Hastings, England. 1947. Upper class twits Symons and Alex visit a country home where the elderly, ailing Aleister Crowley is lodging. Their purpose is to introduce cynical science student Alex to Crowley, and consolidate Symons' teaching at the controversial scholar and devil worshipper's hand.
Alex questions Crowley's beliefs in "sexual magic", but Simons is a believer - he tells his sceptical friend how Crowley has been reincarnated nine times already through a bizarre ritual known as the "chemical wedding". And it is this procedure that Symons wants to be taught.
Unfortunately Crowley collapses and while Symons runs for help, Crowley spits blood onto the appalled Alex. While Crowley is pronounced dead, Alex flees outdoors convulsing like a madman.
Fifty years later, Symons (Paul McDowell) is an aged member of a College Board and respected member of the local Masons. He warns a friend (whose identity is perhaps obvious, but is not confirmed until 75 minutes into the action) that someone is about to arrive who will change the face of the Earth over the course of the following four days.
And so we move promptly to the main story proper: "Day One". An American abroad, Dr Mathers (Kal Weber) arrives at Cambridge station and is accosted by budding college journalist Lia (Lucy Cudden), looking to blag and interview with him. He agrees to it at a later date. Bubbly redhead Lia contents herself with this and makes haste to her class with stuttering buffoon Professor Haddo (Simon Callow).
Mathers in the meantime catches up with Victor (Jud Charlton) - a college technician who has devised a "space coffin", an elaborate machine originally designed by Crowley. After his class, Haddo turns up at Victor's lab and also inspects the device. Victor excitedly tells Haddo how the machine will allow them to perform Crowley's rituals. Haddo is convinced you cannot do this without the presence of the man himself. But, with Mathers' help, Victor sets out to prove him wrong.
Haddo steps into a spaceman-type suit and prepares himself as the subject of Victor's first experiment …
"Day Two". Lia visits the lab in the hope of bagging her interview with Mathers. He agrees to do it that evening over dinner. In the background, Victor becomes nervous when he overhears that Lia is a student of Haddo's - and that she is on her way to a lecture being held by him.
Victor sneaks into the college that afternoon and waits for Haddo to make his appearance. When he does, he has lost his lank blonde curls and comedy stammer. The new Haddo is bald and confident, transforming a thesis on Shakespeare into an obscene rant endorsing occult values. It climaxes with him pissing on the front row of students.
The college board chastise Haddo afterwards but by this point he is indignant and insists upon being referred to as "The Beast". Later that evening he convinces Victor that he is in fact Crowley reincarnated, by offering him a magical mixture of both pleasure and pain.
As day two comes to a close, Symons - who after the board meeting with Haddo is convinced the lecturer is possessed by Crowley - frantically starts researching Crowley's books (odd, as he became an expert on the subject many moons ago) while Mathers and Lia finally get it together, both for an interview and a shag.
"Day Three" ups the ante further with a riotous combination of increasingly lewd events: a turd is found in the college Dean's office ("Crowley's calling card" muses Symons); Victor grows ever odder following his encounter with the dark one; a prostitute is summoned to Haddo's room in a wedding dress to partake in a ceremony but is sent packaging when he discovers her ginger barnet is a wig (hmm, he needs a genuine redhead … where's he going to find one of those?!); Symons and Mathers finally work together after realising that Crowley is at work through Haddo's body …
The third day culminates in typically mental style with an orgy that leads to bloody death.
All of which sounds like quite a bit of madness to squeeze into one day. But that's nothing. The following day is crazier still, building to a time-shift twist of sorts and a tense foray into virtual reality.
I say tense, but you're hardly likely to be biting your nails. But the finale is moderately tense in relation to the distinctly tension-free 90 minutes that precede it. But a lack of suspense is one of the only quibbles I have with what is otherwise a knowingly ludicrous (yet deceptively well researched) heap of fun.
From the moment it begins, CHEMICAL WEDDING is a well-shot film that does a great job of getting as much mileage as possible from its small budget. It is a triumph of visual creativity.
Yes, it looks cheap and cheesy in Victor's lab - but you sense that director Julian Doyle intended it to be this way. It's all part of the charm.
Yes, the occasional gore FX (of which there aren't as many as I had expected) are competent in a rubbery 1980s way. But again, they feel like they've been pulled off with a knowing wink to the audience. As large and bold and garish a character as Crowley undoubtedly was, so the emphasis on visual excess and unnerving non-realism suits perfectly.
Yes, the science-fiction dialogue that waffles in long words about quantum physics and sexual magic is pure hokum. But it's an extension - a logical extreme, if you will - of the ridiculous scripts we've suspended our senses of disbelief through when watching everything from FRANKENSTIEN to VIDEODROME.
