One of the crowning glories of the horror film genre is how much can be done with so little. From budget to effects to characters, indie horror films prove time and time again that ingenuity and vision make for great fright, not a crowded screen and a high budget (although it can be magic when all of these elements combine). The Alchemist Cookbook is perhaps the greatest example of minimalist low-budget horror, with only two actors (four if you include a cat and a possum), one location, and very little dialogue. Writer/director Joel Potrykus utilizes every sound, every ounce of dialogue, and every camera shot to create a slow-burn film that will leave seeds of thought in your brain to germinate for weeks to come.

Is this not the most gorgeous movie poster you’ve ever seen?!

The Alchemist Cookbook centers on a young man named Sean, living alone in a trailer in the woods with his cat Cas. The title is seemingly a mash-up of alchemy and The Anarchist Cookbook, the much sought-after do-it-manual for brewing up backyard bombs and revolutions alike. This makes sense as we get to know Sean. It’s clear he’s gone of the grid, and in a charming near slice-of-life opening, we see him going about obtaining sustenance and daily necessities from his surroundings. We also see him playing scientist with what may be the jankiest homemade laboratory in history (step aside Walter White). He pursues his unspoken objective with dogged determination, and only the alchemical symbol on the book’s cover he is referencing gives us a clue as to his real aim.

If you are familiar with the history of alchemy, or at least watched Full Metal Alchemist, then you understand the pseudo-science properties of converting one material into another. In the field of alchemy, nothing was (is?) more sought after than the philosopher’s stone, and the symbol on the cover of Sean’s book is a reference to it. Not that Harry Potter nonsense though. The philosopher’s stone originally sought after was portended to have the ability to create gold and other precious metals from lesser metals and substances. In effect, if you could create the philosopher’s stone—whether it was a chemical cocktail, a ritual, or even an actual stone—then the bounds of wealth would mean nothing to you. Imagine King Midas’ touch, but without all the unfortunate daughter-turned-to-gold business. Alchemists of yore went to great lengths to achieve their goal, whether it was financial ruin or blowing their workspace up in a tragic “meth lab gone wrong” scenario. Sean seems to be no different than his Medieval counterparts, and in his desperation he turns to the dark magic of summoning demons. This is where the film veers into delightful uncertainty.

From the outset of the film, it’s clear that Sean has some sort of mental affliction. Even though things spiral later, in early scenes we see Sean reacting to disturbing growls and moans in the woods. His behavior is captivating but erratic, and as he runs out of the unnamed pills he takes, the viewer is left questioning what is real and what is not. After watching this film for the first time back in 2019, I was blown away and heartbroken to find that actor Ty Hickson has yet to receive the critical recognition he deserves. This man acts his ass off, and should have been well on his way to being a household name by the year 2023. With minimal dialogue, and next to no exposition, the viewer is left piecing together sparse sentences utter either to himself or to his friend Cortez (played by Amari Cheatom), the only other actor in the film. Except for Cas the cat of course. Hickson uses minimal space, with half the movie being filmed in the cramped trailer, and a lot of silence to his advantage with superb physical acting. When he does speak it’s compelling, and his back-and-forths with Cortez are comical and horrifying in equal measures.

The minimalism is what makes this film truly special. When we the viewer are given only a smidge of context, we are gifted free reign to feast on what is presented and extract our own meaning. By holding back, the film never crosses into hokey territory and lets the atmosphere slowly unfurl. What is actually “happening” in The Alchemist Cookbook is not certain, and different viewers will walk away with different interpretations. However, don’t mistake minimalism for scarcity, as Director Joel Potrykus maximizes every element at his disposal to spin absolute gold (get it?).

Sound plays heavily in The Alchemist Cookbook; whether it is the quiet of isolation, the mostly diegetic soundtrack, Sean’s silly dialogue with Cas, or the chilling and unearthly sounds emanating from the woods. The cinematography is clever, with visually striking framing when Sean is outdoors, and shaky cam is used when in tight spaces, giving voyeuristic vibes (but only done subtly, so don’t worry about nausea inducement). With so much time focused on Sean, we see the toll the events have on him—whether real or imagined—up close and personal, and Potrykus perfectly utilizes Hickson’s gift of expressive physical acting. Sean is likable but terrifying in his instability. Half the time I was afraid of the entity potentially circling in, and the other half I was stressing over Sean doing something irreversible. The tension barely gives you a break, and even when Sean is adorably flailing around covered in Christmas lights and singing Christmas carols, there was the ever-present aforementioned potential of “trailer go boom.”

While The Alchemist Cookbook leaves a lot to the imagination, it is with a well-crafted intention of ambiguity. More than a few jump scares or snappy one-liners, the viewer is left with so much to ponder and multiple readings to muse over. Horror movies of this type can easily leave the viewer unsatisfied, mostly because the “what if” at the end feels more like missing half of your Choose Your Own Adventure book than anything satisfying. Sure, it can be fun, but it’s so much more enjoyable when the ambiguity says something meaningful. Films of this ilk that come to mind are Broadcast Signal Intrusion (2021) and It Comes at Night (2017). However, whatever your flavor of horror I’m fairly certain you’ll find something to love about The Alchemist Cookbook.

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