Review: The Alchemist Cookbook

Posted on Saturday, December 31st, 2016 at 11:51 am

[Originally written for and published by Crossfader Magazine]

Director: Joel Potrykus

Genre: Horror, Comedy

Year: 2016

Scarier than any other cinematic trick is what’s merely implied: “the unknown.” Independent filmmakers can do this for crafty purposes, such as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (not its sequel), or the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY penchant for keeping its audience in the dark until the last second. Yet most of the time, the Lovecraftian notion of the horrifyingly gargantuan and uncontrollable bubbling up as the mind does all the dirty work goes wasted. It requires a filmmaker so assured in their own tone and craft to pull off a steady, deadly crescendo with actual effect, content be damned. Perhaps even a reverence for slightly shoddy, but dedicated efforts of yesteryear’s horror/thriller cinema is necessary in the process. In these specifics, Joel Potrykus is such a director, and presents a tiny but daring genre-defying outing in THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK. It’s no masterpiece, but a solid example of cinematic confidence breeding unique, exciting results worth remembering.

You see, Joel Potrykus is a dork. He’s into video games, lame pop culture, punk music, and extending his weirdness into his cinematic voice. He’s refreshing, and is exactly the right measurement of outlandish. It’s what made Kevin Smith interesting in the first place, and carried Jim Jarmusch throughout the years.

THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK follows Sean. Sean has retreated to the woods with his cat Kaspar. A borderline steampunk leg brace anchors him as he sets up shop in a ramshackle trailer, making contraptions out of plastic and old chemistry sets. He clutches a small book to his chest, only revealing key pages to the audience, among which is an illustration of a terrifying beast with flowing teeth and beady eyes. This book is Sean’s guide to supposed wealth, teaching him how to conjure gold through abuse of science and potentially black magic. Sean takes medication for an unknown reason, but the opening of the film finds him just about empty. His friend Cortez brings him groceries, but forgets the refill, leaving Sean on his own…or at least that’s what he assumes. He slowly begins to suspect there’s someone out in the woods stalking him. He attempts to speed up the process of his alchemy, calling out the attention of some supernatural force, which he may later regret.

the alchemist cookbook lettuce

NOW I’LL NEVER GET LETTUCE STUCK IN THERE

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It feels a little reductive, but one could describe THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK as a horror comedy; if that’s the case, it’s still an incredibly weird one. Most of it is held up by potent and patient character beats, simmering like a slightly more believable NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. The rest involves dipping its toes in abstract psychological horror, juxtaposed with quiet observance. Fans of modern riffs on French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, welcome aboard. At a liberal estimate, 15% of the film is willing to give any plot details.The film gets its biggest scares, or generally moody moments, when the threat is unseen. Something happens either within Sean, right off camera, or in a barely legible fashion in frame. It makes one simultaneously want to look closer while pulling away.

the alchemist cookbook asmr

Is this that ASMR thing everyone talks about?

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Potrykus takes advantage of his minimal-yet-loaded production value for the sake of crafty terror development. This does not mean he’s not scared of playing with blood and gore, like a slightly more focused Mark Borchardt from AMERICAN MOVIE. B-movie quality possession and demonic effects are sure to cause wincing, especially since Potrykus likes to linger. These moments are presented as aftermath, leaving the audience wondering how and why this devastation occurred. Additionally, sound design is absolutely key here in Kubrick-esque form, playfully suggesting something in non-linear sequences of paranoia and fear. It’s like EVIL DEAD II is happening inside this guy’s head, and we only get fleeting glimpses (though the zany, cross-cutting tone remains). The editing at play takes cues from the likes of Maya Deren, expressing and teasing out dread.

In its state, the film can only go so far in showing what’s going on inside of Sean’s head. The same goes with Ty Hickson, giving a performance that runs into somewhat of a barrier in terms of full immersion. Hickson takes to Potrykus’s brand of highly specific nerdom perhaps a little too loosely at first, awkwardly feeling out his uncomfortable but frank state of existence. Eventually, he goes on and gives it life: Slurred monologues about dreams of wealth, peace, and Doritos compliment elongated scenes of desperate eating, dancing, and lonesome lazing around. That sensation that overcomes anyone experiencing true boredom and isolation, that urge to pace around your house in the nude, singing your favorite song very poorly to yourself? THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK captures that in spades, and there’s a quiet, absurd beauty to it. Joel Potrykus shows humanity in its sloppiest form, which perhaps is indeed its peak humanity. It’s ugly, but that’s a point we shouldn’t hide from, and should rather embrace.

the alchemist cookbook outside

Satan just wants you to reconsider that vest, sweetie. *Snaps*

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The zipper on THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK’s mask is a little noticeable. So what? Its way of acting out an uncontrollable energy and anxiety is bolder and more confident than many of its peers. Crackling, bouncy performances complement Potrykus’s filmmaking. The film’s overall cinematic posture is so distinct that even if you don’t jive with it completely, it deserves a little respect for being itself. In an age where being oneself is more important than ever, directors like Joel Potrykus, and films like THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK deserve airtime. Weirdo cinema is important too, and might provide potential keys to life otherwise ignored, or never thought of. Some of it might involve tearing one’s teeth out, and trying out cat food… but don’t knock it until you try it.

Verdict: Recommend

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