1. Busting The Fourth Wall
How many films well and truly grab you with their very first line? The moment Simon Sinistrari, incomparably brought to life on screen by the criminally-underappreciated Andrew Prine, turns and looks right into the camera and says “My name is Simon. I live in a storm drain. When it rains, most people go in — but I go out,” director Bruce Kessler’s 1971 exploitation opus Simon, King Of The Witches has you hooked. There’s really not much you can do about it; maybe this guy really is a magician. His story begins and ends in massive, violent, torrential storms — and those are plenty exciting in and of themselves — but that 80-or-so-minutes in between bookending monsoons,well, how many ways can you say “sublime”?
2. “Does the district attorney know that his daughter’s dropping pills?”
Okay, none of it makes much sense. Simon’s apparently been crashing in his concrete home beneath the obvious-stand-in-for-Los-Angeles that is “West Side” for some time, but he doesn’t seem to know anybody. All that changes, however, when the cops decide to pick him up for vagrancy and he makes the acquaintance of fellow guest-of-the-establishment-against-his-will Turk (played with a mixture of impish glee and all-too-believable naivete by George Paulsin), who’s cooling his heels at County on a loitering charge. It’s no secret how Turk makes his living — he tells Simon right off the bat — but, as with Kessler’s previous effort, The Gay Deceivers, it’s made clear from the outset that any homosexuality in this flick is engaged in by necessity, not choice. Damn, though, there sure are a lot of “poofters” to go around : take, for example, Hercules Van Zant, whose high-society parties Simon is introduced to by Turk. Or the hapless Stanley, an attendee at one of said soirees who Simon uses in his magickal working to energize the rod (snickering is most definitely permissible here) that he’ll use to penetrate his mirror/portal and “take his rightful place among the Gods.” Simon ropes him into his ritual because he discovers from an earlier failed attempt that his working won’t succeed if he has a partner who turns him on! Each gay guy in this flick is more OTT and, frankly, pathetic than the last, but hey — the movie’s a product of its times, and even admitting that homosexuality existed was a bridge farther than most of its contemporaries were willing to travel. Portrayal with dignity would have to come later, I suppose.
Still, in some ways Simon was willing to buck societal preconceptions. Let’s not forget that this was the height of Manson-era “hippies are evil” paranoia, and here not only is the obvious Charlie doppleganger portrayed sympathetically, he’s even good enough to date the daughter of the DA (who he meets at one of Herclues’ shindigs, naturally), while her old man is depicted as being an asshole for trying to keep them apart. Anti-authoritarianism has a definite friend in the King of the Witches.
3. “Don’t touch me, I’m a religious object!”
It’s said that this film’s screenwriter, one Robert Phippeny, was some sort of occult initiate himself, and that he worked with several serious practitioners in the development stages of his story, but I don’t buy it — and that’s part part of the charm here, of course. Simon’s tarot readings are like nothing I’ve ever witnessed, and he worships some strange combination of the old Greek gods and Left Hand Path-style, quasi-demonic forces. It’s all about as “authentic” as Velveeta. Still, even Simon recognizes the hodge-podge nonsense of Wicca for what it is : his crashing of a local Wiccan coven’s get-together, with Turk in tow as his chauffeur, is one of the film’s more memorable sequences, and lays bare the secret of its ultimate success — simply put, nobody’s taking this thing all that seriously. Simon’s having fun exposing the priestess-in-charge for the fraud she is, Turk’s trying to get a peek a the naked chick who serves as the group’s living altar, and Kessler and Phippeny are probably off in the shadows snickering, wondering if anybody out there is stupid enough to take any of this at face value.
Gary Lachman’s 2003 book Turn Off Your Mind : The Mystic Sixties And The Dark Side Of The Age Of Aquarius, an absorbing and well-researched examination of exactly what its title states, would have noted in detail all the contradictory messages, mixed pantheons, and outright hokum on display here, but for the non-academic among us, it’s pretty fun to just sit back and enjoy the show. Remember the cardinal rule : if the people who made the film didn’t take it, or themselves, too seriously, then there’s damn sure no reason why we should, either.
4. “Magnetic — electric — charge — CHARGE!!!!!!!!!!!!”