CHEMICAL WEDDING is not high art. It's high schlock. With a brain.
WEDDING is cleverly paced so that it's never dull and, even though it crams a plethora of ideas into it's 100 minute running time, it manages to waste no time in getting to what is the real highlight of the film: Callow's performance as the Crowley-possessed Haddo. I've had difficulty stomaching Callow in his more weighty roles of the last two decades, but here we see him indulging himself in an outrageous character prone to spitting out obscenities, urinating in public and wanking at inopportune moments. It's the best he's been since TV's "Chance In A Million" in the mid 80s. Even his turn as the bumbling pre-Crowley Haddo is a pleasure to witness, a comedic highlight.
Elsewhere, you could accuse CHEMICAL WEDDING of failing to sufficiently flesh out characters. The romantic lead duo of Mathers and Lia are particularly two-dimensional and therefore impossible to give a fig about. Other characters seem to get lost in a plot that has so much to cover.
But it hardly matters, as this is a celebration of a warped concept, co-written by director Doyle and Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, that is as silly as it is thought-provoking. The fact that it allows for plenty of nudity, offensive behaviour and weirdness is a bonus.
The horror aspect doesn't come through as strongly as I'd hoped. The opening scenes are the darkest the film has to offer in terms of atmosphere, whereas the later horror sequences have a more comic book style to them. They're more absurd, bordering at times on being brazenly tongue-in-cheek.
For the most part though, CHEMICAL WEDDING rides the fine line between the macabre and the ludicrous in the finest British horror film tradition.
Best described as a guilty pleasure, I made a note while watching CHEMICAL WEDDING that likened it to THE MOTHER OF TEARS. It's often daft in a similar way to that film and I can imagine some audiences finding it just as laugh-out-loud funny. But WEDDING is infinitely more satisfying - not only because we're not witnessing the fall of a master, but because Doyle's film is at least sincere in it's motive and upfront about it's crazier content. It also possesses an energy absent in Argento's latest.
CHEMICAL WEDDING is a curious film, one that wallows in cheese and tries desperately to mask the intelligence that's gone into making it. At times it makes no sense whatsoever (perhaps that's when I wrote THE MOTHER OF TEARS!), yet somehow comes away with its watchability unfazed. And that's despite its soundtrack featuring a combination of metal songs (yes, Iron Maiden feature) and ukulele-led ditties.
The film is presented uncut in a spiffing anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer. The definition is amazingly detailed, while colours are bold and expertly rendered. It's an exceptionally clean and sharp presentation - as you'd expect from such a recent production.
Equally, both English audio mixes - 2.0 and 5.1 options 0 are excellent. The latter in particular offers a clearer, more well-balanced and at times jarringly effective playback.
A scene-selection menu allows access to the main feature via 29 chapters.
An illuminating and colourful animated main menu acts as the portal to a sub-menu offering a wealth of interesting extras.
First off the block is "Revelations", an interesting 21-minute Making Of featurette. Filmed on location at the time of shooting, this manages to coax onscreen comments from just about everyone involved in the production. There's a fair bit of backslapping from people stating how brave they were to even contemplate making a film based on Crowley, but once you're past that this is pretty insightful stuff.
29 minutes of deleted scenes follow, in timecoded anamorphic 1.78:1. There's nothing of real note here, and although they're billed as deleted scenes, a fair few of them are actually alternate takes and outtakes.
The theatrical trailer is an entertaining trashy 2 minutes in anamorphic 1.78:1. It does a good job of making the film look fast-paced and outrageous.
"The Chemical Wedding Files" are well-written text essays on various figures and factors relevant when researching Crowley's life. The well-read essays take in the likes of Hitler, Ian Fleming and Joseph of Arimathaea. Fascinating.
Finally, there's a commentary track for the main feature from Dickinson and Doyle. It's packed with insights into their level of research on Crowley (a great deal, it would appear), and little anecdotes here and there concerning the film's production. As you'd imagine, there's a fair bit of frivolity being shared between the two - especially during the orgy scene (during which Dickinson alludes to some genuine naughtiness afoot on set). Callow's more excessive moments elicit laughter too. It's a fun track, occasionally stilted but for the most part breathless and informative. Dickinson came across as annoying to begin with, but he grows on you - ultimately, you can't knock the man's enthusiasm.
There's a part of me that feels like I shouldn't be recommending CHEMICAL WEDDING. It's just odd. It shouldn't work, what with it's shifting of themes between sexual drama, horror and time travel. Perhaps it won't work for those in search of a new HELLRAISER, or even a Brit shocker that's going to bruise along the lines of BROKEN.
But if you want fun and don't mind forsaking tension or characterization to get it, then this is a guilty pleasure indeed.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Momentum Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|