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?