[To help get you into the spooky spirit this October, the Daily Dead team thought it would be a great idea to spotlight some of our favorite witchcraft movies that just might cast a spell on you and make your Halloween season a "hexcellent" one!]
Just words. Words prophesied in the dark of a movie theater. Words meant to ward off evil spirits, to protect against malicious spells, to keep Beelzebub himself from shedding wickedness on those who would feast on the silver screen fascinations about to be conjured in the theater. And through the utter blackness, within the darkness, the final words of the baritone narrator harken to the viewer to “enjoy” the film they are about to see.
It’s an effective way to start a horror film, and in 1962 I’m sure it had the same chilling effect as it did in the midnight hour of my recent viewing. Night of the Eagle, alternatively known in the United States as Burn, Witch, Burn, is a fascinating suburban nightmare that brings horror into the home. Gone are the darkened castles of Universal’s canon and missing are the European estates familiar from the Hammer vaults; replacing these locales are the familiar features of the suburbs, with mantle pieces, fireplaces, and wardrobe closets filling the black and white contrasted frames. The atmosphere is drenched in dread and layered with paranoia, and the lingering anticipation of complete pandemonium slowly tiptoes into existence as a married couple falls apart amidst the powers of witchcraft gone awry. It’s the imminent dangers of the dark magic that consumes their otherwise wholesome existence. It’s not a monster, alien, or giant creature that summons unease, but rather the simplistic nature of keeping a secret and the contrast of belief versus doubt. It’s the invasion of terror with emotions, the invasion of horror into the home.
The original story, titled Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber, was written into a screenplay by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, who made their waves writing stories for The Twilight Zone, as well as George Baxt, who wrote crime novels. The film is directed by Sidney Hayers, a filmmaker who had an extensive career making television shows such as The Avengers and features like Deadly Strangers, and is imparted with ingenious sound designs and clever camera tricks. Burn, Witch, Burn, even for its age, feels completely pertinent concerning gender roles, the evolution of the middle-class life, and the fear associated with pursuing freedoms in America.
“Don’t you sense something, Norman?”
Actress Janet Blair plays Tansy Taylor, a loving wife of a college professor named Norman. Tansy, who lives a pleasant enough life, has a secret… she practices witchcraft in an effort to help her husband advance his career. Tansy loves her husband, though it’s unclear at first how dedicated Norman is to Tansy. When the tools of her trade are discovered throughout the house, a bell hanging by the front door, a dead spider inside a peculiar container, and small figurines hidden in lampshades, Norman, a non-believer of such practices, forces Tansy to burn the effigies in their fireplace. Tansy senses something has changed the moment a picture of Norman is burned. Panicked and seemingly aware of information everyone else isn’t privy to, Tansy understands that chaos will reign over their lives.
This marital relationship is the highlight of the film. Janet Blair composes Tansy with an apprehension that is palpable, her eyes wide and focused towards every noise, every flickering light, and every wavering shadow. Ms. Blair controls these many characteristics with simplicity. It’s her fear that becomes unnerving as the film spirals out of control. The fear of losing her husband, the dark forces she courts, and the despair associated with a decision she knowingly accepts all provide Burn, Witch, Burn with trepidation and an ominous sensibility. It’s these small features that heighten the quality of this film and help it age gracefully amongst other films that copy the design; the narrative that holds its cards close to the chest, the composition of shots that float and sway like spirits through hallways, and the sound design that echoes with wind, screeching beasts, and a recorded lecture that feels like an incantation. Director Sidney Hayer demonstrates that horror is more than jump scares and gruesome imagery—it’s a manipulation of your senses.
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m a witch.”
Witches have come a long way from the cauldrons, long nose, and green skin found with the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. Today we experience a combination of many things from the past. Look no further than Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, or the upcoming Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for the diverse variety. In Burn, Witch, Burn, the witches take shape within the comforts of their homes, within pencil dresses, pearls, and kitten heels in the vein of the style made iconic by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The threat of curses and evil spells are replaced with immaculate homes and preparations for dinner parties. It’s the structure of the witch character here that fools the viewer into a place of comfort, a place of ease.
George A. Romero would emulate this design with his film Season of the Witch in 1972, a story that centers on a neglected housewife who finds comfort in witchcraft and ultimately murder. The horror here simply serves as a medium for Romero to allow his character to break free from gender stereotypes, to expand upon aspects concerned with feminism, and examine the plight of women’s rights. However, while it’s more prominently designed in Romero’s film, Burn Witch, Burn is also making its statement about femininity and the role of women in far more subtle ways. Tansy Taylor, underneath her obedient nature and compliant responses, is searching for her own freedom amidst the subservient suburbs. Tansy, in protest to her husband’s doubt, understands that only she can control her destiny, that only she can put an end to the evil that is attacking her home. The proud and confident manner in which she exclaims, “I am a witch,” might as well be “I am a woman.”
“All that you have is mine.”
Burn, Witch, Burn still echoes strongly today. It’s a film that feels tailored for current audiences, audiences who sense how horror affects relationships and emotions in a film such as Ari Aster’s Hereditary, or characters who confidently accept their role like Laurie Strode in the new Halloween film. And while Burn, Witch, Burn may not clutch the iconic status of other game-changing horror films made during the ’60s, it has a clear understanding of the films that came before it and introduced its own understanding of how to uniquely craft a horror movie about the aspects of witchcraft, superstition, and the supernatural. Take an evening before the end of October and let Burn, Witch, Burn make you a believer.