Wednesday, February 19, 2020

THE ASTROLOGER (1977) (Severin Films Blu-ray Review)


Label: Severin Films
Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 79 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English subtitles

Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: James Glickenhaus
Cast: Bob Byrd, Mark Buntzman, James Glickenhaus, Alison McCarthy
Al Narcisse, Monica Tidwell, Ivy White   

In this obscure 70's sci-fi thriller we have a secret agency called Interzod lead by scientist Alexei Abernal (Bob Byrd), who has spent years developing a strangely accurate pseudo-science involving astrology blended with modern day computing and historical data to predict any individual's zodiacal potential based on their birth-date and other environmental 

factors. This zodiacal potential determining if that person will lead a average life or have great potential to change the world for either good or for evil. Apparently the U.S. government is a big supporter with Interzod being in part funded through secret-funds channeled through the department of defense. 

On their radar is an Indian cult-leader named Kajerste (Mark Buntzman, The Exterminator) who holds a peculiar influence over his devout followers, having been identified by Interzod as having even more negative Zodiacal potential than even Adolph Hitler! As the overly convoluted plot unfolds Abernol recruits U.S. Congressman Joe Harwell (Al Narcisse) to travel to India to help assassinate the cult-leader. This covert operation involves darting Kajerste with tranquilizers and implanting pre-recorded videotaped transmissions directly into his brain via electrodes, which will trigger him to somehow commit suicide by slitting his wrist with a poisoned blade. 

As if that's not already a massive amount of plot, somehow Abernal's new bride Kate (Monica Tidwell, Nocturna) is also mixed-up in all this Zodiac sign strangeness. She begins to sort of unravel this mystery after visiting a fortune teller, who is far and away my favorite character in the whole weird film. When Kate reveals to her husband that she's been seeing the fortune teller he forbids her to explore it further. Meanwhile 

he is desperately seeking to acquire an ancient document that will reveal the Virgin Mary's birth date, which is somehow connected to his wife's zodiacal potential, and also part of the reason he has never consummated 
their marriage. 

This nutty convoluted film is a real head-scratcher, it's not awful in my opinion, it's actually percolating with some typically far-out 70's notions, it's just a bit inept in it's construction. It was made as a student film according to director James Glickenhaus (McBain), this was his first film and he readily admits it has shortcomings, with it being overly dialogue driven and a bit of bore visually, it makes the mistake of telling us about all the cool stuff instead of showing us, beginning with a lengthy opening narration that sets it up, and then again with lots of expository dialogue that fails to deliver on the cool premise that I thought was actually quiet interesting. The whole things sort of brings to mind a mixture of 70's films like mind The Omen (1976) and the sorely underrated Larry Cohen cult-classic God Told Me To (1976). There's lots of interesting ideas floating around here, unfortunately their more talked about than seen.  

Visually this is kind of an ugly film, made on a shoestring-budget it's lensed somewhat shoddily, with even worse editing, we get locations set in India poorly realized with cheap stock footage and some local locations shoddily dressed up to reflect the setting, pretty typical of a low-budget film, think of the 'Nam setting in Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except! (1985). That's to be expected with a a cheapie grindhouse flick of the era, but the thing that really started chewing on me were the transitional scenes, at the end of a scene the image would stop and transition to a negative image, bleeding into the next scenes with futuristic Letraset Data 70 font title cards indicating a dizzying array of dates, locations and times so dang often that it started to wear me down. 

The acting is spotty at the best of times, a lot of the cast never did another film, but at least Playboy Playmate '73 Monica Tidwell (Nocturna) offers up some appreciated skin throughout the film, and Glickenhaus himself shows up in a strange cameo as, well he's credited as a "spy", but really an errand driving one of his beloved fast cars to pick-up the errant Kate who has inexplicably run-off with an band of gypsies onto the forest! One of the more distasteful 

and exploitative elements of the film is the inclusion of what looks to be some real-life Mondo Cane-esque footage of bloated corpses floating in a river, these shots linger a bit longer than necassary, not fitting in with the aesthetic of the film, and at just under 80-min long it feels like the pointless Glickenhaus cameo and the gruesome mondo footage is padding to get this student film to feature-length. 

Audio/Video: The Astrologer (1977) arrives on Blu-ray from Severin Films with a new 4K scan of the director's answer print. The 1080p presentation is framed in the original 1.85:1 widescreen and looks pretty spiffy with a few small exceptions. Grain is present throughout, coming through a bit harsher in a few darker lit scenes but generally appearing very pleasing. There's some minor fading and softness in a few shots but colors are warm and well saturated with some welcome fine detail in the close-ups. There's are some vertical scratches evident throughout, you can see there's been some restoration applied but a few scenes stick out, but for the most part this is a fairly lush presentation of this obscure 70's offering. 

