Michigan director Joel Potrykus has caused some mixed reactions among the crew here at TMT. While we were absolutely enthralled by the inventiveness of last year’s Buzzard, we felt that some of his more adventurous attempts in Ape verged on the cloying. Regardless of the consistency of his as-of-yet small output, hearing this low-budget filmmaker is releasing something new always perks our ears up. And so I’m very happy to report that his latest continues some of the honing of focus we saw with Buzzard, distilling the director’s ability to capture indelible moments to the point where dialogue is more of a harmonic embellishment than an aid to the plot.
While we don’t know for sure The Alchemist Cookbook’s location, it’s pretty easy to assume (for those who’ve been there) that it all takes place in the northwestern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. It’s a kind of swampy, kind of hilly place with a lot of weird old Dutch legends and some gorgeous, Pure Michigan™ fall colors. Potrykus seems to have made the decision to set his film here because of its remoteness and stark beauty (stark at least when all the leaves have fallen). The director doesn’t waste much time in introducing his central character. We meet Sean (Ty Hickson) outside an old-school camper in the middle of some dense woods, gathering some forest materials and walking with a leg brace. By keeping his camera at a distance and employing sound design to highlight the isolation of the scene, the director essentially tells us everything we need to know about Sean to get us started.
Completely alone in the woods with nothing but some metal and rap cassettes, Gatorade, terrible lunch meat, white bread, Doritos, and his cat to keep him company, we quickly understand that Sean is obsessed with finding a way to make as much money as possible with as little human interaction as possible. Potrykus follows this up with some hypnotic sequences where Sean cuts open batteries with utility knives and mixes all sorts of ridiculously colored chemical compounds while reading from some beat up copy of a vaguely demonic book. Hickson employs all sorts of sub-verbal communication to acquaint us with just how far he’s left societal norms behind in search of a way to vastly increase his own experience, power, and affluence. A dark hermit, Sean’s contentment and tether to reality is the happiness of his cat Kaspar, credited in the film as being played by Fiji.
Sean’s isolated himself so completely that the only other person he’s seen in what we can only assume is a tremendous amount of time is his cousin Cortez. A humorous, put-upon family member who makes a three-hour car trip every week to bring Sean more Doritos and batteries and some unnamed pills, Cortez is played so well by Amari Cheatom that at first it’s easy to assume this film will shift focus entirely and follow him back to whichever city he came from (probably Grand Rapids). These pills that Cortez brings Sean seem vitally important to what little grip on reality he still has while he’s shacked up in BFE, and the one time Cortez forgets them sets us up for the really weird stuff that takes this movie squarely into its stated genre of horror.
By the time Sean’s had his inevitable first meeting with something either psychologically or supernaturally derived, we’ve experienced enough of his steadily ramping up unhinging to understand this is exactly what Potrykus was building up to the whole time. Of course it’s no coincidence that the title of this film so closely apes The Anarchist Cookbook. What Potrykus is getting at ties in pretty closely with the loner aesthetic that book helped establish back in the day. The horror of The Alchemist Cookbook works because it’s so benign in its own way. It isn’t very hard to imagine going off the rails as tremendously when faced with such a meager existence of living in a shed eating junk food and feeling the rest of the world slip away as slowly as it is inevitably.