Friday, April 29, 2011

B is for BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962)

Buried unceremoniously in amidst the 'forgotten' films avail. for streaming on Netflix is a film you must see: BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962), an AIP film from the UK, based on Fritz Lieber's perennial ghost tale, "The Conjure Wife." There was a vastly inferior adaption in the 1940s called WEIRD WOMAN, part of a B-list series of films based on the popular Inner Sanctum radio show. And there was this, which is awesome. But which of the two is available on R1 DVD? Right you are, but that's all moot now, thanks to the 'flixstream. Known in the UK as NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, it turns out BURN, WITCH, BURN is the best-kept secret in early 1960's black-and-white British horror. 

What makes this film work is its moody black and white photography and AIP talent roster, including Corman Poe screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, who always instill 'classic' material with an edge of modern wit that does nothing to dispel the unease and terror. It's directed by Sidney Hayers, a TV director who's worked on The Avengers, and Baywatch, among others, but hey - it's all about the script and the actors, and these are top flight: Janet Blair is the wife, Peter Wyngarde the brooding Rod Taylor-ish lead, Margeret Johnson the limping rival; Judith Stott an amazing and odd face as the charmed co-ed. Kathleen Byron (so terrific the sex-starved nun who falls to her death after being rejected by the only eligible bachelor for a thousand miles in Black Narcissus).

I've been shy about this film since I dreaded slogs of  the tedious, patriarchally condescending husband belittling his wife about her black magic habits, as is so often the irritating way these kinds of movies eat up running time. He does do this but she fights back with scathing wit and makes her conversion to logic something that's a result of her own self-doubt, rather than his stern sexist berating. From a feminist standpoint its demoralizing watching even strong British women demoted from sexy independent thinkers to smiling slave drone Stepford wives.

Filmed in black and white, BURN has the arty photography (by Reggie Wyer) of the British countryside: mythopoetic and effective use rocky beaches, and cloudy English skies stack this up against the cream of Hollywood's post-Lewton / Tourneur ambiguous shadowy horrors like THE HAUNTING, as per this delicious review from Unkle Lancifer on Kindertrauma:
Black and white film adds something unique to the movie viewing experience overall but it adds something super unique to horror films and something super special gonzo incredible unique to the supernatural horror film. How can anyone wonder if witchcraft exists? Black and white film IS witchcraft! You just can’t get this effect with color film (unless your name happens to be MARIO BAVA.)
Indeed. It is hard to think of who other than Bava could ever get this chilled sense of dying of the light ominousness--where imagination starts to conjure shapes and movement within darkening shadows-- in color, and harder to think who other than Lewton could sneak so much genuinely intelligent female characters into a black and white horror film. And Byron's evil witch has great lines, mocking our hero's 'desperate stretching of logic' and ever-weakening attempts to deny that which he knows to be true. Meanwhile a whole litany of superstition rolls by: charms, spells and obscene phone calls, all topped off by some wild ass shadow-perspective monsterizing worthy of the greats.

So while the world knows to bow for the stealth-intellect and shadow-shelved soul of the Lewton box and the CURSE OF THE DEMON and HORROR HOTEL DVDs, no one, at least here in the states, knows that BURN, WITCH, BURN deserves not only bowing to, but scraping, bowing and scraping... and more scraping... scraping until the very celluloid emulsion under your nails strikes sparks and we're all in black and white flame... engulfed?


  1. Not quite as good as CURSE OF THE DEMON or THE HAUNTING, but good enough to be mentioned in their company. And also graced with the divine presence of Kathleen Byron (pictured immediatedly above) immortalized by Powell & Pressburger as the crazed nun in BLACK NARCISSUS.

  2. That's where she's from! I knew she looked familar. Thanks, CJ! I don't know, I'm pretty keen on BURN as being better than either the haunting or curse. Burn uses the gender war in a truly innovative and symbolic fashion. It's British in the best way, near Shakespearean! Haunting has its flaws (Russ Tamblyn's greedhead gets awful annoying) and so does Curse, though I can't remember what. Oh if only there were more films like these.

  3. Excellent review Erich - I actually find NIGHT OF THE EAGLE to be marginally superior to NIGHT OF THE DEMON. I think the unexpected appearance of the Eagle works much better than the demonic interventions of NIGHT OF THE DEMON, but more importantly the sceptic in NIGHT OF THE EAGLE is a much more sympathetic and less irritating character. The subtext of feuding academics vying for control and success is also a novel element to the narrative.

  4. Erich you are always a man after my own heart when it comes to reviewing these kind of you already know my history with this film goes way back to the first laser disc pressing of it when I did the liner notes as well as having the ear of Janet Blair for a spell to chat with over the phone...also Sidney Hayers came over to my place for an interview regarding not only this film but Circus of Horrors as well....I now feel that the performances of Margret Johnston and Kay Walsh from the Hammer film The Witches are among the best we have seen so far in films....once again full marks on your work..

  5. "there's nary a familiar face in the bunch" Not so! Those faces were, and likely still are, *very* familiar to UK audiences, particularly Wyngarde who was in a couple of hit British tv shows ('Jason King', a spin-off from the earlier 'Department S')
    btw, the UK version of Curse of the Demon - Night of the Demon - is more interesting than Curse (the American version which was considerably trimmed to fit on a double bill.) Wyngarde in Night of the Eagle is, as Shaun says, a more sympathetic skeptic because, in vivid contrast to Dana Andrews in Night of the Demon, he was not in an alcoholic stupor from start to finish of the movie. Wyngarde, incidentally, was widely known to be gay (I encountered him once or twice in a popular Kensington, London, gay bar in the 1970s) and was a close friend of Morrissey (yes, THE Morrissey) as the singer describes in his fascinating autobiography. The other point to be made about Night of the Eagle is that it doesn't have that stupid "Do You Believe?" graphic which was tacked on to the original, downbeat ending by the American distributors.


  7. Further to the comment by Iain: The club to which he refers was actually a mixed i.e. gay/straight.

    Secondly, Wyngarde has been in a relationship with a woman since the early 1990's.


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