Audio on the disc comes by way of English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono with Optional English subtitles. Dialogue is generally clean and crisp sounding, some of it's not recorded all that well with strange acoustic room-based

fluctuations, but that's inherent to the source. The film has a minimalist but foreboding score from Brad Fiedel who has scored lots of great stuff, including Night School, Just Before Dawn, Fright Night and The Terminator, it might not his best stuff but it serves the film.  

Severin give this film some love with about 40-min worth of interviews and extras, beginning with former Fangoria editor Michael Gingold who gives us an 8-min tour of the locations used in the film then and now beginning on the SUNY Purchase campus. I love these location visits with Gingold who takes us to the St. Bartholomew's church location, the Westchester County Airport, the Rutherford Observatory, and various NYC street locations. Also pointing out a few locations they couldn't get access to like Glickenhaus's former family home and a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut. I dig that Gingold gives a bit of historical content for each of the locations, mentioning that the Sutton Park Place location is very near the infamous bench scene in Abel Ferrara's Ms.45 (1981), and the site of the Rutherford Observatory was an integral part of the top-secret Manhattan Project which spawned the atom bombs dropped on Japan during WWII.   

There's also a 14-min interview with filmmakers Brendan Faulkner and Frank M. Farel who performed gaffer and assistant cameraman duties on the film. They were complete novices at the time who learned as they went along, mentioning the "mass exodus" of the film crew at one point which lead to them being promoted on the spot. They also discuss producer Mark Buntzman, who also also played the cult-leader, having a strange presence that was not dissimilar to that of his character. They also address the older Indian actor who played the gas station attendant in the film, who was a janitor that worked in the office building of the director's father. Noting how ecstatic he was to get cast in the movie, though they do indicate the role may have lead to his death from pneumonia a short time later. They also comment on the various locations and how the Glickenhaus family's connection vastly increased the resources available to the low-budget production. 

I was glad to see director James Glickenhaus sits for 10-min conversation about the film, which he identities as a student film, saying he learned a lot about filmmaking from the mistakes he made on this, including that film is a visual medium, and this was way too talky. He also notes that some of the sci-fi elements and themes seen in the film are quite relative today, particularly the notion of faking reality in regard to the current political climate. He's quite candid about the failings of the film, but makes sure to point out that every director has to start somewhere. He gets into the indie film scene at the time, how it was easier to get theatrical distribution, and that local film equipment companies and labs often cut novice filmmaker a break, that they were willing to take chances on aspiring filmmakers. He also talks about touring theatrical prints of the film out of the back of his car trunk, and the distributors decision to re-title the film, using the more exploitative 'Suicide Cult' to cash in on the then current Jonestown Massacre tragedy. 

Finally, actress and former Playboy Playmate Monica Tidwell speaks for 6-min, beginning by telling the story of how she began her modeling career after being spotted on the streets of Chicago, leading to her Playboy centerfold in 1973 when she was just eighteen. She describes the experience of making the film as very pleasant, getting into the easy casting process, and how supportive everybody was. She says she was surprised by the amount of make-up applied to her whole body for her nude scenes,and also comments on the actor dying of pneumonia.  She finishes up by saying she was not a fan of seeing herself on the big screen, everything was so heightened and every gesture exaggerated, and hating the ill-fitting re-titling of the film by the distributors. 

Special Features:

-Sign of the Times: James Glickenhaus on The Astrologer (10 min) HD 
-Monica Tidwell Remembers The Astrologer: Interview With Actress Monica Tidwell (6 min) HD 
-Tales From the Set: Interviews with Filmmakers Brendan Faulkner and Frank M. Farel (14 min) 
-Zodiacal Locations: The Filming Sites of The Astrologer (8 min) HD 
-Reversible Sleeve of artwork with the Suicide Cult alternate artwork.

The Astrologer (1977) is a stiff 70's sci-fi thriller, but the scrappy flick is not without it's grindhouse charms. If you're into weird cult cinema along the lines of God Told Me To (1976) or Blue Sunshine (1977) I think you're gonna find this  bizarre film fascinating on several levels, even if it's ideas and themes are far grander than the execution. Severin Films have put together a fantastic looking presentation with some excellent extras that I thoroughly enjoyed, highly recommended.  

More Screenshots from the Blu-ray 

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