THE EMPIRE BEGINS – THE ALCHEMIST (1983)
I can’t say for sure why The Alchemist sat on the shelf for so long.
It does seem a bit unfinished, and certainly less action packed than either Parasite or Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-syn, but it’s also a crucial step in the evolution of Charles Band’s directorial style and – most importantly – for the development of Empire International Pictures.
That said, audiences looking for a bold new direction in horror cinema might very well have been disappointed by the meager thrills and undemanding pace of the film, which spends a huge chunk of its running time with two bland characters who find themselves both overwhelmed and confused by the various supernatural goings on.
It is, however, blessed with the star power of post-The Exterminator Robert Ginty, who plays a kind woodsman/glass-blower(?) in the 1870s who finds himself at odds with DelGatto (played, briefly, by Parasite‘s Robert Glaudini) a wizard obsessed with Aaron’s wife Anna (Lucinda Dooling). They have a confrontation, and Aaron accidentally stabs an entranced Anna to death. DelGatto curses a distraught Aaron with eternal life and a nighttime desire to hunt and kill.
Jump ahead 70 years to 1955, where waitress Lenora (also Lucinda Dooling) is driving across the country, picking up impulsive but kind-hearted hitchhiker Cam (John Sanderford) for some company along the way. However, Aaron’s now grown daughter Esther has made a deal with the devil to help break her father’s curse, pulling Lenora and Cam into their tale of possession, tiny goblins and a final confrontation with DelGatto in a weird apocalyptic hellscape.
The Alchemist is bookended with some pretty great material, particularly in the FX-filled final twenty minutes. Sadly, everything leading up to that is quite mundane, particularly the awful, irritating character (and relationship) development between Lenora and Cam. Their sniping is meant to be charming, but feels more like a film desperately spinning its wheels.
Equally as bad are the numerous POV shots of a beast-like Aaron stalking the woods at night. Not only don’t we see his “animal” form, but these sequences are painfully dark and devoid of tension, aside from the fear that Aaron’s grandmotherly daughter Esther might be attacked.
Much of this would be more objectionable if it weren’t for Richard Band’s terrific, mysterious score for the film which wonderfully plays up the fairytale atmosphere and adds some much needed pathos to Aaron’s bouts of anguish. The memorable main theme is likely to stick with you for much longer than the film as a whole .
It seems like even Charles Band wasn’t too inspired by the final results, either. Not only did he shuffle it onto video in Europe before finally giving it a United States theatrical run in 1984, but he also took his name off the picture – instead going by the pseudonymous James Amante.
The Alchemist remains a sporadically entertaining oddity in Charles Band’s early career, and – perhaps most importantly – one of the first films released through Empire International Pictures. It wastes a game Robert Ginty, and spends a good chunk of its time spinning its wheels, but patient viewers will eventually be rewarded with a successful playwright being sliced in half by a magic door.