The Alchemist’s Cookbook (2016, dir. Joel Potrykus)
A man named Sean lives in a trailer home deep in the woods outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan. At first glance, it would be easy to mistake his set up as a meth lab, but after further observation, it is revealed he is an amateur alchemist. His only constant companion is Kaspar, his cat, but he does receive erratic visits from Cortez, a cousin, who brings supplies. Cortez is unaware of just what his Sean is up to and that his cousin is close to making contact with demon Belial, whom Sean believes will provide him with incalculable wealth.
It’s hard to classify this film as any one thing. There are touches of drama and of horror and a little comedy. It never settles on one thing, and some reviewers have taken to calling it a “punk” film more than anything else. Director Potrykus has a track record of making films in this off-kilter, low-fi style. I personally don’t connect with much from the punk genre, and that would likely explain why this movie left me frustrated. I can’t see any reason I’ll remember this film.
There is so much here in the ingredients list that should have guaranteed I’d love it. The rural setting, deep in the woods, always an excellent location for horror. I definitely have an affinity for stories about the demonic and humans who are a little too arrogant in their abilities to deal with a summoned entity. There is a sense of danger and tension from the first moments of the film. However, that feels undercut as the tone shifts from chapter to chapter. Or worse yet, the tone goes with a distant documenting of a man pouring substances into various vials without informing the audience of what is going on.
The biggest problem I had with Cookbook was the lack of character development. There is only one real presence on screen, Sean. And with an hour and a half, I ended the film feeling like I still didn’t know much about him. I never needed anything explicit, but some reasons could have been hinted at as to why he was driven to the wilderness and devoted himself to this pursuit of gold. Lots of scenes give us the sense of what this world feels like and Sean’s mannerisms, but never a good sense of motivation. The entire picture seems like a tedious exercise in improv where nothing really bubbles to the surface in the end.
There are great moments throughout, though. Sean and Cortez’s interactions are funny and entertaining, though they mess with the tension. There is a sense of some sort of structure through the chapter breaks and the progression of day into darkness that some key scenes touch on. As a whole, Alchemist’s Cookbook sadly failed to meet my expectations. I was honestly, excited to sit down and watch this one after seeing it’s great trailer. In the end, it feels too insubstantial to recommend and won’t really satisfy any fans of the many genres it touches on.