If you only see two American indie features co-starring Satan this year, one should obviously be “The Witch.” The other almost certainly will turn out to be “The Alchemist Cookbook,” the latest micro-budget effort from Grand Rapids, Mich., auteur Joel Potrykus. Hardly a conventional horror movie — though it would match up very nicely on a double bill with “The Witch,” or “The Blair Witch Project” for that matter — and far from scary (save for its protagonist), this unclassifiable miniature involving a man in a trailer in the woods trying to contact the Dark Lord is as funny and distinctive as it is near-plotless. It’s certain to expand the writer-director’s audience from his more reality-tethered black comedy “Buzzard,” which also premiered in SXSW’s Visions program two years earlier.
Though we have zero idea how exactly he wound up here, Sean (Ty Hickson, “Gimme the Loot”) seems to know just what he’s doing in the backwoods of West Michigan’s Allegan County. It involves a chemistry set, a blowtorch, a gas mask, wild-animal traps, Latin incantations and other tools by which he apparently hopes to supernaturally generate wealth. Of course, it might also summon up an ancient demon whose subterranean bellows can occasionally be heard echoing through the forest, and who doubtless will be more trouble than Sean is equipped to handle.
For the time being, however, he’s giddy about his prospects, despite having only a slate-gray cat named Kaspar as an audience. In Hickson’s irresistible performance, Sean is an extrovert in an introvert’s hermit-like circumstances, one who sometimes jumps up and down on a fallen tree trunk for the sheer fun of it. Yet he seems sullen and withdrawn by comparison when his friend Cortez (a hilarious Amari Cheatom) arrives, bearing needed supplies but also bringing more outside scrutiny than Sean wants at present. Their second encounter here ends badly, presaging a drastic downturn in the hero’s fortunes in which terror, violence and Belial himself seize control. Of course, it could also be that Sean is simply mad from having gone off his meds — he’s very upset earlier when Cortez appears to have forgotten a prescription-pill refill.
Chaptered progress proceeds in a series of short sequences that sometimes have an improvisational feel in terms of dialogue and physical business, but never feel aimless. It’s left to viewers to decide whether Sean’s flirtation with black magic is the cause or just another effect of his mental-health downfall. (Muddying that question further are eventual makeup mutation effects by Jeffery Husselman and Daniel Falicki.)
Fans of absurdist indie comedies who find themselves watching a quasi-horror pic are likely to be happier than horror fans who find themselves watching an absurdist indie comedy with a demon in it. But while “The Alchemist Cookbook” certainly won’t be for everyone, it will surely delight and surprise those who can grok its idiosyncratic content.
Largely shot in the cramped trailer, the package is nothing if not modest, yet always assured. Some diverse soundtracked music reflecting Minor Threat T-shirt-wearing Sean’s eclectic taste (from Beethoven to Detroit rapper Esham and Midwest punk popsters Smoking Popes) adds considerable appeal.