Wednesday, June 18, 2008

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES (1971) d. Bruce Kessler

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The opening scene of SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES begins with, “I am Simon and I live in a storm drain”. From that moment onward, you know you are in for an atypical experience. Then, when you look at the dvd case and see that this film was released in 1971 during the zenith of the counterculture movement and the mod-expressionistic years, you know that your viewing experience will be more than atypical or just a trip back to a less inhibited and more freethinking time, it will be slightly mind-bending. That was the essence of the those years of film-making between 1967 and 1973, whether it was science fiction films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or horror-dramas like MEPHISTO WALTZ or social commentary like THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, the message was wrapped in a packaging like nothing we’ve seen since. In the end, that more interesting wrapping is of benefit to SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, once the viewer realizes that they really aren’t watching a horror film.

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES is the story of Simon Sinestrari, a contemporary mage floating aimlessly from home to home, but purposefully picking his way from wealthy parties to occult gatherings in search of a living and the furtherance of his quest for supernatural ascendancy. In his travels, Simon meets a young drifter named Turk who becomes somewhat of an acolyte and who introduces Simon to wealthy and dissolute Hercules, the lord of hedonistic parties. It is at one of his soirees that Simon meets Linda, the spaced-out, pill-popping daughter of the District Attorney. Just as Simon is preparing for some momentous occult machinations, he becomes embroiled in a city-wide drug conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of authority. As magic becomes entwined with governmental power, even the most carefully considered divinations can go horribly awry for all those drawn into Simon’s web.

It doesn’t take long before any serious horror lover realizes that SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES is something else, but that is quite alright. Between its authentic 1970s settings and fashions, its focus on the metropolitan, affluent society’s fascination with counterculture and arcane occult power and the very subtly interwoven elements of humor, SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES is more of an urban fantasy liberally laced with sorcery trappings and the dynamic power of sexual energy. From the bright colors of the magical robes to the even brighter hues of the hallucinogenic special effects, this film is more about how it looks than what it says. With its beautifully restored transfer that magnifies the sharpness, brightness and color, that makes the experience that much more enjoyable. Much like people who were often advised when entering into a mind-warping chemical trip, “just go with it and see where it takes you”, the visual imagery and atmosphere of SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES just takes you on a pleasant and tangential ride.

Add to the eye-candy the performance of Andrew Prine and the very eclectic casting of Turk, Hercules and Linda, and the somewhat loose story that doesn’t seem to have a unifying conflict or theme is far more palatable. Andrew Prine was probably born to play this role. While he has had much more high profile roles in films and TV series like GETTYSBURG, V & V: THE FINAL BATTLE, and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, Mr. Prine had all the weapons necessary to make Simon his character eternally. Between his dark and forbidding stare and his commanding and erudite tones, he was believable as a devoted practitioner of the magical arts. Mixed with that dark side of his performance is a subtle humor in the delivery of his lines, but even more laugh-inducing were the expressions of his face that softened Simon and the entire story. Between his shaggy face and hair, his lean build carrying all manner of occult and garishly fashionable 70s garb, Mr. Prine truly became “the Today Witch”. As he interfaced with Turk (George Paulsin), who looked and sounded like some kind of an Ken-elf doll, the ostentatious and somehow unpleasant Hercules (Gerald York) and the lovely but vacuous Linda (Brenda Scott), the chemistry of these interchanges more than makes up for a story that isn’t all that compelling, certainly as a “horror” film but really more as a counterculture occult flick. There are much better “hippy” films, but few mix the ingredients in the witch’s cauldron with more flair than SIMON.

The extras menu of SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES is truly like opening the vault of sorceress. It may not be crammed with heaped treasures like that of a prince, but what is inside is very worthwhile. There is a 17 minute interview with Andrew Prine called “Simon Says”. Between that interview and the one minute easter egg where Mr. Prine talks about Simon’s magical threads, one can’t help but revel in his southern gentlemanly recollections and enjoy the yarns of an actor who has done a little of everything. His kind-hearted comments about colleagues and fond recollections of the early 1970s are especially charming. There is a 12 minute “Making White Magic” featurette with director Bruce Kessler that is also just as interesting. While Mr. Kessler’s anecdotes are also pleasing, his memories of shooting and production will delight technophiles. Considering that Mr. Kessler directed my favorite MONKEES episode, “Monkees at the Circus”, a treasured TV Movie from the 70s, CRUISE INTO TERROR and several episodes of the 80s better remembered action shows like THE A TEAM and RIPTIDE, talking to a guy with an impressive pedigree like that is a must! There is an attractively designed radio spot and what appears to be a TV spot trailer, both voiced-over by a guy with one of the most recognizable set of pipes there was from those days. Dark Sky Films almost always puts together a fine batch of goodies on their discs, but this one had some real gems.

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES was not the finest movie-watching experience I’ve ever had, nor was it the most memorable, but it engaged my senses, made me smile, dug up a few reminiscences from the darker corners of my mind and left me feeling like I’d spent more than 2 hours in a meaningful manner. Thanks to a an eccentric but well-crafted performance by Mr. Andrew Prine, some solidly creative directing a film making by Bruce Kessler and a story that may not really make a lot of sense but winds past some interesting sights along the way, I can say that I’d be happy to pass this disc along to friends so that they too can trip the light semi-fantastic with Simon Sinestrari, Turk and Linda.

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