Aw, man! Judge Victor Valdivia was going for the title "Wickedest Man in the World!" All that work for nothing!
The wickedest man in the world.
How do take the story of the world's most famous Satanist and make it about as compelling as a day in the life of a city comptroller? By doing what In Search of the Great Beast 666 does: focusing on every minute detail of his life except the whole Satanist part. You'll likely never hear as much about Aleister Crowley the mountain climber, Aleister Crowley the poet, or Aleister Crowley the homeowner as you will on this disc. That's not a positive selling point, however. Where are the blood orgies? Where are the blasphemies, heresies, and acts of wanton carnality and debauchery? Hell, in this documentary Crowley doesn't come off nearly half as sadistic and deranged as, say, Richard Nixon—and Nixon was raised as a Quaker, for Pete's sake.
Why is this a huge flaw? Because these days, the only people who even remember Crowley at all are aging heavy metal fans (ahem) who dimly recall Crowley as that British dude who was so revered by Ozzy Osbourne and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. That would have surely pained Crowley himself, who possessed a colossal ego and a deep conviction of his genius as both a poet and a philosopher. Clearly, Robert Garofalo, who directed this film, shares Crowley's opinion of himself and wants to use this film to revive interest in Crowley's life and work. Unfortunately, Garofalo's attempt to elevate Crowley's stature by downplaying his more scabrous and degenerate behavior in favor of only focusing on his highbrow pursuits does both Crowley and viewers a huge disservice. Unless you really already know about Crowley's influence in occult circles, you'll be wondering why you're watching a two-hour film about some obscure Victorian Englishman who wrote bad poetry and really loved mountaineering.
To be sure, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was an important figure in the rise of occultism, albeit for different reasons that he would have liked. As a theorist and researcher, Crowley was not bad—he did have some influence in certain aspects of occultism, although not as widespread as he wanted. Crowley was really a gifted self-promoter and fundraiser. It was Crowley who turned occultism from an obscure practice into a public fascination, chronicled in tabloids and newspapers. When Crowley labeled himself "the wickedest man in the world," he was being ironic, but was also savvy enough to understand that the notoriety over his exploits could land him several rich benefactors to fund his writing and research. After Crowley, occultism wasn't just a fad for the idle rich (which Crowley himself was)—it was cool, a way for anyone hip enough to get the references and irony in his work to distinguish themselves. Small wonder that most of Crowley's biggest admirers would eventually be hip British rock stars—Page, Osbourne, Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, even the Beatles (who put Crowley on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). Whether Crowley was ever really as debauched as his reputation is not entirely clear, but the fact that people think he was just means that he accomplished at least one of his goals.
In Search of the Great Beast 666 is an attempt to unravel the mystery of Crowley's life. Unfortunately, Garofalo only does half the job he should. There's plenty of biographical detail of Crowley's childhood and early life. The film makes clear how Crowley's deeply selfish and conceited nature was the product of his childhood as the son of a rich but religious family that raised him in a joyless and stringent environment. Garofalo also uncovers various testimonials from people who knew Crowley in college and in his early days in the occultist movement who give fascinating insight into Crowley's personality. Where Garofalo goes wrong is in completely shortchanging Crowley's actual occultist work. Too often, there are several references to ceremonies, writings, or rituals that Crowley performs that are described as "shocking" or "horrifying." Why are they shocking? The film doesn't say. Similarly, there are several references to Crowley's theories and experiments with "sex magick," a technique that Crowley invented to control someone's actions. What is sex magick? You won't learn here. These are not small omissions. Maybe instead of focusing so much on Crowley's mountaineering and poetry, Garofalo should have actually taken the time to explain the fundamentals of Crowley's occultist beliefs. That would have this film a much more definitive biography.
At least Garofalo has done a very good technical job in directing the film. Because there are not many existing photographs and no film footage of Crowley, Garofalo has hired actors to portray Crowley and other important figures in his life reciting letters, journals, and articles. This could seem like a hokey conceit but it actually works in conveying the story far better than a reenactment would. Crowley and his contemporaries prided themselves as gifted wordsmiths, so even though viewers should probably take these reminiscences with a grain of salt, these segments are still remarkably effective. Also, Rick Wakeman, the keyboardist for Yes, has composed a score for this film that's appropriately haunting and eerie—in fact, there are several times that Wakeman's score is foreboding even though the scene it's accompanying is rather trivial. For these reasons, In Search of the Great Beast 666 is worth watching for viewers who have some knowledge of Crowley, but those who are only vaguely familiar with the man should start elsewhere.
This reviewer has a significant complaint: the copy provided for review was a real pain to use because it would not work on most DVD players. Disinformation Company prides itself on fighting against the evil Republican machine, but it's hard to imagine that quality control is some sort of Neo-Con plot. Both the anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and 5.1 surround mix are nice and sharp, with the surrounds providing much ambient noise and atmosphere, but the lack of any subtitles is not wise—some of the actors have thick British accents that are not easy to understand. The lack of any extras is also a huge mistake; this film simply leaves too many holes and untold stories to not offer any additional material. It's yet another reason why, even though this is an interesting topic and there are some worthy elements to this DVD, In Search of the Great Beast 666 simply can't be recommended except to hardcore Crowley fans, who will probably already know a lot of what is here anyways.
Guilty of focusing on the wrong things.
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