In Search Of The Great Beast 666 is an interesting idea. Essentially, it purports to show the life and times of the infamous Aleister Crowley through a series of dramatic recreations and fairly stoic narration. Given Crowley's notoriety and status as the 'wickedest man in the world' this is a project that could have gone either way - Crowley's story is an interesting one but reenactments, more often than not, tend to come off as a little corny.
Directed by Robert Garofalo and featuring original music by Rick Wakeman and narration from Joss Ackland, the film sets out recreating the more noteworthy points in Crowley's life. While some of these recreations are surprisingly good, the actors are wildly uneven. Having different cast members play the same characters probably made sense given how the filmmakers likely wanted to portray the passage of time but sadly it winds up a distraction and it takes away from the film. For example, Crowley in the forties feels like a different person than Crowley in other periods of time.
Regardless, the film, which is not without bias, touches on more or less everything you would expect it to. We learn how Crowley came to be such a prominent figure but the emphasis here is on his sinister side, rather than on his literary or creative side. There's continued mention of his depraved lifestyle choices and this tends to overshadow his writing and his work with various rituals. While at times it might seem like the very idea of taking someone like Crowley seriously, the fact is that he has become, since his death, a fairly important figure in the world of the occult and he's had a not inconsequential impact on modern pop culture. Detailing his life as more than just a series of Satanic dealings or perverted ordeals would probably go a long way towards clearing up some misconceptions about Crowley's life, but this documentary doesn't quite make that happen and at times it feels pretty sensationalist.
That said, taken on its own and judged for what it is, In Search Of The Great Beast 666 is pretty interesting stuff. There's a reason Crowley holds such a fascination for so many people and that's because he lead a genuinely bizarre life. He was a weird guy, and weird guys are always more interesting to learn about than normal guys. The narration's choice of adjectives makes the film's bias completely clear - by describing his work as blasphemous and Satanic we already know that the filmmaker's have made up their minds about him - but the film is entertaining enough. It glosses over a fair amount of the man's work, paying very little mind to Thelema (Crowley's 'Do What Thou Wilt' philosophy as dictated in his Book Of The Law) as an actual philosophical practice and instead relaying it basically to 'footnote' status, but if you don't demand much in the way of unbiased historical accuracy you'll at least be entertained.
Going into this hoping for a serious, even scholarly look, at the life and times of Aleister Crowley will inevitably result in disappointment - there's just too much missing for this to really work as a true biographical examination. Had more light been shone on his writing, his studies, his teachings and his philosophies and less emphasis been put on his love for sodomy and sex magick, we could have had a film worthy of serious attention. Instead, the sepia toned filtering applied to many of the recreations and the ominous and sinister music used to accompany these same recreations pass this project off as rather not all that it could or should have been. It's quite obvious in its bias and it leaves out large chunks of his life and work - but it's an okay primer into what he did, how he did it, and as tabloid style as it may be in spots, it's entertaining.
This movie looks fine in this 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Detail is as sharp as you'd expect given its intended look, color reproduction is pretty realistic, and black levels stay strong throughout the film. There are some scenes that have been filtered a bit for artistic reasons and so they look a bit soft but aside from that, there's not a whole lot to complain about, though the image is interlaced. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or noticeable edge enhancement and skin tones look lifelike and natural. Not a particularly remarkable transfer by any stretch, but a perfectly acceptable one.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix on this disc is actually quite good. Channel separations won't blow you away but if you listen for it you'll notice it. Since this is pretty much a dialogue based film, it's good that the dialogue stays clean and clear throughout the movie. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also included. There are no alternate language dubs or subtitles provided, nor are there any closed captions included on the DVD.
Aside from a very simple menu screen and chapter selection, this disc is completely barebones, which is a shame as some interesting, factual Crowley related extras would have been very welcome and helped flesh this release out a fair bit.
Serious Crowley aficionados will easily pick this one apart but the film is interesting and entertaining enough that despite its barebones presentation it's worth checking out for those with an interest in such material even if you're probably not going to go back to it time and time again. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.