There’s been a running trend in the more notable indie horror the past few years. Bombast and over the top splatter has given way to smarter, cerebral, character examinations and more personal stories. External monsters and threats make way for the terrors that lurk inside our own minds. Director Joel Potrykus’ follows up his black comedy Buzzard with another solid effort that examines paranoia, mental illness and the occult in the subdued but effective The Alchemist Cookbook.
Sean (Ty Hickson) has removed himself from the inner city, holing up in the middle of the woods in his uncle’s deserted trailer. Isolated from the world with the exception of his beloved cat Cass, Sean spends his night cooking up batches of chemicals in order to communicate with demonic entities. As he spends more time alone and as his medication supply dwindles then evaporates, Sean’s state of mind rapidly begins to disintegrate.
On the plus side of the ledger, Hickson gives a remarkable performance as Sean. Clad in his omnipresent Minor Threat teeshirt, and bouncing around the trailer to punk blasts while mowing down Doritos by the bagful, Hickson wastes no time allowing the audience to get to know and like Sean, making his descent into madness all the more difficult to watch. Hickson lends his character’s descent into madness a sense of twitchy, bug eyed grace. Sean’s mental instability isn’t marked by a complete transformation of character. The laughing, dancing, cat loving guy is still there, bubbling under the skin. What’s on the surface though is a distorted version of the man, like something filtered through a funhouse mirror or nightmare. Potrykus adds subtle touches in his set design, making the already cramped trailer seem all the more claustrophobic as trash begins to cover every surface the longer Sean goes without his stabilizing medication.
While Hickson’s performance is captivating, the story, or lack thereof is weighed down by inertia. There’s not much going on in the film, and despite a trim 80 minute runtime, it seems to drag on too often. Aside from brief visits from Sean’s fast talking, profanity spitting cousin Cortez (Amari Cheatomin a bit of comic relief) there’s no one for Sean to play off of. While Potrykus offers up a handful of tense moments, including a bonfire chat between Sean and a pissed off demon wearing his cousin’s skin, these moments are too few and far between. I found myself nodding off a couple times towards the end before Hicson would pull me back in. The film never answers the question why Sean was contacting the demon or what he hoped to accomplish, focusing only on the deterioration of his mental health.
The Alchemist Cookbook is worth a watch for Hickson’s performance. It’s a joy to watch an actor get so uninhibited in his role. While it would have made for a better film to have a plot on par with the performer, it’s still a fascinating look at mental illness mixed with small amounts of the supernatural.