Monday, September 12, 2011
Simon, King of the Witches 
Some movies are more than the sum of their parts, effective in a way that's not easily pin-down-able. It can be hard to recommend a movie like this in a concise way, but I'm going to have to give it a try, because Bruce Kessler's "Simon, King of the Witches" is definitely one of those movies. It's a film about the power of the occult that's quieter and more coherent than the typical hippie freak-out fare, functioning more as a character study than as a cinematic acid trip. This might be the American complement to "The Wicker Man"--a thoughtful representation of modern-day paganism in a Christian moral world.
Gorgeously-named Simon Sinestrari is a dealer in occult charms who lives in a storm drain and tries to avoid the prying eyes of authority figures who'd just as soon see him jailed for vagrancy. On one of his nights spent in jail, Simon meets peppy teen hustler Turk, who introduces him to the world of swishy social climber Hercules. Simon is welcomed into the bohemian enclave*, where he sells magical trinkets and tarot card readings to his Aquarius-Age audience. All is not peace signs and pipe-passings in this clique, however, and when Simon's relationship with the local DA's daughter blossoms and his detractors grow more vocal, the extent of his magical powers is revealed and an ominous cycle of black magic begins.
*You can always tell a primo boho party of this time due to the presence of the man in the turban. I'd imagine that, were I alive at the time, I'd probably create some kind of Turban Scale to describe the relative swankness of different soirees.
Ordinarily, I'd be frustrated by a movie about the occult that relies on subtle shifts in tone and character while following the classic tragedy story arc. There were plenty of opportunities for this movie to go off the rails into craziness, but it never does. The psychedelia is in line with the plot, and there's no hair-rending Satanic madness. Everything is told from Simon's point of view--he's a true believer in the occult, and seems to grasp the magnitude of the powers he's dealing with. As the film builds to its eventual crescendo--and there is a very dramatic apex to this film--there's a sense of inexorable pull, of the overwhelming magnetic/electric forces that are the source of Simon's magic.
There's a rich sense of place in this film, which is set in 1970 Los Angeles. I've seen plenty of movies dealing with magic and counterculture that are hilariously out-of-touch with their subjects, but "Simon, King of the Witches" has the quality of first-hand observation. It's rumored that screenwriter Robert Phippeny was a magical practitioner, and that shows in the scenes of Simon practicing his craft. Above and beyond this, there's a level of understanding of non-mainstream culture that runs through this film. Hercules' social circle isn't just made up of young, long-haired idealists--there are politicians, idle children of the wealthy, business owners, swingers and other hangers-on who seem to greatly outnumber the artists, musicians and other eccentrics. The film's attitude towards these people is balanced between self-aware humor and an uncertainty about changing social norms. It captures a moment in time when underground culture began to permeate the mainstream, and the resulting strangeness. Related to this culture clash is the theme of authenticity versus affectation. There's a great scene in which Simon witnesses a ceremony carried out by a coven of witches, an event that's got all the trappings of witchcraft (to whit: human bones, chanting, a costumed goat, ritual sex, and an excess of Egyptianate eyeliner) and none of the spiritual significance that Simon invests in his own workings. It's an opportunity for the filmmakers to show the sensational side of hippie-era magic while making a wry comment on its ludicrousness.
Much of the success of "Simon, King of the Witches" rests on the shoulders of Andrew Prine's performance in the title role. The character is charming and witty, but sketched with a certain amount of darkness and poignancy around his edges. In different hands, Simon could be a campy, histrionic huckster, but Prine makes him a tragic hero. Simon truly believes in the power of the forces he's summoning, but despairs at ever making the world understand the nature of these otherworldly agencies. It's easy to see how Simon's charisma and cleverness could capture the attention of Hercules' associates. And it needs to be said that while Prine is not a traditionally handsome individual, his depiction of Simon is downright sexy in its intensity.
"Simon, King of the Witches" is an unusual entry into the late 60s/early 70s occult cinema canon. Its sociological insight and attempt to realistically depict ritual workings put it apart from the kind of shock tactics and heavy-handed moralizing of many of its genre-mates. For folks who want a groovy time capsule with more intelligence than they're probably used to, "Simon, King of the Witches"is well worth a view.
For more images from "Simon, King of the Witches" check out the Flickr gallery here.
Many thanks to Bryan of Cinema Suicide for encouraging me to watch this movie sooner rather than later! Sir, you are a gentleman and a scholar.