SIMON, King Of The Witches
A surface reading of Bruce Kessler’s 1971 film Simon, King of the Witches would call it a campy take on the many Satan-themed horror films that were then incredibly popular. Featuring a story about a Los Angeles magician who tries to curse the “Establishment” through various Satanic rituals (most of which involve his magic mirror), Simon, King of the Witches does seem to have its tongue placed firmly in cheek. In one scene, Simon and his associate Turk (played by George Paulsin) conduct a drug-fueled ritual involving a goat and Ultra Violet (one of Andy Warhol’s muses and a later convert to Mormonism). However, many authors have pointed out that Simon, King of the Witches displays familiarity with actual occult practices. While the character of Simon Sinestrari (played by Andrew Prine), a ceremonial mage who lives in a storm drain, presents a mockery of the counterculture archetype, his far-out adventures may actually be based on the real life practices of California occultist Poke Runyon.
An experimental short film, Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising was made as a sort of ode to San Francisco’s counterculture of the late 1960s. The film is also a psychedelic rumination on Anger’s search for a modern Lucifer, a bearer of light who will usher in a new age of freedom. Anger’s vision of Lucifer was largely inspired by the writings of Aleister Crowley, who believed that Lucifer would be the god of the coming age of Horus. Anger’s other great influence was Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, who appears as the Devil in Anger’s other occult ode, Invocation of My Demon Brother. Also in Invocation of My Demon Brother, which was made from footage taken from the original cut of Lucifer Rising, is Bobby Beausoleil, the convicted murderer and Manson Family associate. Beausoleil also recorded a soundtrack for Lucifer Rising. Another Lucifer Rising soundtrack was recorded by Led Zeppelin guitarist and Aleister Crowley enthusiast Jimmy Page. All told, Lucifer Rising, which stars British pop singer Marianne Faithful as the demon Lilith, represents Anger’s idiosyncratic take on the new religion of the counterculture.
Released in 1926, Rex Ingram’s The Magician, which stars the German actor and director Paul Wegener as the nefarious wizard Oliver Haddo, is one of the forgotten classics of the silent film era. Barring some alterations, Ingram’s screenplay is faithful to W. Somerset Maugham’s original novel. Published in 1908, Maugham wrote The Magician as a cynical attempt to earn a healthy payday. A potboiler about Haddo’s attempt to sacrifice the life of the beautiful Margaret in order to create grotesque homunculi, The Magician was inspired by one of Maugham’s acquaintances in Paris—the English occultist Aleister Crowley. In fact, Crowley thought The Magician bore such a close resemblance to his own work that he publicly accused Maugham of plagiarism. In the film version, Wegener’s turn as Haddo is undeniably menacing. Bolstering this performance is Ingram’s experimental use of camera work. In particular, The Magician features a terrifying and innovative dream sequence that shows Haddo using black magic in order to create a hellish vision of a ritual dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Coincidentally, a widely reported story about Crowley claims that the occultist tried to summon Pan during a ritual that took place in Paris sometime during the early 20th century.
Subtitled “Tale of a Vampire,” 1920’s Genuine was also directed by Robert Wiene. A little-known and very nonsensical film, Genuine is more or less a continuous dream sequence about one artist’s unhealthy obsession with a painting that features a goddess named Genuine. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Genuine makes great use out of the painted sets produced by the Expressionist artist Cesar Klein. Narratively speaking, the priestess Genuine is depicted as fluent in Eastern magic and the ways of the occult. A bizarre little film, Genuine was a flop during its day and has not received critical reappraisal since. That being said, Genuine offers a glimpse not only of the high degree of influence Freudian psychoanalysis had over German filmmaking during the early 1920s, but also at how seriously Weimar filmmakers studied occult practices. Wiene, along with directors Murnau and Paul Wegener, injected such things as theosophy, Kabbalah, and the aestheticism of occult practitioners such as Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and others into their early horror films.
Although filmed as a documentary, Danish director Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Haxan is widely considered one of the horror genre’s greatest and perhaps most disturbing films. Christensen was inspired to make a film examining witchcraft after studying the Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous 15th-century witch hunting guide written by two German Catholic monks. As a result, Haxan is full of shocking images that dramatize such things as Walpurgis Night celebrations and medieval black magic. Indeed, a major portion of the film’s first half is dedicated to dramatizing scenes of sacrilege and devil worship. Despite its sensationalism, Haxan ultimately argues that the anti-witch hysteria of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period was the result of misjudging mental illnesses and mass hallucinations as demonic possessions. When the film was released, its logical conclusions were ignored. Seen as a scathing critique of Catholicism, some 8,000 Catholic women took to the streets of Paris in order to protest its French premiere. In the United States, Haxan was banned outright.