Color, 1971, 99 mins. 3 secs.
Directed by Bruce Kessler
Starring Andrew Prine, Brenda Scott, George Paulsin, Norman Burton, Gerald York, Ultra Violet Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Dark Sky (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
As gloriously early '70s and post-Woodstock as you can get, this moody, darkly comic fantasy about white magic in Los Angeles was widely marketed as a horror film but turns out to be something a lot weirder and more interesting. Helmed by frequent TV director Bruce Kessler in the midst of an exploitation run after the crime film Killers Three and the ridiculous The Gay Deceivers, it's still an endearing slice of magic realism with a committed central performance by veteran drive-in staple Andrew Prine.
First seen addressing the camera as he announces that he lives in a storm drain and possesses magical powers, Simon (Prine) is convinced he's the latest incarnation of a powerful master of magic and makes a living doing everything from high society sleight of hand to more elaborate acts of genuine magic for the more esoteric members of high society. His key to these corrupt clients is blond sidekick Turk (Paulsin), who requires Simon's magical services for a nasty case of priapism (in one of the film's several oddball humorous detours). Also on hand is Simon's on and off lover, Linda (Scott, who had recently divorced Prine at the time), a social dropout and daughter of the local DA, a connection that brings Simon into contact with the underworld and local law enforcement after he starts enacted supernatural payback against those who have wronged him. Eventually Simon has to bring down a biblical spell of sorts on the city as he finally realizes his dream of passing through the earthly realm via a magical mirror, but that's far from the end of his journey.
A memorable character study of sorts set in a realm not often depicted on film, this could have been a much more significant cult film had audiences gotten a better idea of what to expect. It still has its fans, of course, which is inevitable for a counterculture piece loaded with goodies like Andy Warhol Factory icon Ultra Violet leading a nude wiccan ceremony or a psychedelic freak out of a climax that gets closer to trippy Saul Bass territory than you'd expect. The wonderful, delirious score by Stu Phillips (fresh off of his epic work on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is a major asset as well, and as a slice of L.A. during the Nixon era, it's a tough one to beat. Though all of the actors are fine, this is really Prine's show all the way as he sinks his teeth into a sympathetic, fascinating character that lets him stretch in a rare leading theatrical role at a time when he was largely doing TV shows. In fact, this turned out to be a turning point in his career as he went on to fill out the decade with darker roles in films like The Centerfold Girls, Terror Circus, Grizzly, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and Crypt of the Living Dead.
Released theatrically by Fanfare Films (the outfit behind Werewolves on Wheels and The Name of the Game Is Kill!), this film largely confused patrons and reviewers expecting a more traditional horror film about witchcraft or satanism. Various VHS editions (some culled from heavily edited TV prints) circulated for years, including a big box release from Unicorn Video that looked so dark as to be nearly unwatchable. The first really respectable version came out on DVD from Dark Sky in 2008, featuring a colorful SD rendering of the film with optional English subtitles. "Simon Says (16m53s) features Prine reminiscing about the making of what no one considered to be a horror film, largely shot on sets at MGM, as well as the character he developed as a human being rather than doing research on the magical arts. His memories about working with Ultra Violet and going to a happening are quite fun, too, not to mention his thoughts on being to wear long hair and a beard for a year around the time he shot this. (An amusing little outtake from the interview session is also tucked away as an Easter egg.) In "Making White Magic" (11m58s), Bruce Kessler sits in a sunny marina restaurant and recalls the amusement he felt over the nude occult scenes, his impressions of the challenging lighting schemes, and his dissatisfaction with the marketing. The trailer and a radio spot are also included.
In 2017, Code Red (with Shout! Factory sharing label credit on the disc and packaging) issued Simon on Blu-ray (sold via Ronin Flix and internationally by Diabolik) with a fresh scan of the film's interpositive that looks just as vivid while bringing down the boosted white levels and soaking in richer black levels. The framing shifts a bit, adding more on the top while losing some on the bottom and shifting over a bit vertically. It doesn't make much of a significant difference either way. The film is preceded by a longer than usual video intro by Kessler (2m35s) with Code Red's Banana Man. The DTS-HD MA English mono track sounds fine if somewhat limited by the undemanding original mix, and a new audio commentary with Kessler and Jeff McKay moderated by Damon Packard goes into more depth about the production including more about the lighting innovations they had to come up with, the fidelity to the original script by Robert Phippeny (his only work besides The Night of the Following Day), and the malicious critical response in America, as well as a nice lengthy bit about Kessler's legendary "Chopper" episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Kessler also returns for a separate video interview (19 mins.), reiterating some info from the commentary while adding more about the casting process and touching on some of his other films and TV projects (while practically touching the camera lens with his nose throughout), touching on everything from AIP to Diane Varsi. Two theatrical trailers are also included.