Simon, King of the Witches (DVD)
Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Andrew Prine, Gerald York, George Paulsin, Brenda Scott, Norman Burton
Directed by Bruce Kessler
Distributed by Dark Sky Films
Warlocks and witches have always fascinated me. However, for whatever reason, that sub-genre of horror has gotten short shrift and never really been given a definitive treatment as far as I'm concerned. Sadly, Simon, King of the Witches doesn't totally make up for this shortage of high-quality occult tales, but it does offer a nice diversion from the Goth-themed fare the subject typically engenders. As a bonus, we've had a lot of discussion on the site lately about "breaking the fourth wall," and Simon does just that in the film's opening sequence, endearingly addressing the audience and introducing himself. Ahhhh, the Seventies ... such a fabulous time for cinematic ingenuity and experimentation!
Simon Sinestrari (Prine) lives in a storm drain and refers to himself as a "magician" rather than a warlock. He's more into white magic than black, and he means business, too. The usual fly-by-night spells and incantations aren't for him; he actually speaks to the gods and is able to fight off evil incarnate in the form of a glowing red orb. After being picked up for vagrancy by the fuzz (we're talking 1971 lingo here, man!), he befriends a young hustler type named Turk (Paulsin) while in lock-up.
Once they're out, Simon reveals himself as a sorcerer to Turk. Turk, in turn, introduces Simon to Hercules (York), who throws wild parties full of groovy guys and gals with plenty of disposable income they are more than happy to give Simon in exchange for entertaining them with his trickery. At one such gathering Simon encounters Linda (Scott), the DA's beautiful druggy daughter, and is instantly enamored by her. Then a guest bounces a check for a reading from Simon, and Hercules dares him to take his powers to the ultimate level and exact revenge. Simon warns him of the consequences, but he will not be deterred. Simon accepts the challenge and, much to the man's amazement -- and eventual chagrin -- successfully carries it out soon afterwards.
But that's just the bare bones of the story. We're also treated to Simon performing sexual magic with Linda in an attempt to produce a sort of force field that will enable him to cross into the next dimension by entering a mirror. He chants the phrase "Magnetic, Charge, Electric, Charge" over and over as part of their tryst. Yeah, it sounds goofy, but trust me -- This scene is one for the ages! Alas, Linda's not the right vessel so later he uses Stanley, one of Turk's "acquaintances," for a similar ritual with much better results. There's also a great deal of social commentary in the form of police/authority bashing representative of the era along with an utterly unnecessary but vastly entertaining and explicit (for its time) segment with Warhol Factory favorite Ultra Violet leading a group of Wiccans in a semi-Satanic ceremony. That particular scene, as well as the floating red ball mentioned previously, is quaint and hilarious by today's standards; yet, it's also oddly effective in its simplicity. Throw in a healthy dose of mostly intentional black comedy, funky and offbeat music that reflects Simon's psychedelic tone, innovative effects, and a stellar looking transfer that belies the film's age; and you've got a can't miss scenario.
At the end of the day, though, all of the above is irrelevant. The real motivation to buy or rent Simon, King of the Witches is its star, Andrew Prine. I don't know what it is about men from the early Seventies, but for my money they are virtually unmatched in terms of raw animal magnetism and charisma, and Prine is no exception. Spouting soliloquies that rival some of Jim Morrison's most dynamic lyrics and poetry, he is absolutely hypnotic. Quite a bit of Simon's dialogue is over-the-top and campy, but Prine is able to carry it off effortlessly and believably. Well, at least as believably as the setting and storyline allow.
When the DVD first arrived, I was sure it would be bare bones like the majority of releases from Simon's generation. Luckily for us, it contains two brand-new featurettes put together by Red Shirt Pictures: separate interviews with Andrew Prine and director Bruce Kessler running sixteen and a half minutes and twelve minutes, respectively. Prine's is especially engaging. He likens being in a film to being in the circus and talks about the fun time everyone had on the set of Simon. He mentions screenwriter Robert Phippeny, a practicing warlock who also served as his sole advisor for the role, and reminisces about Ms. Scott, his former real-life love interest. Prine has weathered the intervening decades quite handsomely and is obviously a class act and a real pro. Kessler's interview is more on the dry side, but he does discuss how the film was mis-titled and mis-marketed. It was originally slated to be called just Simon, but studio bosses (oh, how we love them!) decided to primarily target the horror crowd and push the "witch" angle, leaving out the fans who inhabited the fringes of the genre and weren't so black and white in their preferences. As a result, of course, it wasn't much of a success when it premiered, but over the years it's achieved cult status among film buffs.
A radio spot and the original theatrical trailer nicely round out the extras to be found on the disc. There's also a cool little Easter egg that I'll let you find for yourselves. [Hint: It's all in the eyes!] Not the most complete package certainly, but more than you'd expect for a movie that's over 35 years old and barely even a blip on the general public's radar.
But that's likely to change as more and more people are exposed to Simon, King of the Witches thanks to Dark Sky. Is it a "great" film? Hardly. But it is a nearly perfect example of counterculture hippie horror from a bygone epoch. Trying to rate it is a challenge. Pragmatically, it's probably about a 2 1/2; but viscerally (and nostalgia wise), it's close to a 5. I came of age in the 70's and vividly remember the events that influenced the mindset of Simon's creators, but will kids of today understand and appreciate where the filmmakers are coming from? It's a tough call and a tall order. The times, they have a-changed. I'd estimate 50/50 results. For those willing to give it a shot, I suggest a double feature of this flick and The Possession of Joel Delaney (review), which I also had the pleasure of revisiting recently. They are both indelible snapshots of a time and place that History class simply can't do justice to. Better yet, if you can, watch with your parents and help them relive their youth. Just pray you don't hear shouts of "Charge! Charge! Charge!" coming from their bedroom later that night!
3 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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