It occurs to me that the photo above could be easily misinterpreted — Simon’s girlfriend, Linda (Brenda Scott) is actually holding a huge red ball in each of her outstretched hands, but they match the color of her dress so perfectly that you could be forgiven for taking a quick glance and thinking she’s just got enormous boobs. Which brings up another of this movie’s most endearing qualities , namely that appearances can be pretty deceiving here. We’ve already established that it’s readily apparent that the people who made Simon, King Of The Witches did so with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, but that doesn’t mean they were out to deliver a shoddy piece of work, The costumes are first-rate. The sets all have a surprising air of authenticity. The performances — especially Prine’s — are out of this world. And David L. Butler’s cinematography is first-rate and endlessly inventive, especially when Simon passes through his mirror and has one of the most effectively-realized psychedelic “head-trip” experiences ever committed to celluloid. You don’t have to set out to make great art to end up making great art — sometimes shit just happens.
5. “Please don’t think I’m prejudiced, Rabbi — I hope you’ll be very happy here.”
Those are the words spoken by Simon’s landlord when he moves into his new pad (hey, a guy can’t live in a storm drain forever) and draws a pentagram on the wall for mystical protection. And misunderstandings and fuck-ups play a key role in the film’s climactic third act. As far as fuck-ups go, none are bigger than the one Simon himself commits — he’s been planning his whole life to take his place among the Gods. He’s plotted the precise moment when his voyage to the “other side” absolutely must take place. Hell, for the entirety of the film’s middle act it’s pretty much all he talks about. And yet — he misses the preordained moment because he’s listening to a couple of his small-time drug-dealer buddies bitching about the no-good, dirty narc who’s been snitching out everyone in town to the cops.
Obviously, there’s going to be hell to pay. You don’t miss out on your one and only chance to become a God and just get over it and move on. And yet rather than blame himself, as you or I might do, Simon decides to take things out on the powers that be. He’s got a vengeful side — watch what happens to the guy who writes him a bad check early on in the film — and this time, he’s determined to exercise his wrath on, in his own words, “The mayor, the DA, the whole system!!!!!!!!!!”
Simon’s a friend to dope pushers, hustlers, con artists, and petty thieves — when he finds himself stuck on our lowly mortal plane for the duration, the enemies of “his people” are sure to find themselves in for a very rough ride, indeed.
6. Simon As Jesus?
It began with a storm, and ends with one — but this time the deluge is of Simon’s creation. “The next few days are mine,” Simon tells his pusher pals as he brings down the rain on West Side, and the pain on the heads of his foes. His girlfriend OD’ing doesn’t do much to help his mood, either. And yet — just as he’s taking righteous vengeance on those who would oppose his will, he’s laid low by his own Judas Iscariot, who facilitates both his death and, it’s strongly hinted, resurrection. Or ascendance. Or something. It’s not Turk who deals the fatal blow — as a matter of fact, when Simon severs his bond with his youthful sidekick, it’s a strangely emotionally resonant moment — but the betrayal stings just as harshly, if only for an instant, until the darkened lamp-post shown at the beginning of the film suddenly lights up out of nowhere and we come to realize that, hey, maybe Simon didn’t miss his trip to the “other side” after all — he just needed to get there by means of a different, infinitely more painful, route.
There’s no right or wrong way to achieve Godhood, I suppose — give Simon credit for eschewing, even if by accident, the easy road, and doing things his own way. Rather like the film that bears his name.
If you haven’t yet, please — do yourself the favor and pick up Dark Sky’s DVD release of this psycho-psychedelic gem. For a supposed “special edition,” its selection of extras is pretty weak — there are interesting on-screen interviews with Prine and Kessler, the original theatrical trailer is included, and there’s a selection of radio spots on hand, but geez, a commentary, at the very least, would sure have been nice. Still, the widescreen transfer looks great, and the remastered mono sound does the job nicely. This is everything I love about exploitation movies in one glorious hour-and-a-half potion. It’s engaging, quirky, authentic in its inauthenticity, sincere in its bracingly honest insincerity. These people didn’t know squat about the occult, but they were game to give it a go, and the end result is pure magic.