The Alchemist Cookbook will stand as one of 2016’s most bizarre, you-gotta-see-this genre darlings. Science, evil summonings and isolation? Filmmaker Joel Potrykus flips the “cabin in the woods” stereotype on its head with a manic analysis of obsessive insanity, all with the promise of demonic forces to come.
Scenes are fractured by outlandish chapter titles such as “Abusing Magic” and “Dismembering It All,” while a heretic hermit combines chemicals without any regard for safety (sorry, except a gas mask he puts on his cat). So much jovial weirdness around early scenes masks the consuming darkness that soon follows after, until only anxious terror remains. Woodland horror movies usually involve slashers, monsters and what have you – thankfully, Potrykus’ latest is anything but typical.
Ty Hickson stars as Sean, a loner who inhabits a tiny, nowhere shack in the middle of the woods. He has no connection to the outside world, and spends all his time playing around with chemistry recipes found in a strangely marked book. His only companions are a grey cat named Kaspar (Fiji), and Cortez (Amari Cheatom), who brings him supplies every so often. Surprisingly (sarcasm), Sean needs medication to remain somewhat balanced – which Cortez forgets to include in his latest delivery. Without his pills, Sean slowly begins to lose his grip on reality until paranoia completely takes over. That, or there really is a creature lurking around the woods outside…
Potrykus’ greatest achievement is never sticking to one subgenre, always shifting in tone whenever structural comfort seeps in. Sean’s symbolically marked journal is never addressed in definition, nor does Sean bother with chatty exposition. Tiny hints suggest Sean might be suffering from mental illness, but then black magic and fortuitous intentions reveal dark powers could also be to blame (plus toxic fumes). So you’ve got a backwoods thriller vibe, a seedy satanic story, a wacky indie character study – and that’s without mentioning Sean and Cortez’s goofy buddy comedics. The Alchemist Cookbook is about twenty different films in one, none of which would ever be expected together.
Hickson has no simple task playing lonesome Sean. The actor must bring life to scientific study, generate tension through unexplained mediums and shoulder entertainment as the only character for 90% of Potrykus’ zany tale – The Alchemist Cookbook shines because of Hickson. Skittish darting eyes and a strange diet (Doritos and Gatorade) give way to one-man dance sequences where an axe takes the place of a guitar to assert an obvious social disconnection.
Of course, this psychotic silliness doesn’t touch a final twenty-or-so minutes where Sean battles demonic visions (real or fake, neither matters), as Hickson strips away normality for fear, ferocious intrigue and chilling, chew-your-sweatshirt anticipation. Emotions are projected upon viewers, as we become one with Sean’s demon-hunting, fame-chasing, dizzy-off-the-fumes breakdown.
Think of Potrykus’ film as “Losing Your F*$king Mind For Dummies…For Genre Fans.” From scene one, Potrykus only wants to delve deeper into obscurity, not offer explanations and information. Many films attempt such ambitious tactics, but often fail in striking a vivacious-enough character to carry such minimalism. One location, one actor, a floating threat that may-or-may-not be real – Potrykus’ manipulation of isolation and forested blackness keep Hickson firing on all cylinders.
The character of Sean strikes a funky tempo that becomes the heartbeat of The Alchemist Cookbook, in a freeform jazz or mathcore prog-metal kind of way – I swear that’s a compliment, about how controlled chaos melds into something groovy and captivating. Potrykus’ filmmaking plays by its own rules, capturing human elements in an otherwise other-worldly bubble.
Everything comes at a price, warns The Alchemist Cookbook. Its methods may be unconventional, but Joel Potrykus never loses grip of the slippery strangeness. Lead actor Ty Hickson delivers one of the more interesting genre performances you’ll encounter this year, and the same can be said for Potrykus’ entire production (2016’s strangest thriller?). There’s something indulgently hypnotic about this boiling cauldron of self-exploration, as we hope Sean will find what he’s looking for in the worst way possible. Not that we WANT Sean to suffer from ungodly agreements, but as the unexpected becomes commonplace, we wonder where Potrykus could possibly take us next – only to repeat the cycle a few minutes later. Over and over the madness continues, as we sit there watching, slack-jawed and invested in one man’s descent into darkness.
"Cabin In The Woods" type horror meets isolation and insanity for what could be one of the year's more interesting genre watches in The Alchemist Cookbook.