Dept of Why Not: BURN WITCH BURN

Burn Witch Burn is a trim little black and white chiller set at an English university, where an up-and-coming professor (Peter Wyngarde) is distressed to learn his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has decorated the house with all sorts of voodoo claptrap she picked up in Jamaica. “I’m a witch,” she confesses, informing him that he’s surrounded by enemies and implying that his success is due as much to her protections and spells as to his own silly scholarship on the psychology of superstitions. He can’t handle the truth and makes her burn all the talismans, so the real trouble begins. The subtext, or even the text, is that women are the secret power, worthy of men’s mistrust and fear but not their patronizing attitudes. The hysterical trumps the rational, which explains much of the plot.

This British film is known in England as Night of the Eagle because a big stone eagle atop the main building plays a part in the climax. You can see the leash attached to him, but that’s only a minor flaw. Others may be convenience and predictability, as it’s not terribly hard to guess the rival witch from her sinister appearance. It’s like a full-length episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller TV series, very stylishly done. Producer Albert Fennell and director Sidney Hayers are best known for working on the series The Avengers, and Hayers also directed the interestingCircus of Horrors. The script is by two towering names in mid-century horror fiction who wrote for The Twilight Zone, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; online sources also credit cult mystery novelist George Baxt on the screenplay.

Available on DVD in England, the film is in the U.S. only as a new made-on-demand DVD-R from MGM Limited Editions. For the record, it’s the second of three films based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife; the others are Weird Woman (1944) with Evelyn Ankers and Witches’ Brew (1980) with Teri Garr. Burn Witch Burn is actually the title of an unrelated novel by A. Merritt.

Michael Barrett, PopMatters

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1 Comment

  1. My comments and corrections could fill a book…well, okay, at least a chapter. Oops, they already did. Time constraints force me to refer readers to RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN. But it’s a great film.


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