Simon, King of the Witches (1971)
R1 - America - Dark Sky Films
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (25th July 2008).
The Film

I have to respect these smaller companies, keeping the obscure and often forgotten films coming onto DVD (and some now in Blu-ray also). They´re giving many films a deserved second life (often these low budget movies didn´t even have that first one). Why many of them failed in their original run is a tricky subject (sure, some were just plain bad), but there are cases where you can partly blame the marketing. With certain “genre”-movies, e.g from the 1970s, the marketing department liked to promote everything as horror and exploitation, even when the film in question was a bit more clever than that (or at least “different”). That´s the case with “Simon, King of the Witches (1971)”, now released by U.S. based “Dark Sky Films”. It´s directed by Bruce Kessler (e.g. “The Gay Deceivers (1969)” and a long career in television).

Even the cover of the DVD maintains the old marketing approach; woman on the altar, knife, sacrifice, pentagram and black magic, with the slogan “totally uncut and uncensored”. Bad-ass horror-film with witches, blood and sex? Well, not quite. Simon Sinestrari (Andrew Prine - e.g. “Grizzly (1976)”) is a modern day warlock and based on his own words, “one of the few true magicians” in the world. His bag might be full of amulets and talismans, but his wallet is empty. He´s living in a storm drain and one day night arrested for vagrancy. In the jail he befriends a young man called Turk (George Paulsin), who has some connections with the better circles of society. It´s not that long before Simon and Turk find themselves at the groovy party of the wealthy man called Hercules Van Sant (Gerald York).

In the party Simon performs some of his magic and also meets the free spirited woman called Linda (Brenda Scott), the daughter of the local district attorney Willard Rackum (Norman Burton - e.g. “Diamonds Are Forever (1971)”). While Simon is quite confident with his skills as a magician (he´s the first to admit that he´s no psychic), there are people in the party feeling he´s just another hoax, just doing it for the money (which is partly true, since even the warlocks have to eat). This will eventually be a serious challenge for Simon, who´ll place a curse on one of the visitors making fun at him, partly to prove a point to Hercules. It´s time to start believing, that perhaps Simon has some real connections to the unknown forces after all. And those forces can only get darker.

It´s hard to place “Simon, King of the Witches” to any specific genre or category. There is some mild horror (at least some occultism) and exploitation (a bit of nudity and drug references), along with black humour, surrealism, psychedelic special effects and general oddities. The film feels more like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “Hammer House of Horror” - with added “1970s low budget”-feel (or “on drugs”), more than the “R-rated” film that it essentially is. The lead character Simon is also not some psychotic killer, kidnapping women to his black masses. He´s mostly calm and calculated, only ready to jump in the air when his new magical spell works. Magic is his life and passion. When you add the rather non-typical, often strange dialogue (not always that easy to swallow), along with the fact that Simon is more than capable of delivering ironic humour, it´s safe to say that this is not your typical grindhouse experience. With this film, it´s only good news.

Despite being so odd, “trippy” and mild on horror elements, I did find “Simon, King of the Witches” to be entertaining and refreshingly different. One could of course argue how well the last section of the film works and whether the ending is really satisfying (or better yet, that coherent compared to the earlier story developments), but I was a bit surprised to see such an original film under the quite typical horror/exploitation marketing. I don´t claim that this film will work for everyone, but at least it tries to achieve something more than just mindless exploitation. The viewers just have to be ready for intelligent “warlock monologues”, strange and partly humorous rites, “cosmic events”, talking to the trees and a red, whirring “dot” that appears every once in a while in the air. Despite what the cover slogan says, I´m not sure that there is anything on the film that they could´ve censored (perhaps a few shots of nudity).

Lead actor Andrew Prine is still one of the main reasons why the film works so well (it´s almost like he´s meant for the role, being very natural) and director Bruce Kessler has created the atmosphere that can make you laugh, make you intrigued, twist your head in wonder or just be totally puzzled about what´s going on. Hell, perhaps even shock you once or twice. Not that bad for the low budget film from the 1970s. For the role of Sarah, the queen of the witches, look for then underground celebrity Ultra Violet.

Video

The film is presented in Anamorphic 1.78:1. The print looks dated, but still pretty good. There are some grain, some minor murkiness and film artifacts here and there, but generally the print is “clean enough”. Colours and black levels are not always consistent and there´s some softness, but quite frankly it seems at least part of this is due to the original photography (low production values are showing). Not perfect, but can´t really complain. “Dual layer” disc is coded “R1” and runs 99:02 minutes (NTSC). 19 chapters.

Audio

English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is the only audio track and there are optional English HoH subtitles. Some background hiss can be heard if you turn the volume up and the dialogue can be a bit muffled, but generally everything is relatively clear. Again, you can instantly hear that the audio is from the low budget film, but that comes with the territory.

Extras

Few extras are included (no subtitles of any kind).

-“Simon Says with Andrew Prine” -featurette runs 16:54 minutes and is of course the interview with lead actor Prine. The actor is a pleasure to listen to and he tells something about his views toward acting (being on set is wonderful for him and he likes the “power” of acting when the cameras start to roll), for getting the role of “Simon” (he surprisingly had to audition), about the director Kessler (he liked this “nuts and bolt”-man who got things done), essence of the story (not structured as a “horror-film”), about his character (didn´t do any research on “black arts”, wanted to focus more on the human side) and fellow actors (Prine had a real relationship with Scott at one time - based on the extras it´s not all that clear when). We hear a couple of stories from the set and Prine also mentions that the screenwriter Robert Phippeny was a “real warlock” (meaning that it was his hobby). He also tells about working with the special effects on the film (now dated, but probably not all that bad back then).

-“Making White Magic with Bruce Kessler” -featurette runs 11:59 minutes and is another interview, this time with director Kessler. The director is explaining how he didn´t want to do a typical “devils and witches”-type of horror-film, but something different. He got the job when his earlier feature film “The Gay Deceivers (1969)” turned out to be successful. He talks about the actors (if Prine liked Kessler, the street also went to both ways), the tones of the film (plenty of black humour), the visual style of the film with “radical ideas” (he owes most of them to the skilled cinematographer David L. Butler, who seems to have worked his later years on “aerial camera”) and about the title (original title was just “Simon”, but the studio wanted to market that as a “witch picture”). Kessler also speculates that it was that marketing approach (“horror” when it really wasn´t horror) that ultimately killed the film at the box office.

-Radio spot (0:58 seconds) runs with posters and lobby cards, and a Theatrical trailer (1:00 minutes) is also included.

-One Easter egg is also hidden on the disc. Go to the “Special Features” menu, highlight “Simon Says” featurette and press either “Left” or “Right”. The right eye of the actor Andrew Prine now has a red dot on the menu screen. Press “enter”;
In the 0:53 second featurette, Prine is telling the anecdote about his rope from the film that he had one time.

Overall

“Simon, King of the Witches” shows how fruitful a period the 1970s cinema was, especially in America. You could raise money (in a “low budget” way, but still) to make almost anything and every now and then something unique came up. You may not like all the aspects that the film introduces (it can be odd for sure), but it´s hard not to like “Simon, King of the Witches”. At least a little bit. “Dark Sky Films” gives a nice presentation of the film and interesting extras, so the disc comes recommended.


For more info, please visit the homepage of Dark Sky Films.

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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