Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962)

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AKA: Night of the Eagle

Norman Taylor is a man of science. Norman is a new member of the faculty at a nearby college and very popular with the students. As a psychology professor he often gives lectures regarding the supernatural (Something they never did in my psychology class. The cheap bastards.)

Of course, Norman is a rationalist. And, as a rationalist, doesn’t believe in any of that superstitious mumbo-jumbo. So when he goes around his house one day and starts discovering odd trinkets hidden about he starts to get a little suspicious. Finding dead spiders in ornate containers while looking through your sock drawer can be a bit unsettling, after all. That suspicion then turns to being just short of pissed when he realizes his wife, Tansy, has not only been dabbling in witchcraft to try to further his career, but has been doing it under his nose for years.
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Damn it, Norman! If you’d mind your own business, we wouldn’t have this problem.

Being the reasonable man of reason that he is, he gives her only one course of action: Burn all this sh!t right now, or else. Because as a psychology professor he knows that having someone suddenly and completely destroy a huge chunk of a belief system they’ve had for years can’t at all be detrimental to ones psyche…

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Whoopsie

Tansy reluctantly does as he asks, but immediately after things start going downhill. First, a truck almost turns him into Norman paste on the way to work, then when he gets to school he finds out he’s been accused of rape, which leads to the girls boyfriend threatening him with a gun, and then….Well, basically his life just took a swan dive off the shallow end of the college’s empty swimming pool.

Meanwhile, the troubles continue at home. The phone rings, but there’s no one on the line, odd noises are heard on the recordings of Normans lectures, and someone (or something?) continually pounds and rattles the door.

Norman brushes the increasingly odd disturbances off as coincidence at first, but poor Tansy can’t take it anymore. Norman wakes up to find a letter one morning in which Tansy explains that she’s leaving to draw the evil forces away and will be sacrificing herself to save his unbelieving ass.

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In her defense, if I had to wake up to that every morning I might off myself too.

Norman manages to save her, but the seed has been planted and doubts start circulating in his mind about whether or not there really are evil forces working against him and if he can stop them if there are.

Despite the violence the title suggests, Burn, Witch, Burn! is more of a psychological horror film than a violent one. It’s has a strong focus on atmosphere and a tension that builds and builds as the story progresses. In that respect, it is very similar to another British production I’ve watched, Night of the Demon (AKA: Curse of the Demon.)

Like Curse of the Demon films atmosphere benefits from its impressive art direction and cinematography. The lighting often accentuates that state of dread and the well places architectural designs of the school often add to a subtle sense of foreboding.

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Also, the bird might eat him.

In a bit of a twist from the standard horror movie formula we have a story where a man is terrorized by women, instead of the other way around, a bit of a flip-flop from the genres traditional gender roles. Although, this is a film from the early 60’s, so while the genres traditional gender roles may be swapped, the gender roles of the 1960 are still firmly in place.

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That’s right, I said burn that spider jar. You must give in to my irrational and possibly psychologically scarring demands.  My well-pressed shirt deems it so.

As far as the characters go, the movie is well acted, though reflective of the times. Peter Wyngarde, as Norman, is a likeable enough protagonist by the end, but his initial pompous attitude and steadfast certainty takes him a while to warm up to. There were two things that bothered me, though.

The first was his reaction to Tansy’s charms. What she had really amounted to nothing more than if someone had a lucky rabbit’s foot or hanging a religious symbol around ones neck. I understood his initial reaction of her using these things without his knowledge, but having her burn everything like that so suddenly seemed a bit odd even by 1960’s psychology standards.

The second small point is that I found his character a little too…composed as the events played out. Some gradual inkling of dread my have worked better here. I know I would have at least shown some concern if something started constantly calling the house in the middle of the night.

Janet Blair, as his wife Tansy, comes across as earnest, believable and, when appropriate, frantic. There are a couple of instances that verge on ‘overacting’, but it’s not enough to be too distracting.

But it is Margaret Johnston, who plays Flora, who probably pulls off the best performance. She’s cunning, subtly manipulative and sinister all rolled into one. And she manages to pull it off with style, even while sporting a pronounced limp.

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Sorry, all I can think of when I look at this is “FIRE HAZARD!” I hate that part of my brain sometimes.

Burn, Witch, Burn! was based on Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, first published in 1943. The original New England setting was switched out for a rural British one for the Night of the Eagle movie adaptation. The films Weird Woman and Witches’ Brew were also loosely based on Conjure Wife, though Witches’ Brew follows Burn, Witch, Burn! more closely, plot-wise.

In the end, Burn, Witch, Burn! is an impressive British occult chiller which bears several similarities to Curse of the Demon. The excellent atmosphere hiding the unknown, yet tangible presence of evil keeps the suspense running at a constant hum, thought he film may be to predictable and tame by today’s standards. It’s slow start and subtlety may also turn away people who are looking for something a little more exciting. If you enjoy films focusing around the occult and building tension, than look further into Burn, Witch, Burn!. But if you like your horror movies with a bit more action, than this is not the film for you.

Burn, Witch, Burn! is available on several streaming services.

It is also available on Bluray.

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Michi

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