The Alchemist Cookbook is a challenging film that defies categorization; it’s part horror, part drama, part comedy and all quirky. It stands out from the bulk of today’s genre movies due to its unconventional style — essentially a one-man show, with a slow pace, ambiguous content, minimal dialogue and even more minimal plot — but when you factor in the lead being African American, it’s pretty much one of a kind.
Its uniqueness makes the film worthwhile viewing, but it’s a trying experience that demands patience and a high tolerance for watching protracted scenes of a disheveled man eating and drinking sloppily. Terminally “indie” in its approach, it strives for realism in portraying the mundane events of the everyday life of main character Sean (Ty Hickson), a gawky, reclusive young man who moves to a trailer in the middle of the woods, where, using a mysterious book, he conducts chemistry — or rather, alchemy — experiments in an attempt to get rich by manufacturing gold.
The only other human in the film is Sean’s cousin Cortez (Amari Cheatom), who brings him food and supplies, despite doubting his ability to succeed in his get-rich-quick (or not so quick) scheme. When Cortez forgets medication for his cousin’s unnamed illness, however, Sean begins to lose his already tenuous grasp on sanity. The strange, guttural sounds he hears in the woods become more frequent, and his disappointment at his plan’s failure leads him to delve deeper into his book to conjure the demon he believes is nearby. And that always turns out well, right?
The Alchemist Cookbook certainly isn’t for everyone, even diehard horror fans. It’s one of those “is it real or is he hallucinating” movies that can prove frustrating to some, and there’s not a ton of action, gore, scares or well, anything substantive. It feels like it’s shot via hidden camera in some backwoods hermit’s residence, practically every scene hanging on long enough to become awkward and cringe-worthy. A minute of nothing but open-mouth Doritos chewing? Sign me up!
But it’s also got a spark of originality and unpredictability that’s rare in modern cinema. It’s best enjoyed (granted, that’s a generous term) as an immersive experience, kind of like an artsy and/or drug-induced riff on The Blair Witch Project. Hickson’s rough-hewn performance only adds to the gritty, atonal realism of the film.
Part of its originality is its all-black cast — not something one expects in a genre where black people traditionally die by the halfway point of the film. But, like Night of the Living Dead back in the late ’60s, the casting here is color blind. You could’ve easily swapped a white actor into the role of Sean (he even listens to an eclectic mix of hip-hop, rock and classical music), and while Cortez uses “urban slang” and drops a number of N-bombs, those details — and his race — aren’t integral to the story; they’re more like personality quirks.
Thus, for all its frustrating qualities, The Alchemist Cookbook remains a refreshing and noteworthy milestone in the history of black horror cinema.