Movies dealing with witchcraft are usually lumped in with the supernatural, so they’re sometimes unfairly shoved to the back of the horror line. However, I truly believe they should have their own category. With supernatural horror, forces are typically thrust upon a protagonist, revenge for misbegotten deeds perpetrated upon the deceased, or righting of wrongs from beyond the pale. Where witchcraft sets itself apart is in the approach – yes, it does deal with the unseen, unkempt and unwanted from beyond – but these forces are usually conjured by a human, for good or nefarious purposes. It’s definitely a case of “don’t call us, we’ll call you”, and you won’t find a finer example of filmic witchery than 1962’s Burn, Witch, Burn.

A British production (Independent Artists), Burn, Witch, Burn was picked up and distributed in North America by American International Pictures. In the U.K., it went out to theatres under its original title, Night of the Eagle (which does figure into the plot, but, alas, is still a terrible title for a horror film). Reviews were surprisingly favorable, especially for a film with AIP slapped on the front. Whichever title you call it (please call it the first one), it’s a largely forgotten masterwork from an undervalued sub genre.

Based on the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber Jr., the film opens with ominous narration, warning us about the unknown before casting a spell of protection over the audience. Naturally, this hokey prologue was added for the American version of the film, but it’s certainly apropos for the gimmick laden era and doesn’t detract from the events about to unfold. We meet psychology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde – The Innocents), who is teaching (and debunking) the supernatural with a very clear “I DO NOT BELIEVE” on the blackboard for his students to see. We are soon introduced to his adoring wife Tansy (Janet Blair – The Fabulous Dorseys) and other various faculty members including Flora (Margaret Johnston – The Psychopath) and Lindsay (Colin Gordon – The Pink Panther) Carr, all friendly, with an underlying threat of suspicion between the women.  Before long, Norman discovers that Tansy is a witch who has been casting spells to help his career and to protect him from negative forces on campus trying to bring him down, in order to improve their own status.

Norman, being a man of logic and reason, convinces Tansy to destroy all her baubles, trinkets and symbols of protection, assuring her that he’s achieved his success due to hard work – and that no one is out to get him. Of course, shortly thereafter, Norman’s world starts to crumble around him, and soon he’s racing against the clock to save not only Tansy, but his plummeting grip on sanity.

Conjure Wife, and subsequently Burn, Witch, Burn, work so well due to their central conceit. Gone are the tribunals, the burning at the stakes, the religious fervor that kept witchcraft mired in the settings of the 1800s. Instead we focus on campus politics, the wives weaving their spells to propel their men to the top. The mundane doings of the rural life (card games, trips to the grocery store) are juxtaposed brilliantly against the arcane (and largely unseen) threats from beyond. The men are completely oblivious that the wives are pulling the strings, content in their belief that all good fortune is earned. Now before we huzzah this production for its groundbreaking views on feminism, keep in mind that everything the wives do is for their husbands, and they receive little outward gain for their powers. This is not to say that the women are weak, but their abilities are hidden, almost ashamedly.

So what we have is a power play between two women, with Tansy being manipulated to the brink of murder. No, three guesses will not be granted for guessing who the other witch is – it’s fairly obvious, and since the whodunit is not the main thrust of the story, it in no way hampers the enjoyment. Caught in the middle is Norman, whose core belief of transparent reality is completely challenged and eventually shattered. Norman is the voice of reason, our voice of reason, and as he starts to doubt himself we find ourselves being drawn into his journey from sanity to sanitarium.

We can thank a first rate script for that. Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont are of course giants in the horror field, conquering TV with classic episodes of The Twilight Zone, and the literary world with such novels as I Am Legend. That really is just a partial list of their tremendous contributions to the genre, and chances are if you’ve seen any sci-fi and horror spanning the last 50 years, a lot of the best was spawned by them. This screenplay is no exception. The two writers possess an uncanny talent for pulling in the viewer right away, with well defined characters that are easy to invest in. Economy was always a strength in their writing, a lesson learned from television that when applied to feature length, still works because the characters are fleshed out. If you’ve never seen this film, go in cold – the story is so fast paced and involving that the film feels like half of its scant 87 minutes.

The look of the film will hold you transfixed. Black and white cinematography is so evocative when used properly, doubly so with horror – the framing, contrast and use of shadow here is breathtaking, with DP Reginald Wyer (The Seventh Veil) giving the film a scope and grandeur that belies the modest ($200,000) budget.

Director Sidney Hayers (Circus of Horrors) ensures that the film builds properly – he unfurls the paranoia slowly at first, and then incrementally adds more sights, more sounds, until we’re as sweat stained and sordid as Norman by the end. It really is a showcase on how to build tension – what a shame that the film world never let him nurture this innate talent.

Blair and Wyngarde make a fetching couple, with good chemistry and believability in their plight. Wyngarde has the more interesting arc, as he goes from firm non believer to hysterical convert. It’s a great turn – he’s trotted out early as a shirtless ‘60s beefcake, yet possesses a raw vulnerability that contrasts well against his sturdy frame. The best performance however, and the one that speaks to the many strengths of the film, belongs to Margaret Johnston as Flora. She has a bravura sequence late in the film where she explains to Wyngarde the power of witchcraft. With a knowing smile and eyes wide with a fierce intensity, she explains that one has to believe in witchcraft for it to work – and that, with the right amount of conviction, anyone could be made to do so. The various talents behind Burn, Witch, Burn come at the viewer with the sheer force of their conviction. And for 90 minutes, with the lights down low and the volume up, they just might make you a believer too.

Burn, Witch, Burn is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE EVIL (1978)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.