Friday, July 1, 2022

The Alchemist's Cookbook


The Alchemist’s Cookbook
Joel Potrykus

Joel Potrykus movies often centered around a single individual at odds with his world, despite this conflict, the main character struggles to achieve a goal often focused on personal transformation. Often these characters are hyper focused on their goal, usually have fallen through any kind of social safety net (insofar as any such thing exists in the United States), and they usually only have one person they call a friend. Potrykus returns to this set-up through several films in his career, all his of them contain some humor, but The Alchemist’s Cookbook is the closest he comes to making traditional horror.

The Alchemist’s Cookbook takes this scenario to an extreme with a person purposefully isolated from the world to achieve the goal of maybe summoning a demon? Whether this obsession is actually achievable or merely in the mind of someone who is very ill is left up to the viewer. What makes this film work when literally hundreds of films about a person’s possible descent into madness lies in the writing and performance of its lead character, Sean, as played by Ty Hickson. Sean leads a strange little life that is often marked with frustration and self-endangerment but at the same time he finds joy in little moments especially with his cat, Kaspar.  We might not understand his goal, but we grow concerned to his safety in obtaining it.


This happens every year to me around the holidays.

The only other human character in the story is Sean’s friend Cortez who also appears to be out of touch as well but not really to the degree Sean is, underneath that though he genuinely cares about Sean and tries to do what he can to make sure he’s fed and healthy. There is such a weird camaraderie between these two that is difficult to not get invested in them. Which makes the encroaching horror all that more effective.

The entire film takes place in a single trailer home and the surrounding woods. As Sean’s exploration of his magic continues and his methods grow more grotesque and extreme, the woods grow more and more sinister. Soon there is a presence lurking out there, and it has its sights set on Sean. In a lot of ways, The Alchemist’s Cookbook works as a low-key Evil Dead (1981), with a figure isolated in the woods as he is assaulted by possession and demons.


"We got Red Heat on loop!"

The look of the film is split between the chaos of Sean’s trailer and calm beauty of the woods. Potrykus has a great visual sense to use visual clutter of the trailer and limited line of sight of the forest for maximum tension. There is nowhere to relax in this world and the viewer feels it more and more as time goes on. 

The Alchemist’s Cookbook is probably my favorite of Potrykus’ films (see my review of Buzzard (2015). I love its slow burn, weird humor, and ambiguous ending. Sean is a legitimately interesting and tragic figure. A great film from a director I enjoy. You might enjoy it too.

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