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Burn, Witch, Burn
Known in its native England as Night Of The Eagle, Sidney Hayer's 1964 film was distributed in North America by AIP under the more sensationalist title of Burn, Witch, Burn. Though it was released on VHS by MGM years back, it never appeared on DVD in North America until it was issued as an MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD-R release from the MGM Limited Edition Collection in 2011 with a theatrical trailer as its only extra feature. Now the film arrives on Blu-ray with some solid extras, which is something that should make horror fans pretty happy.
Adapted by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson from story by Fritz Leiber Jr., the movie stars Peter Wyngarde as a professor named Norman Taylor. His life is going quite well when we meet him. Though he's new to the school he's popular with his students, a pretty blonde one in particular, and has earned the respect of his peers. What he doesn't realize is that his lovely wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), has been practicing witchcraft and that she believes her rituals to be the source of their good fortune. When he finds out what she's been up to and proceeds to burn all of her talismans, inadvertently throwing a picture of himself into the fire as well, things start to change very quickly. Of course, Norman doesn't believe Tansy when she tells him that his co-workers are actually using magic of their own against him and that she was protecting him all this time.
Burn, Witch, Burn starts of strong and keeps moving at a good pace throughout. The opening prologue, in which an unseen narrator speaks overtop of a black screen and recites an incantation which he claims will protect the audience from whatever evil spirits are called up during the movie, is a nice gimmicky touch but the story is strong enough on its own that it doesn't really need the gimmick to work. From the very first scene, in which we see Norman educating his sociology class about the foolishness of the supernatural we know he's in for a rude awakening but there are some clever twists throughout the film that keep as guessing as to just how that's all going to happen. Of course, this opening scene in the school sets up what is essentially the film's central conflict, and that's the rationale juxtaposed against the supernatural, something which Norman's logical thought processes have plenty of trouble accepting. This is more than just a movie about a man who argues with his witchy wife, more than a movie that pits a modern and educated man against arcane rituals from what he believes to be long dead religions, it's a film that examines our tendency to discount that which we don't personally believe in and the repercussions that can come from that line of thinking (in this case, very unlikely repercussions).
Shot in black and white the film makes great use of its small English town locations. The school Norman works in is appropriately stodgy looking while the home he shares with his wife a classy, old fashioned abode that takes on an appropriately eerie persona all its own once the lights go out. Sidney Hayers, probably best known for directing Circus Of Horrors and loads of TV shows both in the UK and America, keeps the film moving quickly but lets us get to know the two central characters well enough that they're more than just stereotypes. The performances are good across the board, with both Blair and Wyngarde playing their roles very effectively. Blair in particular shines here, as you get the impression that her character really is far more concerned about all of this supernatural stuff than her husband would ever want her to be, albeit for his sake more so than hers. There's plenty of style, the film is very nicely shot by cinematographer Reginald Wyer and makes great use of contrast and shadow throughout. William Alwyn's score is also very strong, highlighting both the drama and the horror in equal parts.The Blu-ray:
Burn, Witch, Burn is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen which is the film's original aspect ratio. The source used for this transfer was evidently in great shape (as was the past DVD release) as there's very little print damage here outside of a few tiny white specks visible now and again. There's noticeably stronger detail and texture here when compared to the previous DVD edition while contrast and black levels look spot on. Film grain is present, as it should be, and the image appears free of any noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression artifact problems. This is a very sharp, nicely detailed presentation of a genuinely atmospheric picture and as such, the movie benefits quite a bit from the HD upgrade it receives here.Sound:
The English language DTS-HD Mono track is solid. The score has better depth and range than the past DVD release had and clarity is bumped up a couple of notches as well. The sound effects used in the film has good presence and they resonate nicely in a few key scenes, while the dialogue is properly balanced and easy to follow. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note and all in all, things sound just fine here. No alternate language options or subtitles are provided.Extras:
The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary track with late screenwriter Richard Matheson that has been ported over from an older laserdisc release. Flying solo here, Matheson talks about collaborating with Charles Beaumont on the film's script, his relationship with American International Pictures and what they were like to work with on this specific production as well as a few others he was involved with, and of course his thoughts on the film itself. He notes what he likes and what he doesn't like about the movie, discusses some of the differences between the film as it is presented here and the source material and a fair bit more. This is a pretty engaging track and it offers up a lot of interesting and very welcome background information on the origins of this project.
The disc also includes a twenty-five minute long video interview with Peter Wyndgarde. He talks on camera about making this movie after his time on The Innocents, what he thought about the story (he's not too kind to it!) and how he took the job for the money. He does, however, speak fairly highly of the actual finished product and of his co-stars and the crew he worked with on the shoot. He then goes on to talk about some of the other roles he's taken since this movie was made, making for an interview that does a good job of covering his work on Burn, Witch, Burn but that also serves as a bit of a career overview.
Aside from that we get a static menus offering chapter selection and a theatrical trailer for the feature. We also get some nice reversible cover art.Final Thoughts:
A spooky and atmospheric British horror film with some great gothic ambience, awesome sets, and some solid performances, Burn, Witch, Burn gets a pretty solid high definition upgrade. The transfer is a strong one, the audio is fine and there are a few choice extras here too. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.