Wednesday, October 27, 2010

BURN, WITCH, BURN! (1962)

Peter Wyngarde is a young professor, about to get a promotion, who tells his class that belief in the supernatural is "a morbid desire to escape reality." Little does he know that his wife (Janet Blair) has been practicing witchcraft behind his back and she thinks his success in the academic world is due to her magic. When Wyngarde finds out what's been going on, he burns all of her charms and potions, even though his wife claims that her magic was protecting him from other dark forces. Indeed, Wyngarde's life starts on a downhill slide: he has a car accident, a student who has a crush on him accuses him of sexual harassment, and her boyfriend pulls a gun on him. Behind all this are the petty politics and jealousies of academic life. An audiotape of one of his lectures seems to have some unholy gibberish in the background; Blair believes it's been cursed by another witch, and sure enough when the tape is played one night over a loudspeaker system at the university, all hell breaks loose.

This film is fairly solidly in the tradition of the Val Lewton horror films of the 40s in which the spookiness is conjured up more through atmosphere and what the viewer doesn't see rather than a lot of special effects or make-up. There are a handful of effects scenes, most of which are OK, except for the stone eagle which may or may not come to life at the end (the original British title of the film is NIGHT OF THE EAGLE). Still, this is a very effective fright film, and one of the few mainstream movies to take witchcraft seriously--these people aren't the New Age Wiccans of today, but they don't ride brooms and cackle, either. The film, in black and white, looks and feels a lot like the more well-known CURSE OF THE DEMON, which is also about a skeptic who winds up believing in the supernatural. This movie's best known scene is probably at the climax; as Wyngarde cowers against the blackboard in his classroom where he had previously written "I do not believe," his shoulder erases the word "not." The title of the movie is a bit confusing. There are witches, and a fire at the climax, though the Fritz Leiber book this was based on was called Conjure Wife (a better title than either BURN or EAGLE). But there is also an A. Merritt 30's pulp novel called Burn, Witch, Burn which has nothing to do with this film. [VHS]

3 comments:

Jim said...

Fond memories of seeing this film at a Halloween double feature at my high school circa 1979. It made me want to be a college professor.

Or not.

The other film, incidentally, was Baron Blood ... didn't you cover that one a while back?

Michael said...

Baron Blood (with the decrepit-looking Joseph Cotten) I reviewed a few Octobers ago and didn't much care for, but then again, I didn't see it in high school, with other kids and raging hormones and acne and stuff. My mileage may differ...

Jim said...

I bought a dirt cheap VHS of BB a couple of years ago, and it didn't hold up. I don't think I even made it through.