One of my favorite supernatural horror films is 1962’s BURN, WITCH, BURN! (aka NIGHT OF THE EAGLE.) It’s been a notoriously difficult film to track down for years but lo and behold it’s currently available on Netflix streaming. (Can I just say that Netflix streaming may be the best thing to happen to horror fans since Karo Syrup?) Based on the novel CONJURE WIFE by FRITZ LIEBER and adapted by folks like RICHARD MATHESON and CHARLES BEAUMONT, BURN, WITCH, BURN! possesses the artistry and psychological depth to stand proudly next to the best of the genre. Like so many of the most enduring movies dealing with the occult and the unknown, it can be said to pulse with its own magical power. If putting a movie together is anything like casting a spell, this lone film of interest by director SIDNEY HAYERS measures the ingredients in its witch’s brew adeptly and ends up hitting its mark square on the nose.
Norman Taylor (PETER WYNGARDE) lives the life of Riley as a big fish psychology professor in a small college university pond. He’s got all the answers to life’s mysteries and believes neurosis is caused by a cowardly avoidance of the concrete facts. Faith and superstition are his personal pet peeves; if something can’t be proven (or perceived by him) then it simply doesn’t exist. Little does he know that the high horse he perches on is crafted from juju charms and that his dutiful wife Tansy (JANET BLAIR) has been messing with mojo to keep envious backstabbers and life’s little pitfalls at bay.
According to Tansy, what Norman doesn’t know could fill a spell book. His friendly colleagues are sharks itching for the sent of blood to go in for the kill and the only thing that separates him from the chum is her knowledge of the way things really work. His ego in the balance, Norman pulls a Darrin Stephens and insists that Tansy scrap her witchery and convert to his approved logic. Tansy reluctantly agrees but without the wifely back up, Norman goes from stud to dud overnight. A once smitten student accuses him of rape and her enraged boyfriend threatens him with a gun. There’s more to worry about than his occupation/identity falling to shambles though, there seems to be an ominous force unleashed and rustling about that won’t be satisfied until Norman is fitted for a pine box.
BURN, WITCH, BURN! is often compared to JAQUES TOURNER’S CURSE (or NIGHT) OF THE DEMON (1957) and it’s not difficult to see why with its tug of war between the scientific and the magical. Both rack up the chills by exploiting the meat of superstition, the idea that once you’re on the universe’s shit list your days are numbered. Their visual tones compliment each other as well, both sharing a ravenous appetite for inky, amorphous shadows and a proud debt to all things VAL LEWTON.
BURN, WITCH, BURN! may fall just short of CURSE OF THE DEMON‘s more majestic feel but in some areas, like special effects, BURN stands superior. The climax of the film, which relies heavily on miniatures and forced perspectives may look quaint to the youngins but all things considered, it’s still an impressive, nearly seamless, spectacle today (and if you ask me, it’s also saluted heavily in sister-witch movie SUSPIRIA.)
The implication that men are manipulated like marionettes by deceitful, sorceress women may smack some as misogynistic but there may be a bigger truth here to explore. Who could argue the fact that those who appear to glide through life may have someone who toils in the trenches unseen to thank? Removing gender from the equation, BURN, WITCH, BURN! presents, with married couple Tansy and Norman, two distinct personality types, one grounded and analytical and the other connected to the spiritual and unseen. The film may spotlight dark forces at play, but Tansy’s magic is protective by nature. She sacrifices her very life for her husband and can’t really be associated with the malevolent force that seeks to destroy them. In any case, I think it’s possible to read the concept of “woman’s intuition” presented here as less to do with the female of the species ability to practice covert magic and more to do with the male’s limiting literal mindedness.
I’m especially fond of BURN’s cast (although the general style tends toward the melodramatic.) JANET BLAIR as Tansy brings the needed worried agitation and is exceptionally sympathetic, MARGARET JOHNSTON as the not-giving-too-much-away baddie, Flora, does twisted freaky creepy like nobody’s business and PETER WYNGARDE is phenomenal.
I love this guy PETER WYNGARDE!
How did I never realize that one year earlier he played Peter frickin’ Quint in THE INNOCENTS? He teeters toward overboard but it’s sensational seeing such a go-for-broke turn. In addition, his handsome gargoyle mug seems sculpted for this type of film, as it tends to attract and capture every shadow slinking by. Years later he would play a T.V. character, so flamboyant (JASON KING) that he inspired AUSTIN POWERS, but in BURN he’s just so photogenic and wildly intense that he ends up delivering something truly memorable. As stuffy as his character is made to appear upon introduction, this ends up being a rare supernatural spook show with a manic male rather than female lead. (Adding further to my fascination with WYNGARDE is the fact that he had a ten year relationship with ALAN BATES and played Ming’s right hand man, Klytus in 1980’s FLASH GORDON!)
Black and white film adds something unique to the movie viewing experience overall but it adds something super unique to horror films and something super special gonzo incredible unique to the supernatural horror film. How can anyone wonder if witchcraft exists? Black and white film IS witchcraft! You just can’t get this effect with color film (unless your name happens to be MARIO BAVA.)
Like THE HAUNTING (if you think I’m referring to the 1999 version, punch yourself in the face for me) and THE INNOCENTS, this is a Rorschach flick that you can catch different fish in every time you visit the pond. With my last viewing I encountered a figure in a lightening flash that never materialized for me before. I don’t know what it means or if it’s a mistake but to me that’s like getting three ravens in a row playing slot machines.
BURN, WITCH, BURN! opens with Norman scrawling, “I do not believe” upon a classroom black board. It closes with him backing up against that same board in horror and smudging out the word “not” leaving only “I do believe.” It’s a clever, classic moment that illustrates just how far he has traveled without moving an inch, as if belief and skepticism are separated by little more than a light switch. Like everything magical, the revelation isn’t forced on you but it’s there if you want it. Like Norman, all you have to do is open your eyes.