Simon: King Of the Witches! Code Red Catch-Up, Part 6 (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Admittedly, this next entry is a bit new for a "Catch Up" post, but I figured, who's gonna complain about coverage of a too recent release?  Simon: King Of the Witches made its HD debut in blu-ray just this Fall thanks to the collaborative efforts of Shout Factory and Code Red.  Before that, it only had one DVD release, but a pretty good one - widescreen, uncut special edition - from Dark Sky.  So how much is there to improve on?  If you've got the DVD, is it worth double-dipping?  I've got them both laying right here beside me, so let's find out!
Simon: King Of the Witches is a surprisingly good movie.  Like, not just in the sense that Code Red has unearthed a bunch of neat, weirdo cult gems.  This is a really good movie in classical terms.  If you have a stuffy old film professor who questions why you watch horror movies, you could show him Simon and he'd have to concede, okay, that one had some genuine merits.  In fact, on the audio commentary, the moderator is a bit floored when the director explains to him that they built these elaborate sets and all because he's so used to covering these off-the-beaten-trail obscure indies.  Simon's certainly off-the-beaten-trail and obscure, too; but it had a major studio behind it; and so the quality in the craft really comes through.

To enjoy something like, oh say, I Drink Your Blood or The Blind Dead movies, you have to be ready to see past the technical limitations and amateurish aspects to find what's so good about it, or maybe embrace those aspects and laugh with their charms.  But not here.  You could play this film alongside the artiest Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer movies and not miss a beat.  But it's still wild and outrageous enough to entertain the lowest brows in your horror audience.
But odds are good you've never even heard of this movie before, so what is it?  The title role is played by Andrew Prine, a gifted actor whose career was unfortunately derailed by a serious accusation of murder.  Well, I suppose how unfortunate it is depends on whether or not you think he did it.  But if you look him up, he's never really stopped working, with television credits as recent as 2015.  Anyway, he's Simon, a homeless drifter who lives in a storm drain and claims to be a witch.  There are echoes of George Romero's Martin here (though Simon came first), with the audience on the fence about whether Simon is actually a witch or just a delusional fraud.  He winds up spending a night in jail with a young hustler who takes him to a high society party held by a socialite who collects eccentric personalities like his.  Simon is only too happy to take them for their money, reading their fortunes and selling them cheap baubles and charms.  But Simon also has bigger plans: to transition to a higher plain and take his place as an equal among the gods.  And when he's challenged to place a death curse on an enemy, his new friends begin to fear there may be more to his claims than they believed.
For the most part, this is a smart horror film that gets over on its dialogue and ideas more than flashy gore or creature effects.  But the effects there are tend to be opticals, including one particularly wild sequence that feels like the 2001 "star gate" sequence, in no small part because it's by the same team!  Performances are great all around, though you might initially be thrown by their unusual mix of high drama and snarky humor, including a little cultural caricature.  Some secondary characters might take it a little too far, even, but Prine is a powerful anchor keeping the film grounded at all times.  Andy Warhol's Factory girl Ultra Violet steals the spotlight for one hell of a sequence as the head of a rival coven.  The story structure will have you off balance (I remember seeing this for the first time and thinking, can we still be in the first act an hour and ten minute into the movie?), but by the time it all dovetails into the slick conclusion, it will have all made some kind of perfect, impossible sense.
2008 US Dark Sky DVD on top; 2017 US Shout/ Code Red blu-ray below.
Dark Sky brought us a really nice, anamorphic, widescreen (non-interlaced) DVD.  So I was a little skeptical if Code Red would introduce much of an improvement bringing this to HD.  A little compression cleared away, sure; I wasn't anticipating an upconvert.  But would this essentially be the same master on a higher res disc?  Nope, not at all.  Code Red has given us a brand new 2k scan from the original IP, and it looks great.  Both discs are in 1.78:1, but you can see the framing's shifted a bit, and I would say it's pretty consistently for the better.  Colors have also changed.  The two shots above show a bit of a hue overcast on the blu, but actually most of the film looks decidedly better than the DVD.  Look at the rest of the shots in this post (all taken from the blu); the colors look natural and attractive.  And it's obvious the DVD did a lot of contrast boosting, flaring out the whites and tinkering in other ways to try and pull out a clearer image from a dark, murky image.  Dark Sky did a good job with what they had for standard def, but the HD clarity, which really sharpens the image and refines detail, let Code Red ride out with the original, more subtle palette in 2017.  It's a new age. Enjoy.

Both films preserve the original mono in 2.0.  Code Red's is lossless, naturally, but there's not a world of difference between the two.  Dark Sky also included English subtitles, which were disappointingly neglected on the blu.  Not that CR usually bothers with subtitles, but with Shout Factory's involvement, I hoped they might've pushed 'em through.  Oh well.
An interesting area to get into with these two releases, though, is the special features.  Both discs have strong, unique extras.  We'll start with the DVD.  Dark Sky enlisted the help of Red Shirt Pictures to produce on camera interviews with director Robert Kessler and Andrew Prine himself.  They're both the fun, tightly edited pieces we've come to expect from Red Shirt.  And if you poke around for Easter eggs, you'll find a bonus, little clip of Prine talking about a fun connection between this film and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  The DVD also includes the original theatrical trailer, a radio spot that plays over a cool photo gallery of lobby cards, and an insert that mostly just advertises other Dark Sky releases, but at least matches the color scheme and art design of the DVD case.

Unfortunately, Code Red didn't or couldn't license any of Dark Sky's great stuff.  But they produced their own, also with director Robert Kessler.  They've got him for an on-camera interview, an audio commentary, and even a fun introduction with the one and only banana man (no offense Katrina and Maria, but I think Code Red has found their sweet spot in the hosting department).  This is all both fun and highly informative, and with all this material from Kessler, it's not such a blow that they don't have his interview from the Dark Sky disc.  He pretty much says everything on here that he did on there.  But losing Prine is a bummer.  We also lose the radio spot, but Code Red makes up for it by adding a second, low quality trailer.
So Code Red and Shout come out big winners, and not just by virtue of being in HD.  Substantial PQ improvement (when, again, the DVD was already pretty nice), mild sound improvement and the best extras.  But, still, if you have the DVD, hang onto it for those nice little Red Shirt featurettes.  I wouldn't go so far as to recommend picking up both.  The blu is enough, since the Kessler interviews are pretty redundant.  But if you're a big fan who really appreciates this film, having both is essential to charging both your magnetic and electric essences and passing through the god's radiant walls to seize their magic fire.  💫

1 comment:

  1. Saw this film years ago, and was kind of impressed with it---it wasn't the usual exploitation film from that period you would expect. Don't know why I haven't got it yet, but the review is cool.