“What are you doing in here?”
If Jeff Nichols, the director behind slow-burn, low-key genre pictures like Take Shelter and Midnight Special decided to tackle a remake of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, the result might end up looking like Joel Potrykus’s The Alchemist Cookbook. Creepy, comical and blessed with a DIY-charm, The Alchemist Cookbook stars Ty Hickson as Sean, a heavily-medicated hermit living a secluded life in a run-down trailer in the woods.
Day and night, Sean experiments with broken lightbulbs, battery acid and other potentially harmful materials, always consulting a mysterious book with an alchemy symbol on the cover. Sean’s only interactions are with his rather chill cat Kasper, and his not-so-chill friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom). Cortez is Sean’s liaison to the outside world: he drives an hour and a half both-ways to visit, bringing Sean groceries and refills of medication. Prone to talking to himself and intense paranoia, Sean is on the cusp of a breakthrough — ready to summon something from another world into ours. Or is he? Things don’t start truly going off the rails for Sean until Cortez neglects to bring him his medication. Are there truly dark, malevolent forces at work in the woods, or is it all a product of Sean’s unbalanced mind?
Broken into ominous-sounding chapters, The Alchemist Cookbook is a neo-horror character piece, low on dialogue and heavy on mood. The low-rent, duct-taped together existence Sean leads bleeds into the way director Potrykus approaches the film, with the filmmaker relying on the limited space he has to work in and making ample use of it. The Alchemist Cookbook build and builds, but it never quite bursts through. There’s a meandering at work here that’s no doubt meant to mirror Sean’s meandering existence, but it can play hell on the viewer after a while. Hickson is great at playing up Sean’s more unbalanced states, but the character and performance are so manic that it’s difficult to get a read on him. Cheatom brings a welcome levity and energy in his scenes as the affable but clueless Cortez, but this is mostly a Hickson one-man-show.
Employing a kick-ass soundtrack, The Alchemist Cookbook is enjoyable up to a point. Beginning innocently enough, the film builds up its darkness at a leisurely pace, amplifying its effect. By the time The Alchemist Cookbook has reached its climax, however, it loses sight of what it wants to be. There’s horror, but there’s also a confusing denouement that feels rushed and unfinished. By the time the credits roll, scored to a creepy old-timey recording of Jingle Bells, you’ll likely be more confused than the film’s protagonist as to what you just saw. Still, it’s exciting and admirable that a film that does so much with so little. Potrykus is showing that you don’t need an ever-increasing budget to create something unique, and there’s something magical about that.