I’ve heard a lot of conflicting reports on 1971’s Simon, King of the Witches. All of the critics have good things to say about Andrew Prine (also the star of Terror Circus, review here) and they all also use the word “weird” somewhere in their review. The division seems to come as to what kind of film Simon (which was its original title, the studio tacked on the “King of the Witches” to rope in audiences looking for horror) actually is. The answer is a bit on the long side, director Bruce Kessler (who is interviewed on the recent Dark Sky release of the film) seems to play up the dark comedic aspects of the film, and while they are there I’m not quite sure the film can be classified as a comedy. It is a cobbling of different sub-genres (among them: broad comedy, “true-life” supernatural expose, underdog story, horror and there’s even a dash of Fitzgerald-inspired societal commentary) that never really meshes together.
The film is to be appreciated for its valiant try, but in the end its real shortcoming is its lack of narrative cohesion. For example: we follow Simon, a practitioner of white magic, who finds his way into the position of “court jester” for the city’s corrupt high society (think the parties of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls‘ Z-man, only in suits and without all the fun) when he is insulted and his powers doubted he must put a “death curse” on a member of this society, sending the whole crazy plot into motion. The problem is the film’s lack of ANY exposition. There seem to be compulsory explanatory scenes missing from the finished film, the particulars of most characters relationships are only eluded to and once the film’s psychedelic final 15 minutes kick in we really have no idea how or why the things we are seeing are happening. All this wouldn’t be a problem if the film didn’t drag in so many places.
It isn’t all disappointment though, the cinematography is pretty solid, there are some funny jokes (when Simon draws a pentagram in his new apartment the landlord responds with “Don’t think I’m prejudice, Rabbi”), and there are a bunch of unintentional laughs derived from what can only be described as the red-orb-of-death (seen in the trailer below), an evil spirit that haunts Simon & co. The stand-out moment of the film is a great scene in which Simon (a white witch) stumbles into a pagan ritual being held by silly (or I should say silly-er, Simon’s rituals are pretty laughable) black magic practitioners, and then proceeds to rain on thier parade.
All and all I would say this is definitely worth a rental if you go in realizing that it was never intended to be a horror film, even though it was marketed as such (it played a double-bill with the wonderful–and also disingenuously named–satanic biker flick Werewolves on Wheels, a personal favorite of mine).