Simon, King of the Witches – Review

[written by Witch Awareness Month contributor, Mikko Sovijärvi]

Simon, King of the Witches

Directed by: Bruce Kessler

Starring: Andrew Prine, Brenda Scott, George Paulsin, Norman Burton, Gerald York, Ultra Violet

(1971/USA)

The occult explosion that infiltrated horror films by the tail end of the 60’s left a lot to wonder. More often than not, badly put together spectacles of unintentional hilarity mixing what sixtyish producers mistook for hippie sensibility with off-the-wall Satanic rituals and at least one bearded, wild-eyed Charlie Manson lookalike to use for the poster. Then Simon, King of the Witches. Arguably the most unique American genre films of the 70’s, and one of the most often ignored. Usually dismissed as a Z-film by people who don’t quite get it, or dismissed for not being one by people looking for the immediate hilarity of Manos: The Hands of Fate, Simon is a different beast than most of anything. For starters, it’s not really a horror movie even if it was sold as one. It’s a story of a real world warlock with a very casual, working man’s approach to his magick trying to make his way up in the world. As expected, things don’t go nowhere near as planned. A one word description of Simon would probably be “satire”. A satire of what is another matter. Having seen the film a good ten times or more, I am still never quite sure. Possibly of other films dealing with the same subject matter. Perhaps of American counterculture in the early 70’s. Quite probably of something.

Simon is a Andrew Prine Show from start to finish. All the other actors are there, present and performing from mediocre level to quite good, but exist merely as props for Prine, who defines a career. He was and is an actor who never really put out a bad performance, from no-budget horror films like The Centerfold Girls to proper Hollywood fare like Chisum, but here Andrew Prine doesn’t really perform a role. He becomes. Simon is. Simon Sinestrari is a warlock living in a storm drain wishing to attain godhood through magick, weaving his spells in a world of decadent parties, having discussions with trees, and attending nude goat worship rituals. Through all of this, Prine remains resolutely convincing in a part that would baffle most actors and viewers alike. In the shadow of Prine, George Paulsin at least puts up a struggle to be noticed as Simon’s happy-go-lucky sidekick, Turk. Whether or not Paulsin’s boyishly grinning performance is good in any traditional sense of the word is up for debate, but amusing it most definitely is.

It wouldn’t serve any purpose to put down a critical analysis of Simon, for it is a film that defies basic notions of critique as much as categorization. For better or worse, it just is, and to be taken as such with love or hate, but probably not with indifference. Simon is best defined by a scene about halfway through the film. The titular warlock and his little helper crash a somewhat Wiccan ceremony, where Ultra Violet of Andy Warhol fame leads a coven of sorts to take off their clothes in front of a live goat. Simon observes the obviously hokey rituals with a look of wry bemusement, knowing his magick to be the real deal. He then proceeds to ridicule the faux witchiness with a grandiose monologue, and is promptly chased out by the irate worshippers alongside with trusty Turk, who has been getting it on with a nude girl on an altar in an adjacent room. If this sounds appealing to you, Simon might appeal to you. If it doesn’t, Simon won’t. As simple as that.

Bruce Kessler, predominantly a TV director, masters the ceremonies with a slick, professional touch if not particular flair. Simon looks pro on a low budget. It’s not all that visually inventive short of a few scenes with psychedelic optical effects that look very 70’s by now, but the no-nonsense style rather fits the workmanlike attitude of Simon the magician. Off-the-wall visual stylings and wandering narratives of a Jean Rollin film wouldn’t really work here, for Simon has a clear, linear plot and structure, no matter how bizarre it may be.

All I touch, I corrupt, quoth Simon Sinestrari. Fittingly enough, that’s more or less what the producers and distributors did with the marketing of a film they had no idea how and to whom to sell it to. Enter tag lines like “He curses the establishment!”, “The evil spirit must choose evil!”, and promises of black masses and ceremonial sex in the poster artwork. It failed. Simon tanked at the box office and wandered off into the netherworld of very marginal cult status, where it pretty much still resides.

In all honesty, had Simon, King of the Witches been put out under its intended title of plain Simon and advertised as something other than a sex-and-Satan-fueled orgy of occult horror with the added Mansonsploitation elements of the time, it wouldn’t probably have been much more of a critical and commercial success than it was. Simply put, Simon is far too odd a film for that. A combination of now-dated countercultural vibe of the early 70’s, exploitative elements, serious drama, social satire, intentional and unintentional comedy and a script soaked in the esoteric and completely out of step with the normal world, Simon is a movie with no target audience. There’s always something to mess up the suspension of disbelief of the casual viewer. Too much of something or too little of something else.

A special edition DVD that Dark Sky Films put out in 2008 generated some latter day interest and favorable reviews, but Simon, King of the Witches remains a minor cult film, worlds away from any mainstream acceptance. There are probably more fans of the band Mars Volta who own their t-shirt that used the old theatrical poster to Simon for illustration than people who have both seen the film and liked it. Occult is by definition hidden, and all of this only adds to the lure of Simon. The select and elect who have viewed Simon and understood its occasionally misintentional intent as a work of genius adapting the Kenneth Anger maxim of film as a magic ritual to create something well and truly magical, are the lucky ones. The rest of the world have no idea that one of the brightest stars in the sky is one they have never laid their eyes upon, or saw it but understood not.

 

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