Burn, Witch, Burn
Savant Blu-ray Review
Burn, Witch, Burn
1962 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 90 min. / Night of the Eagle / Street Date August 18, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Kathleen Byron, Reginald Beckwith, Jessica Dunning, Norman Bird, Judith Stott, Bill Mitchell.
Cinematography Reginald Wyer
Original Music William Alwyn
Written by Charles Beaumont & Richard Matheson and George Baxt from the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber Jr.
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Albert Fennell
Directed by Sidney Hayers
Sometimes any horror picture will do. But there are horror fans that take special notice when somebody puts together a show that might attract non-horror fans, a film that makes us think about how superstition works and why it has power over people.
A superior horror film in all respects, Burn, Witch, Burn sees American-International doing a great job, providing a good English filmmaking team with American distribution as well as the talents of the studio’s frequent screenwriters, celebrated horror and sci-fi greats Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. The intelligent and exciting Burn, Witch, Burn gets high marks in every department. When originally released it worked audiences into a genuine creepy panic, and a 1974 museum screening I saw elicited applause from a packed audience. It’s perhaps the most respected film directed by the prolific Sidney Hayers, a director who eventually segue’d into a long TV career. Hayers’ other transcendent scare classic is a whole different kettle of shocks: 1960′s highly successful mix of sex and gore Circus of Horrors.
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 is sourced in an old novel by Fritz Leiber, often promoted by Forrest J. Ackerman. Back in 1944 it was adapted as a Universal “Inner Sanctum” B-picture, Weird Woman.
Tourneur’s peerless 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 is deeply involvedd 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 that unusual.
The setting is a provincial English college, complete with ivy on the walls. 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 hostility toward him, Norman burns Tansy’s talismans, sachets, totems and other grotesque items. His 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 faith in rationality shaken, his job and livelihood in jeopardy, 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 passive-aggressive rivalries. Just like every small-pond competitive situation, it makes sense that an academic 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. Tansy goes to market like a normal housewife but also leaves her little charms stashed everywhere. She 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 shapes up as a real battle of sorcery. 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 show he and director Hayers working at their best. The lighting changes suggest Tansy’s inner panic and the 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 all of its magic, at least not to this thickheaded viewer. Norman appears to break one spell by making 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. 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 viewers jump 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 have been amused to know that she’s better known in Burn, Witch, Burn 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. The movie successfully aligns Norman’s skeptical arrogance with his general vanity. 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. Does the movie inadvertently suggest that female accusers of molestation are acting under mind control?
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Burn Witch Burn is a fine HD encoding of this still too obscure horror gem, previously released as a so-so MOD DVD-R. The added detail and texture gives us the expected ‘English B&W’ look, with soft grays and few hard shadows in exteriors. Various night scenes show off some excellent lighting schemes; the midnight doings on a remote beach includes some excellent day-for-night footage.
The film is the American release version, which 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. This copy has the vocal introduction added by American-International, spoken over black by Paul Frees. It was routinely dropped from TV broadcasts but was included again starting with a laserdisc release 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
Although the problem has been lessened, the audio track in the first reel or so has some distortion, obviously built in from the available element. Frees’ narration is sibilant and the track ‘crunchy’ overall. This problem was much more pronounced on earlier discs, but I still hear it.
A Scorpion logo appears at the head of the disc, but not on the packaging. That company may be behind the new interview with actor Peter Wyngarde, a nice extra that shows him to be no more self-interested than any other actor. Wyngarde shares good memories of the shoot.
An original A.I.P. trailer sells the movie a bit too hard but doesn’t misrepresent it or give away the exciting conclusion. Also present is a commentary with author Richard Matheson, missing from the DVD-R but I believe included on the old laser. Matheson’s comments seem spotty at first, and he sometimes simply relates what he’s seeing on the screen. But he eventually tells the entire story of the show. Matheson has almost entirely positive memories of the film, its cast and especially Beaumont. He talks about the deal making behind some of
his A.I.P. work — he earned only $5,000 for a couple of his Poe pictures, amounts adjusted with bonuses from James Nicholson. He also goes over specifics about some of his other films, like the adaptation of his I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth. He seemingly forgets that it was not filmed in America.
Taking a cue from Arrow Video, Kino offers a reversible package art, with an alternate advertising image derived from a print ad. I like it. If you’re the kind of horror fan that responds positively to sensitive, smart films like Curse of the Demon, Kino Lorber’s Burn Witch Burn will be just the ticket.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Burn, Witch, Burn Blu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with Peter Wyngarde, commentary with Richard Matheson, Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 13, 2015
1. The 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?