devotees of the zodiac will be hit with that sort of thing in The Astrologer, a new movie starring Craig Denny [sic] who also directed the film. Until now, astrology has been ignored by moviemakers. But Denny, 31, is founder of Moonhouse International, a computerized horoscope service which, for a price, whips out detailed astrological forecasts for individuals and corporations.
Astrology has made Denny a rich man. He says Moonhouse grossed $31 million last year with corporations paying as much as $20,000 for the service. “There’s never been a movie based on astrology,” said Denny, a handsome and intelligent man who is steeped in the lore of the zodiac. “Surprising, isn’t it? Especially when you consider there are 33 million individuals in the United States alone who are interested in astrology and buy astrological books, magazines and horoscopes.”
“So there is a huge audience waiting to see a picture based on astrology. The concept has been ignored all these years because it was new and different and didn’t follow any trends or patterns. Our story is about a gypsy fortune teller – me – and what happens to him as he predicts the future. We don’t preach astrology in the movie. There are five different story lines and plots. There’s a great deal of fantasy. The picture is visual. Even though it includes some heavy knowledge about astrology, the film is entertaining. We aren’t trying to make converts. This is a contemporary story with a great many optical special effects. I’m sure the picture has a basic appeal for everyone, including non-believers.”
Webster’s defines astrology as: “A pseudo science claiming to foretell the future by studying the supposed Influence of the relative positions of the moon, sun and stars on human affairs. Primitive astronomy.” Denny, of course, views astrology as the mother of all sciences. “It is 5,000 years old,” he said. “I’ve been involved in astrology for 10 years. I don’t try to influence skeptics. Either you believe in it or you don’t. I have all the proof in the world that astrology is a true science.”
Denny embarked on a discourse of dates, planets and stars in a terminology which defies analysis by laymen. He holds theories which would shock other astrologers. His eyes gleam with teal. One is well advised not to take issue with him on the subject. A former radio broadcaster, Denny began The Astrologer in 1972 with a budget of $1.5 million. Three years later and at a total cost of $10 million, the picture was completed.
“Astrology has had a tough time with radio and television,” be said. “The government has a law that all astrological information must have a disclaimer before and after any programs dealing with the subject. It can’t be promoted on the air. The National Association of Broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission have ruled that astrology is not a true science.” Denny’s disdain for the patented foolhardiness of the NAB and FCC was clearly reflected in the expression on his face. The Astrologer will open in prime American cities’ theatres Jan. 14, a date not selected at random. “The astrological aspects for the picture’s release were considered,” Denny admitted. According to the stars, the timing couldn’t be better.
The Astrologer screens at Matchbox Cineclub’s Weird Weekend on Sunday 03/06/18. Tickets from CCA’s box office, 0141 352 4900, or online here.
Matchbox Cineclub announce Scotland’s first cult film festival
Matchbox Cineclub presents Weird Weekend, a whole weekend of strange and unseen cinema from around the world. Scotland’s cult film festival brings orphans, outcasts and outliers from across time and space to the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd June, 2018. Weird Weekend presents long-lost cult classics alongside premieres of future favourites, with a host of special guests, Q&As and events.
Among the highlights, Bill & Ted star Alex Winter will take part in a Skype Q&A after a screening of his directorial debut Freaked (1993); Glaswegian director Bryan M Ferguson will attend a Q&A following Anatomical Gunk, a retrospective of his short films; a 40th anniversary screening of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s midnight movie classic The Holy Mountain (1973); Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (1984), unseen on UK screens for over 30 years; and an extremely rare screening of the long-lost, now fully restored cult classic The Astrologer (Craig Denney, 1975).
Matchbox Cineclub programmer Sean Welsh says: “Although we have many, many film events, Scotland is long-overdue a dedicated cult film festival. With Matchbox Cineclub, we’ve always aimed to screen films you can’t see anywhere else, so Weird Weekend is a logical extension of all of that. We’re very proud of the programme we’ve put together, which uncovers lost gems, debuts new versions of classics and presents some of the wildest brand-new films in the world today.”
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
Craig Denney wrote, directed, bankrolled and acted in the unearthed cult classic The Astrologer, but who was he and what happened to him?
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.” The Los Angeles Times was similarly damning, concluding, “Denney directs with a lifeless travelogue style, using too many voice-overs, sailboats in the sunset and the enjoyable but inappropriate intrusions of music by Zubin Mehta and the Moody Blues.” 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 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‘s 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.