I’m fascinated by the later part of the 60’s where hippies liberally threw around the the phrase ‘age of aquarius’ without really understanding what the hell they were talking about. Drug culture seeped into the suburbs and it didn’t take long for average people to smoke a little pot, burn some sage to cover the smell and get down to talking about the positive qualities of Satan. It was a really weird time even among the counter culture. Everyone you can think of was loosening up and trying their hand at spectator-grade occult practice.
Obviously, the Tate/La Bianca murders at the hands of the Manson Family took the wind right out of those sails, so it’s in my opinion that the sudden darkened tone of the 70’s made it difficult to get more of these sorts of movies made and made it easier for Catholics to freak your shit out with the devil by way of The Exorcist. Simon avoids the old Satan angle by actually taking real Pagan practice and sensationalizing it while making the spiritual angle a little on the vague side but you get the idea. Any sort of spirituality that didn’t involve Jesus (and still doesn’t) is handled with a great deal of suspicion so it was easy to make a movie like this with hopes to exploit public fears of the occult or anything that looked vaguely Mansonlike.
Simon may claim to be a real magician but for all the magical power that he wields, he still lives in a storm drain. After being thrown in the clink for vagrancy, he hooks up with a young hustler named Turk who introduces him to Hercules Van Zandt, a wealthy dude who throws crazy parties and features Simon at the center of it all as a novelty attraction but when he realizes that he has been exploited, Simon turns the tables on the rich-folk who don’t take him seriously. His ultimate goal is to become a god, and he has a plan for that but while he slings spells, he lays the charm on the daughter of the city district attorney and winds up screwing the local counter culture in the process. His ultimate act, that is, aside from shaking mortality and becoming a god, is to curse “the man” but it brings on unforeseen consequences.
It’s a real shame that Simon was marketed so poorly. The studio wanted a horror movie and instead got a cynical black comedy with more nudity than blood. The movie was sunk upon release thanks to the advertising that wanted you to believe that it was all about human sacrifice and ritual sex, meant to cash in on the true-crime horror of the aforementioned Manson murders. Rather than embrace it, the public backlash condemned it for something that it was not, inappropriately exploiting a series of savage murders and cult brainwashing. What’s most unfortunate is that Simon is actually a great movie full of witty writing, a great story and great acting.
Rather than hit you over the head with the misinformed excesses of Hollywood’s typical understanding and exploitation of occult practice, Simon actually gets a lot of it right. It does occasionally dip into silly territory. I mean, it does have one foot in the horror genre, after all, but for the most part, Simon thrusts a knife into the air and calls out all manner of invocation. Most of the movie focuses on the hipster culture of the early 70’s, though. There’s a lot of drug use implied and liberal attitudes towards sex. Society types hang out and watch Simon do his thing for amusement. It tends to play out more like a spoof of Kenneth Anger’s occult art flick, Invocation Of My Demon Brother.
Simon has a tendency to wander. The plot, that is. The conflict, usually front and center of any story, is a little hard to find at times as it seems like the movie is more or less a series of vignettes about a real magician. Occasionally it looks like it’s going ot be a movie about a guy whose hand is forced when he has to prove his power to the people who mock him but it veers off wildly in all directions until it settles on Simon’s struggle to power up a metal rod that will open a portal through a mirror where he will embrace the power of the gods. It takes some time to get there and while the movie is particularly directionless, kicking back and letting it take you where it wants to go isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can excuse the non-linear pathing through the story thanks largely in part to Andrew Prine’s performance as Simon. Prine is hugely charismatic and you get the feeling that had this movie been delivered to the public properly, his career may have taken a different direction. He’s absolutely outlanding in parts, particularly a scene where he attends a ridiculous ritual put on by a coven of witches headed up by one-time Andy Warhol darling, Ultra Violet.
Of note is a finale similar to the abstract closing moments of 2001 where Simon actually crosses over. It’s full of crazy, druggy visuals, all of which are massively impressive given the movie’s small budget. It has a tendency to drag on a bit and it’s clear that it’s a scene that is very proud of itself for being so out there.
If you really want to take in a piece of psychedelia but don’t think you can take too much of Peter Fonda’s vacant smile, you’ll want to have a look at Simon, King of the Witches. It’s completely weird, spearheaded by a great lead performance and a shitload of fun.