Simon, King of the Witches
by Jason Coffman
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One of the great things about the advent of DVD is the number of small companies willing to dig up lost films and finally give them a new life on home video. Dark Sky Films has become one of the best of these DVD houses. Their “Drive-In Double Features” discs are a great way to experience some lost “classics,” as well as a wide variety of other features, such as the special edition of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and obscurities like The Gay Deceivers, a Vietnam-era comedy about two guys who dodge the draft by pretending to be a gay couple. Simon, King of the Witches is one of the most recent Dark Sky releases. The distributor has given the film its first home video release ever.
It’s 1971, and “male witch” Simon Sinestrari (Andrew Prine) finds himself living in a storm drain, hassled by police as a vagrant and scraping by selling magical charms and amulets. One night, Simon gets picked up by the cops and ends up sharing a cell with young hustler Troy (Lee J. Lambert), who introduces Simon to Hercules (Gerald York) and the wild parties Hercules hosts regularly at his mansion. Hercules makes Simon a centerpiece of his shindigs, and things start looking up for Simon until a doubting partygoer cheats Simon out of his payment for reading the man’s Tarot. Hercules wagers Simon that his powers can’t exact revenge, and Simon sets out to prove him wrong. Soon, the entire city is swept up in a major magical working that will either give Simon the powers of a god or destroy him in the process.
While marketed as a horror film, Simon is actually more of a straightforward hippie drama with magical elements. Andrew Prine is amazing as the title character, by turns charismatic, deadly serious about his craft and sometimes surprisingly vulnerable. Prine had a long career of television work before Simon and has worked steadily ever since, but it’s not hard to imagine that he might have been a bigger name if more people had seen his excellent performance here. The film uses minimal special effects, and relies mostly on the character of Simon to carry most of the fantastical elements, which is good since the special effects are primitive at best.
Simon, King of the Witches is an entertaining film and an interesting time capsule of very early 1970s culture. The hippies and the squares in the film mingle uneasily, most notably a pair of bumbling drug dealers who keep Hercules’s parties swinging while police officials play parlor games. It’s great that Dark Sky has given the film a proper release, and it’s worth tracking down for Andrew Prine’s performance alone. It might not be a lost genre-defining masterpiece, but it is a gem that deserves to be seen.
Dark Sky Films released Simon, King of the Witches on June 24th. The DVD includes interviews with star Andrew Prine and director Bruce Kessler as well as the original trailer and radio spot for the film.
Jason Coffman is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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