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Boiling Sand
Categories: Classic Film

Running down the résumés of BURN, WITCH, BURN!‘s cast and crew, I couldn’t tell which artistic/commercial direction this film would lead me.  It could land in one of two distinct territories:  a flimsy story with fake blood and occasional flashes of tits, or it could be a thinking man’s gothic opera.

BURN, WITCH, BURN!‘s director, one of its screenwriters, and three of its four producers — including legendary drive-in schlock producer Samuel Z. Arkoff (THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES, BEACH BLANKET BINGO, etc.) — had collaborated two years earlier on CIRCUS OF HORRORS, a gore-under-the-big-top quickie with plenty of side trips to circus artistes’ trailers, where zaftig Euro-starlets in black bras and panties would get into first-base positions with their lusty circus owner, but — by some miracle of timing — would always be interrupted by a knock on the door just as their bras came unhooked.  It was yet another entry in the genre of ‘Why Do Gruesome Accidents Keep Happening in Our Dysfunctional Circus?’ in the same vein as Joan Crawford’s cash-and-carry twilight opus, BERSERK!

However, various crew and cast members of BURN, WITCH, BURN! had also worked on British classics such as 1958’s Titanic drama A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, several Michael Powell films, the iconoclastic thriller TIGER BAY, and that supreme, subtle-yet-queasy U.K. chiller, THE INNOCENTS, a film version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw starring Deborah Kerr (she considered it her finest performance) with a script by Truman Capote with Harold Pinter.

By the time leading lady Janet Blair completes her first scene, BURN, WITCH, BURN! is obviously in the league with THE INNOCENTS and not THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES.  It has already delivered an abundance of deeply developed performances, literate dialog, rich visual vocabulary.  This may lead to a question:  What could prompt this team of people to reach and excel beyond what they accomplished in the past?

BURN, WITCH, BURN! had been filmed before as a 1940s Universal programmer, WEIRD WOMAN, with Lon Chaney, Jr.  Its source was Conjure Wife, a novel by Fritz Leiber, Jr., which was also refashioned into a 1980s Teri Garr comedy, WITCHES’ BREW.  Leiber came from a theatrical family, but left show business to attend the University of Chicago.  Conjure Wife (and its film incarnations) is set on a university campus, where a faculty wife employs her sociology professor husband’s studies in witchcraft to use as protection against the true wickedness in their midst:  cutthroat faculty politics.  (You can see how this could be re-invented as a comedy, but the core story is fueled by emotions of rivalry and jealousy.) 

I think one of the qualities that raised the bar in this film is that (in addition to the contribution of CIRCUS OF HORRORS screenwriter George Baxt) the script was written by two of the greatest TWILIGHT ZONE writers:  Charles Beaumont and sci-fi novelist Richard Matheson (The Shrinking Man, I Am Legend).  Like the best episodes of that series, there’s an unsettling logic in this film that draws you willingly into world that appears normal yet has an electricity in each scene which feeds your curiosity.  The sometimes crystalline, sometimes amorphous camerawork of Reginald Wyer visually nails this border of logic and fantasy.  Wyer is another crew member whose work reached new levels in BURN, WITCH, BURN!  After lensing great post-War British art house classics such as SO LONG AT THE FAIR and THE SEVENTH VEIL, Wyer’s earned his living in the ‘fifties by shooting broad sex farces and programmers (such as AN ALLIGATOR NAMED DAISY with Diana Dors).  In BURN, WITCH, BURN! Wyer’s craft surpassed even his great shadow-and-highlight images from the 1940s.

The other revelation from this film is leading lady and former ‘forties pin-up girl Janet Blair, a Pennsylvania native who perked up many a musical for Columbia Studios during its heyday.  (Blair introduced the Cole Porter tune You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To in 1943’s SOMETHING TO SHOUT ABOUT.)  It’s the sustained magnetism of Janet Blair’s performance that keeps the film’s intensity so high that there’s never a chance to question a plot point or doubt a character’s motivation.  Difficult scenes, shot from many angles over several days, are consistently maintained by her emotional delivery.  (In a 1971 TV Guide interview, Janet Blair — who was playing Henry Fonda’s wife and Ron Howard’s mom in an early ‘seventies sit-com called THE SMITH FAMILY — complained that she was bored and frustrated to the point of tears playing happy homemaker roles.  The article read like the usual “I’d like better roles” PR, but after seeing this, I see she was speaking in earnest.  The range and the depth of talent she released in this film testified to her acting potential.)

Fifty years ago, few leading men had sculpted physiques like Peter Wyngarde's.

Leading man Peter Wyngarde strips to the waist early on, displaying a physique that was rare in the days when nobody had gym memberships.  Wyngarde’s star ascended after this movie until he was caught giving a blow-job to a truck driver in a bus station men’s room.  (I was beginning to think that only homophobic G.O.P. elected officials fell into that scenario).  He held up well to the intensity of his leading lady throughout the movie.

BURN, WITCH, BURN! (release in the U.K. under the tepid, nondescript title of NIGHT OF THE EAGLE) is a rich movie, in the way that good horror films can be.  The direction and cinematography gives a subtle disorientation; the performances are layered enough that it piques your curiosity; the script avoids the usual pitfalls of spending too much time dwelling on the skeptics of the supernatural and their admonishing speeches (e.g., that scene in almost every horror film that begins with “You’re a man of science, how can you possibly believe in vampires / werewolves / witchcraft / fill-in-the-blank”). 

My only reservation is that there’s not enough of Kathleen Byron (the mad nun from BLACK NARCISSUS), who plays one of the faculty wives.

BURN, WITCH, BURN! is out of print and was never released on DVD in the U.S.  There are some VHS tapes still floating around out there.  Fortunately, a local rental store had a copy; I wish you the same luck.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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7 Comments to “BURN, WITCH, BURN! (1962)”

  1. Marilyn says:

    This sounds likes an intriguing genre piece with an interesting cast (Kathleen Byron!). When the hubby simply must have his fix of horror, I’ll suggest this one as a film I think I could enjoy, too. Thanks for the suggestion, Doug.

  2. Sebastian says:

    Thank you so much for this review- great blog too. Haven´t watched old horror flicks like this for a long time but will probably get back there soon! “Burn, Witch, Burn” sounds like a good way to start again. Thanks again and feel free to take a visit on the blog I´m writing for:

  3. surly hack says:

    I loved Burn Witch, Burn! Kathleen Byron is great, of course, but the lesser Weird Woman has Elizabeth Russell.

    • Doug says:

      Oh, Elizabeth Russell! Have you (or has anybody?) ever found the right words to describe her ineffable, alarming and sublime presence?

  4. surly hack says:

    I certainly haven’t. I was just looking her up on IMdb and her first credit is as “Girl” in Forgotten Faces (1936). Russell’s was one face and persona you wouldn’t forget. I can’t remember in which film it was, but I recall being startled to see her in a role where she wasn’t disturbing.

    • Doug says:

      Hilary, that *would* be disturbing to see ol’ Moya Sestra herself as a pedestrian character. That face always contains a message from the other side.

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