Every decade or so, when the stars are right and the aethers are correctly aligned, somebody announces a biopic of Aleister Crowley; Kenneth Anger, Ken Russell and more recently Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson spring readily to mind. The Edwardian adventurer, poet, painter, mystic and sexual athlete should make a fantastic subject, the multiple layers that wove through his life – magic and misery, art and arseholism, exoticism and exhibitionism – presenting aeons of richly layered, highly visual dramatic material from which to weave celluloid wizard’s robes.
That such a film has not yet been made remains something of a mystery, though Crowley’s spirit is present, albeit in caricatured form, in Night of the Demon‘s Carswell and The Devil Rides Out‘s Mocata, both films, it should be noted, of a certain age. Equally mysterious, especially given Old Crow’s penchant for self-promotion, is that no film footage of the man is known to exist. So there is none to be found in this ambitious DVD documentary, released on the 50th anniversary of its subject’s death.
Narrated by a throaty Joss Ackland, surely anybody’s choice to play the senior Beast, the DVD follows an unerringly straight and narrow biographical path for its two-hour running time. Despite some decent dramatised readings and reconstructions, its linear approach gives the feel of an illustrated biographical essay rather than a documentary film and, while information-rich, it lacks the tension required to bring this Beast to life, making getting through it in one sitting something of a challenge.
Content-wise, excluding some extremely minor factual discrepancies, the occasional instance of strange pronunciation and the odd random internet rumour thrown in for good measure, In Search of presents a solid overview of To Mega Therion’s life. But in breathlessly cramming in all the salacious details, it forgets ever to pause and wonder ‘why’? It’s not an easy question to answer, but in a world already seething with Crowleyana, any new addition to the pile might attempt to do so.
There are no surprises here. In Search of focuses primarily on Crowley’s deeds of darkness, presented in a Hammer horror monotone more suited to the era of John Symond’s 1952 biography, The Great Beast, than to the present day. The arch Goth visual design, all cracked facades and sepia tones, adds to the living storybook feel, while Rick Wakeman’s score flows over every available moment of screen time, adding a prerequisite sheen of melancholy and menace to an already well-polished surface. The presence of Wakeman, who once wore a cape and now, as a committed Christian, presumably prefers a cassock, personifies to a tee the film’s tone of prurient fascination.
The fifty years since his death have thrown up greater boogeymen than Crowley, and any new study ought to reflect the complexities of his personality and the turbulent times in which he lived. Although a decent biographical introduction for those who don’t want to read a book, In Search of sheds no new light on the man who succeeded so admirably as a magus and mythmaker, yet failed so miserably as a human being.