Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Burn, Witch, Burn (1962): or, Under the Double Eagle

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 17!

Everything is coming up roses for stuffy-but-suave college professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde): his students love him, his peers admire him, and despite his brief tenure at the university where he lectures, he seems a shoo-in for the Chair of the Sociology department--much to the consternation of rival professor Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston). Little does the skeptical scholar realize that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been helping his career along by means of Jamaican voodoo and Olde Englishe Witchcrafte. When he discovers his wife's talismans (talismen?) strewn about the house, however, he decides to put a stop to all this superstitious rubbish by tossing the lot into the fireplace--after which his luck goes into what can charitably be termed a death spiral. One student threatens him with a gun for better grades, another claims the dapper dean violated her in the lecture hall, lorries barrel toward him out of nowhere, and his former friends shun him. Has he angered the Ancient Gods with his disbelief, or is there something more scientifically explainable (but no less sinister) at work?

Burn, Witch, Burn takes a little while to get going, but the payoff is definitely worth it. Director Sidney Hayers builds the suspense slowly, painting Taylor as an intelligent, over-confident man in love who clearly feels he deserves all the good that has come his way, then yanking that believe out from under him and letting the pieces fall. (It always helps when you're working from a script by speculative fiction superstars Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, themselves working from a novel by Fritz Leiber Jr.) Blair is excellent as Taylor's slavishly devoted wife, willing to do anything--even make deals with the devil--in order to advance her husband's career. (Think of a darker, more passionate version of Samantha Stevens from TV's Bewitched.) Wyngarde has a face like a Rolls Royce grille and looks simultaneously stuffy and sexy in his waist-high chinos and chest-baring silk shirts, and it's fun to watch his proper facade crumble. Johnston makes a wonderful adversary--petty, but intelligent and ruthless enough to do real damage--and the rest of the British cast is great too.

The movie plays out a bit like an extended Twilight Zone episode (no coincidence, perhaps, given its script's pedigree), but when it hits the barn-burning climax, it ventures out into another dimension of the MAD. No spoilers, but I definitely wasn't expecting the Final Boss.

Well acted, with a good script and efficient direction, Burn, Witch, Burn may be a little old fashioned, but I was entertained nonetheless. 2 thumbs.

Tan, Witch, Tan

(Image shamlessly lifted from Krell Labs--Where the Future is Being Conquered Today!™)


The Film Connoisseur said...

Sounds like a good ole with movie! I wouldnt mind checking it out, thanks for the heads up on this one.

Will Errickson said...

Good post! Watched it on Netflix Instant awhile back, and the climax is indeed a corker. Read the Leiber novel too some years ago but actually don't recall much of it. Still, I think fans of b/w horror like CURSE OF THE DEMON, THE INNOCENTS, and THE HAUNTING will appreciate BURN, WITCH, BURN!

Jamie jubilee said...

I love this movie and was very glad to see you review it! What a great angle to take on the subject of witches! Great review!

dfordoom said...

A terrific little movie.

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