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Much like Jacques Tourneur's more famous Night of the Demon (1957, aka Curse of the Demon), Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) is an intelligently written and directed B-movie on the subject of witchcraft set in modern day. While Demon tipped its hand and showed the physical manifestation of sorcery and Black Magic in its opening scenes, Burn, Witch, Burn builds slowly from a stance of open distain for belief in the supernatural to a terrifying acceptance of the power of the black arts. It is cleverly set in the world of academia, a place where status from promotion, jealousies and political power struggles tend to run rampant, so it is easy to accept that the introduction of witchcraft into the personality clashes of that world is a distinct possibility.
Burn, Witch, Burn opens on the gothic gates of the administration building of Hempnell Medical College and we quickly see Sociology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) lecturing a class. On the blackboard he has written "I DO NOT BELIEVE," with the word 'NOT' underlined for emphasis. He calls these "four words necessary to destroy the forces of the supernatural, witchcraft, superstition, the psychic, etc. etc., and these - quote - are a morbid desire to escape from reality - unquote, and can only exist in an atmosphere of belief." Having stated his position on the supernatural so firmly, one can easily see why Norman becomes enraged when he discovers that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is, in fact, using witchcraft herself! Taylor has advanced at the school, even over other more seasoned professors. Following a bridge game hosting other faculty members and their wives, Tansy searches desperately for a counter-charm that she suspects was planted in their house. Norman finds a dead spider in Tansy's clothes drawer, obviously being used as a Good Luck totem, and confronts her with it. Tansy casually says, "It's a good luck charm; it's why you're so successful." She speaks as if in jest, but she actually means every word of it. Norman finds many other charms and talismans around the house, which he burns in front of Tansy. Shortly thereafter Norman suffers due to a number of increasingly alarming incidents around the school: a near hit-and-run with a truck, a sexual abuse charge from a student, and ultimately, a terrifying physical manifestation of the black arts at work in the school.
Burn, Witch, Burn is the second adaptation of the novel Conjure Wife, written by Fritz Leiber in 1943. The first was Universal's Weird Woman (1944), part of a series of low-budget suspense films starring Lon Chaney Jr. and titled after the popular Inner Sanctum radio show. The screenplay for Burn, Witch, Burn was written by acclaimed fantasy/horror writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. The two were then part of the core team of writers for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone (1959-1964) TV series, and both would contribute screenplays for the series of Edgar Allen Poe-based films produced by American International Pictures (AIP) in the early 1960s. Matheson and Beaumont wrote their script on speculation, in fact, and sold it to AIP, who set up production for the film in England. It is a Julian Wintle - Leslie Parkyn Production, directed by the prolific Sidney Hayers, who earlier showed a talent for horror with the much more graphic shocker Circus of Horrors (1960). The production of Burn, Witch, Burn (called Night of the Eagle in England) is top-notch in every regard. The black-and-white cinematography by Reginald Wyer is suitably atmospheric, and not only in dark graveyard scenes as expected--even brightly lit college hallways become ominous and foreboding. William Alwyn's music score, like the rest of the film, builds from a quiet menace to a near-bombastic fever. The special effects that appear late in the movie are variable in quality, although one scene in particular is spectacular and must involve a brilliantly-made miniature set.
For unknown reasons, AIP felt the need to add a long audio preface to the film for its initial theatrical run in America. For a full 2-and-a-half minutes over a black screen, the audience heard a spooky introduction full of dread and incantations. It is actually a marvelous bit, delivered by ubiquitous 1960s voice talent Paul Frees, who is summoning his best Orson Welles takeoff. It begins, "Ladies and gentlemen: The motion picture you are about to see contains an evil spell, as used by practitioners of witchcraft for centuries. Even today, in many parts of the world, people practice black magic and witchcraft..." At this point the announcement prepares the viewer for some of the totems that will soon be on view in the movie by mentioning "charms, amulets, voodoo candles, grave dirt [and] locks of hair." Then Frees shifts into high gear: "I am about to dispel all evil spirits that may radiate from the screen during this performance," as he proceeds to recite some mystic gobbledygook. Given that AIP's only outlay was a fee for the considerable talents of Frees, they no doubt achieved a bit of low-rent William Castle-style ballyhoo with this stunt.
Leiber's Conjure Wife was later adapted for a third film, played strictly for laughs, called Witches' Brew (1980); it starred Teri Garr and Richard Benjamin.
Producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Albert Fennell
Director: Sidney Hayers
Screenplay: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson (screenplay); Fritz Leiber (novel); George Baxt (uncredited)
Cinematography: Reginald Wyer
Art Direction: Jack Shampan
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Ralph Sheldon
Cast: Peter Wyngarde (Norman Taylor), Janet Blair (Tansy Taylor), Margaret Johnston (Flora Carr), Anthony Nicholls (Harvey Sawtelle), Colin Gordon (Lindsay Carr), Kathleen Byron (Evelyn Sawtelle), Reginald Beckwith (Harold Gunnison), Jessica Dunning (Hilda Gunnison), Norman Bird (Doctor), Judith Stott (Margaret Abbott)
by John M. Miller