A twitchy young man sits in a filthy trailer, excitedly cobbling together… something. Given his gas mask, you might think he’s making meth, or possibly bombs. Which doesn’t explain all of the random religious paraphernalia and ancient texts strewn about, really. Or, come to think of it, the occasional unearthly howling from the woods outside.
The Alchemist Cookbook, the latest from writer/director Joel Potrykus (Buzzard, Ape), is a certifiably strange object: a mumblecorish character sketch that gradually, amiably slouches into full-fledged horror. While the resolution doesn’t quite match the buildup, there’s plenty of oddness to savor throughout, amplified by a toweringly weird central performance from Ty Hickson.
The camera keeps uncomfortably close to the main character as he works on his slowly disclosed plan, while barely tolerating the occasional visits from a semi-concerned family member (the hilarious Amari Cheatom). That’s about it, really. Any attempt at a plot description, though, neglects the small, absorbingly bizarre bits scattered through virtually every scene. The fact that it’s often genuinely scary helps, too. With an effects budget likely ranking in the single digits, Potrykus’s film beats the recent Blair Witch revamp in making the woods a place where a Terrible Thing could be lurking behind every twig, especially—and most impressively—during the daylight.
The Alchemist Cookbook’s biggest weapon, however, proves to be Hickson, a talented actor who was downright terrific in the SIFF fave Gimmie the Loot. Here, he appears to be taking his cues from somewhere in another dimension, sporting tics and obsessive patterns that don’t land anywhere on the standard Hollywood chart of afflictions. His efforts, while rarely pleasant to watch, give this bizarre little squiffle of a film some real fascinating impact. In a movie filled with wrongness, watching him power through a bag of Doritos is somehow the uneasiest.