Friday, August 22, 2008

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES reviewed

Real-life couple Andrew Prine and Brenda Scott redefine screen magnetism in the quirky SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES.

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES
1971, Dark Sky Films, DD-2.0/16:9/LB/+, $14.98, 98m 54s, DVD-1

Despite its scary title and the violent, druggy, sexist, black magic trappings of its original promo campaign, this isn't a horror film at all, nor a particularly exploitative one; it's actually part character study about a homeless, mostly likeable, cigar-smoking practitioner of White Magic who lives in a storm drain and a satire of the myriad cults arising from the ashes of psychedelicized Los Angeles of the early 1970s, informed to some extent by the gnostic legends of Simon Magus.

Andrew Prine stars as the affable Simon, who starts out with little more than his own seemingly insane self-beliefs and a bag of cheap trinkets (including a "Pentagram of Solomon," a likely nod to low-budget producer Joe Solomon), but quickly ascends the power chain of LA, using genuinely caring relationships with na├»ve streethustler/minion Turk (George Paulsin─picture Peter Noone with a Jack Nicholson grin) and the pill-popping daughter of the district attorney (Cincinnati-born Brenda Scott, looking intensely vulnerable and distracted), to reach effete socialite Hercules Van Sant (Gerald York). Stiffed with a bad check by one of Hercules' party guests, Simon proves his abilities with a death curse and soon has enough cash and clients to buy into some real accessories, like an oval mirror that allows him to venture onto the astral plane like a Dr. Strange of the counter-culture, and set about his ultimate plan to expose the corrupt nature of the city at large, its officials as well as its lawbreakers and flakes.

There's a jokey Black Mass scene featuring Warhol acolyte Ultra Violet, some non-sexualized nudity and one or two nearly bloodless stabbings, and a goat─but it's all fairly mild, eclipsed by the humor of scenes like Simon's solution to Turk's priapic problem. Scripted by Robert Phippeny (THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY), an alleged warlock himself, the film's cleverly etched characters, general air of hedonism, and baroque dialogue ally it with the more personal works of screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Robert Thom. There's far more talk than action, explaining the unusually long running time, but hit-and-miss as it is, it can't be faulted for not talking straight. Alternately interesting, intelligent, moving, rambling and incoherent but, as one character says, "At least it's different!"

The anamorphic 1.78:1 mono transfer is colorful and well-balanced but with variable sharpness traceable to limitations in the original cinematography. The supplements, overseen by Michael Felsher, interview an affable Andrew Prine (16m 53s) and director Bruce Kessler (11m 58s), adding on a 1m trailer and a 58s radio spot accompanied by a lobby card slide show. The Prine interview makes the editorial mistake of illustrating his reference to a naked "ditz" on an altar in the Ultra Violet sequence with footage of Brenda Scott in a similar situation, inadvertently denigrating his ex-wife and a serious actress. For a backstage peek into the casting of the blonde on the altar, see Roger Ebert's profile of producer Joe Solomon in the classic reference book KINGS OF THE B'S.
8/23/08 Update, 1:06 a.m.:
SIMON supplements director Michael R. Felsher responds...
Glad to see a review of SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES on the site. It’s a great little movie and one that a lot of people have never had the opportunity to see. It’s certainly the best movie ever made about a warlock who lives in a storm drain.

I noticed though your comment about an editorial mistake in SIMON SAYS where Prine refers to a “ditz on a platform” as being mistakenly played under a shot of Brenda Scott from the film which you felt added an unintended backhanded comment about Scott from her former husband.

What was left out of the final featurette due to some audio issues and some fragmented sentences from Mr Prine during the interview were some more direct references to that exact scene in the film where Simon seduces Scott’s character and gets her naked on the platform/slab in his abode. Prine was asked by the interviewer to restate the answer and that’s the take I used in the final featurette, which was more concise but did leave out a few details which were garbled by a microphone squelch in the previous answer. As a result, some of the contextual info surrounding his discussion of this scene was lost. I can assure you he was not referring to Scott personally but her character, and was also not referring also to the later scene(s) with Ultra Violet. I noticed at the time, that this “ditz” reference could be taken somewhat out of context, which is why I chose to use this bit to lead into Prine’s discussion of his fond memories of working with Scott on the picture which I felt would clarify his relationship with her and make it clear that his previous comment had only been about the characters.

If the context of his remarks come across as unclear, it was certainly not intentional in any way, but I stand by my editorial decisions in this piece, and hope that this email puts any confusion to rest.

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