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A superior horror film in all respects, Burn, Witch, Burn sees American-International working at its best, providing a good filmmaking team with American distribution as well as the talents of its frequent screenwriters, celebrated horror and sci-fi greats Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. The English film gets high marks in every department -- intelligent and exciting. When originally released it worked audiences into a genuine creepy panic. It's perhaps the most respected film directed by the prolific Sidney Hayers, who eventually turned to a long TV career. Hayers' other transcendent scare classic is Circus of Horrors, a highly successful mix of sex and gore circa 1960.
The alignment of talent and opportunity that allowed the creation of Burn, Witch, Burn was indeed providential. Matheson and Beaumont wrote the script on spec and then sold it to the studio; Richard Matheson's good relationship with A.I.P. president Jim Nicholson was probably a big help. A.I.P. in turn subcontracted the actual production of the film to the Brits. The original English title Night of the Eagle sounds suspiciously like Jacques Tourneur's superb Night of the Demon, known to U.S. viewers as Curse of the Demon. Superficially the stories are similar, as an eagle does serve as a substitute demon from Hell. But Burn, Witch, Burn is sourced in an old novel by Fritz Leiber (often promoted by Forrest J. Ackerman) that back in 1944 had been adapted as a Universal "Inner Sanctum" B-picture, Weird Woman.
Curse of the Demon distinguished itself by taking a step back from its story about summoning horrors from Hell, to examine the nature of superstition and the modern effort to oppose it. The hero is a rational skeptic. Burn, Witch, Burn offers the same idea in an even more personal context. Another protagonist dedicated to the suppression of superstition clashes with his own wife, who appears to be obsessed with voodoo-like black magic picked up on a sojourn in Jamaica. With so many irrational (let's be honest: flat-out stupid) "belief systems" given credence in today's culture, the hero's domestic problem isn't at all unusual.
Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) teaches his medical school class about the sociological effects of belief in primitive superstitions, and is dismayed when he discovers that his lovely wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is practicing black magic right in their college lodgings. Norman bullies Tansy with his anti-superstitious fervor and discounts her claim that her charms counter 'evil forces' and are responsible for his good fortune at the college. Refusing to believe that other faculty members harbor any hostility toward him, he burns her talismans, sachets, totems and other grotesque items. Norman's luck does an immediate flip-flop. A female student accuses him of having an affair with her, and a male student threatens him with a gun. A truck almost runs him down. His job and livelihood are in jeopardy. His faith in rationality shaken, Norman comes home to discover Tansy missing. She has left a note saying she plans to offer her own life to save his, in a rite she once saw demonstrated in Jamaica.
Burn, Witch, Burn brings the diabolical even closer to reality than did Tourneur's film, with the brilliant choice of its setting: academia. A microcosm of a cynic's view of the world, the average college faculty is already a simmering cauldron of envy, bitterness and fierce passive-aggressive rivalries. Just like every small-pond competitive situation, it makes sense that these academics might kill to stay on top. Norman and Tansy host a card game with an openly hostile professor's wife (Kathleen Byron of Black Narcissus, under-used) and the catty, insinuating lady professor Flora (Margaret Johnston, terrific). Everybody remarks on Norman's status as the golden boy of the faculty, the new man who will more likely than not leapfrog the seniority line and win the department chair.
The show works because the characters are so well drawn and believable. Housewife Tansy goes to market but also leaves her little charms stashed everywhere, and is terrified to discover that one of their bridge night guests has hidden a counter-charm in their salon. What previously was petty paranoia (the faculty are against us!) suddenly takes shape as a real battle of black magic. When Tansy's defenses go up in smoke, Norman is hit by a tidal wave of ill fortune -- accusations, freak chance accidents. 1 Not until Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby would we be invited so compellingly to consider random bad events as part of a concerted conspiracy of black magic.
Reginald Wyer's sharp camera movements and tight, tense angles suggest that he and director Hayers must have been enthused and inspired by the superior screenplay. The lighting reveals Tansy's inner panic and the eventual villain's malicious enthusiasm. By the third act it appears that all the forces of darkness have been aligned against Norman. We can guess what's coming by the repetition of shots of the stone eagle on the college ramparts. The film also doesn't quite explain (at least to this thick headed viewer) all of its magic. Norman appears to break one spell by a gesture of faith in a lonely crypt, but I'm not at all sure why a recording of his voice does what it does in the final act. (I'll expect an explanation will enlighten me.) It's no matter, for the tightly organized visuals cue us to exactly the next level of menace at just the right time. The movie's grip is so complete that the entire audience jumps at the sight of a single telling shot of Tansy walking strangely.
Both theater audiences I saw the movie with applauded at the conclusion. The hoodoo-voodoo thrills cover up the fact that the film faults "emotional" females twice over: first for foolishly believing in black magic, and then for using it when it proves to be a functional reality. Burn, Witch, Burn is a great show for those of us that watch Bell, Book and Candle and wonder why some Manhattan Van Helsing isn't taking charge and staking the horrid devil-worshippers Kim Novak, Elsa Lanchester and Jack Lemmon through their pagan hearts. Well, maybe not Kim Novak.
Janet Blair would probably be amused to know that Burn, Witch, Burn is better known than her near-classic comedy My Sister Eileen; twenty years later she's still as beautiful and charming as all get-out. Peter Wyngarde is the most body-proud sociology professor I ever saw -- the actor's contract must have stipulated that he gets to play a percentage of his scenes with his shirt off. Margaret Johnson is perfectly marvelous as the eccentric Flora Carr -- any self-respecting University department has at least one "interesting" personality like her. If actor Reginald Beckwith seems familiar, it's because he also plays the kooky Mr. Meek in Curse of the Demon. Neither he nor the talented Kathleen Byron is given the screen time they deserve, unfortunately. Lovely Judith Stott made few movies but leaves a strong impression as the student infatuated with Norman, who seems compelled to denounce him by an evil spell.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection's DVD-R of Burn, Witch, Burn is an excellent transfer of this crisply shot English picture. The college interiors look great, as do the day-for-night beach exteriors and the scary ending on the campus green. The uncredited special effects are quite effective, if only briefly seen.
Included on MGM's disc is an original A.I.P. trailer that sells the movie a bit too hard but wisely doesn't misrepresent it or give away the exciting conclusion. This U.S. version is almost identical to the English original. Some credits vary in the title sequences, and the American final card "Do you believe?" is a simple "The End" in Night of the Eagle.
A.I.P. also added a fairly creepy audio prologue by voice talent Paul Frees, spoken over black. It was routinely dropped from TV broadcasts but is present on this DVD-R and the laserdisc from around 1996-97. I imagine that the speech was a perfect mood-setter for kids primed for a take-no-prisoners spook show. It seems superfluous now, and in a different spirit altogether from the fairly sophisticated thrills that follow. Frees' voice has since become strongly identified with Disney's Haunted Mansion theme park ride. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Burn, Witch, Burn rates:
1. Perfect short subject for Burn, Witch, Burn: Tex Avery's demented cartoon Bad Luck Blackie.
2. The voice script is serious about invoking evil spirits, and I imagine that it might offend Christian fundamentalists of the sort that don't abide celebrations of Halloween, etc.. But what kind of Bible audience is going to buy a disc called Burn, Witch, Burn?
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T'was Ever Thus.