Friday, 6 February 2009

Simon, King of the Witches (1971)

Simon, King of the Witches is one of those odd little films that failed to find an audience on its initial release in 1971, but that turns out to be rather interesting. Director Bruce Kessler believed the film’s failure had a lot to do with the title, which suggested that this was a straightforward horror movie when in fact it’s anything but. He’s probably right. The movie is part horror movie, part counter-culture film, part black comedy, and probably has more in common with a film like Harold and Maude than with the sort of movie horror fans expected to see at their local drive-in.

Simon is a witch. He’s not a minion of Satan, though. He’s more of a pagan witch, deriving his powers from the old gods like Poseidon and Aphrodite. He’s a true magus, the genuine article, with real powers. He lives in a storm water drain. You might wonder why, if he has such dread powers, he lives in a storm water drain. The truth is that Simon is not terribly concerned with money or possessions. He has a larger agenda - nothing less than challenging the powers of the gods themselves. Which you can do just as easily from a storm water drain as a penthouse, apparently.

After being arrested for vagrancy (being a true magus isn’t as glamorous as you might imagine) he befriends a young hustler named Turk who introduces him to the mysterious Hercules, a kind of wealthy dandy with a mild interest in the occult. Through Hercules he becomes involved with Linda, the daughter of the District Attorney, and is drawn into a web of police corruption centred on the drug trade. This involvement threatens to distract him from his plans to extend his occult powers so as to sit among the gods.

The essentially incompatible plot elements do become a little muddled at times, and the corrupt police sub-plot seems to be there mainly to give the film suitable counter-culture credentials. Unfortunately that sub-plot doesn’t really work, and distracts from the far more successful black comedy elements.

It’s still an intriguing movie. Its greatest strength is Andrew Prine as Simon. He plays the role straight, taking the character perfectly seriously. His performance is extravagant, but never hammy (which would have been the obvious temptation). It’s actually almost Shakespearean, an impression reinforced by his habit of addressing the audience directly. There’s an amusing cameo by Warhol superstar Ultra Violet as a witch queen, and some entertainingly trippy 1970s special effects. There’s no gore at all, but quite a bit of nudity. The Dark Sky DVD boasts a nice transfer plus brief but worthwhile interviews with Andrew Prine and director Bruce Kessler. Simon, King of the Witches is an oddity that’s worth seeing, if only for Andrew Prine.

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