One of the most underrated horror pics of the 1960s (or any other decade), Sidney Hayers’ eerie 1962 BURN, WITCH, BURN ignites its power via a fantastic recent Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.
A chilling examination of modern-day witchcraft and how it rocks a small, suburban British town, BWB excels by way of a number of factors, notably an intelligent script, tense direction, stark black-and-white photography and a superb cast.
The Halloween-friendly plot crackles like autumnal leaves under a pair of boots. Newly-ensconced couple Norman and Tansy Taylor are enjoying the quiet and successful life in their community. Taylor is a psych professor at the local college, whose growing reputation stems from his debunking ancient pagan myths and cure-alls in contemporary society. Uh-oh. His beauteous American wife tends to sway in another direction. A sabbatical in the Caribbean immersed the open-minded woman into the world of voodoo and witchery, becoming obsessed to the verge of a breakdown. The relocation to the UK (and Taylor’s new job) seems to be rerouting them toward a normal and positive plain. At first.
Norman’s discovery of Tansy’s hidden spell-inducing artifacts – all devoted to his success (he’s up for a top, coveted managerial staff gig at the learning institution) sends him into a rage, to the point of threatening to dissolve their marriage. Things go rapidly south from there; and, by south we’re talking fire and brimstone. Has Tansy gone over the edge, now seeking out revenge on her once beloved spouse? Or is someone else in the village dabbling in the black arts?
BURN, WITCH, BURN is the kind of movie that grips you from its “I don’t believe” beginning and holds you until the unforgettable climax. There are no false notes, everything about it is spot-on.
I always considered the picture the perfect companion piece to Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon, another British classic about revered skeptics who learn the “truth” in a horrifying way. I was subsequently delighted to discover that Curse‘s UK title is Night of the Demon, and BURN, WITCH, BURN‘s was Night of the Eagle (for narrative reasons I won’t explain). So, there!
The admittedly more exploitative BURN, WITCH, BURN came from (where else?) American distributor AIP, who also added a corny Paul Frees pre-credit mumbo-jumbo Orson Welles impression/narration. Suffice to say, that although this is the BURN, WITCH, BURN version, it is also the complete UK/Eagle cut. Should also mention that BWB has an amazing overall title history, having been filmed once before in 1944 as one of those Lon Chaney, Jr./Inner Sanctum B-movies for Universal. It was then entitled Weird Woman, yet one more great moniker; however, the best title for the tale came from its original source work, a story by author/actor Fritz Leiber, christened Conjure Wife – one of my favorite titles ever!
The script to BURN, WITCH, BURN comes by virtue of the always-reliable quills of Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, I am Legend, The Legend of Hell House, the Corman/Price/Poe pics Pit and the Pendulum and Tales of Terror, and the unforgettable Karen Black TV flick Trilogy of Terror) and Charles Beaumont (TV scripter for One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, plus Corman/Poe adaptations of The Premature Burial and The Haunted Palace), with uncredited assist from George Baxt (Horror Hotel and contributor to Hammer’s Vampire Circus); it remains one of their finest works.
The key element to BWB‘s potent punch is the suspenseful direction by Sidney Hayers, perhaps one Britain’s most unsung post-war heroes. Hayers helmed every horror fan’s guilty pleasure, the outrageous (and often brilliant) 1960 nightmarish fantasy Circus of Horrors (scripted by the aforementioned Baxt). The plot, which MUST be shouted from the rooftops, encompassed a mad, ex-Nazi plastic surgeon who turns scarred prostitutes (and other anti-social women) into spectacular beauties for his all-female traveling circus. Never before has there been a horror film with such an overt take on the connection between sex, violence, and bad-girl addiction (it must have spilled over from the production, as Hayers married star Erika Remberg). Hayers later gave us Payroll, destined to share a space in the pantheon Great UK Noirs, alongside The Criminal, Brighton Rock, Hell Drivers and The Good Die Young. How great was Payroll? In its edited U.S. release, it played bottom-half with Day of the Triffids. I went with my dad to see it in 1962, and, to this day, recall parts of the crime drama with far more affection than I do the plant-from-outer-space main attraction.
Of course, all of the above are meaningless unless they have a major cast to enact it. Again, BURN, WITCH, BURN crosses the finish line ahead of the throngs. The Taylors are wonderfully realized by Peter Wyngarde and Janet Blair. Wyngarde, who first grabbed international audience attention as the debauched Quint in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, later became a Brit superstar, due to his appearance in the TV series Department S. He’s absolutely believable as the non-believer Taylor. But it’s costar Blair who rates the plethora of accolades. A gorgeous former 1940s Columbia starlet/actress (Ros Russell’s fetching younger sib in the first filming of My Sister Eileen), Blair matured into nuanced thesp on 1950s TV, often playing strong yet vulnerable characters, ideal for the role required in BWB. Rumors that the pair had a torrid affair during the shoot is actually a cine-watcher plus, as, even when their characters exhibit acrimony, there’s still an unbridled chemical attraction of determined devotion.
Wonderful British supporting players round out the movie’s success/synonym, specifically Margaret Johnstone, Colin Gordon, Reginald Beckwith, Norman Bird and the great Kathleen (kwazy Black Narcissus Nun) Byron.
The atmospheric Lewtonesque photography is by Reginald Wyer (whose work comprised everything from Hammer and Prisoner TV episodes to Carry On pics) while the spine-tingling score is a triumph for acclaimed composer William Alwyn.
Aside from some infrequent sibilants, the Kino Blu-Ray presents a near-perfect rendering of the audio and visual elements. The crystal clarity of the widescreen images defines the format and elevates the title to heights not experienced since the pic’s 1962 debut.
There are some amazing extras, including a new onscreen interview with Wyngarde and fascinating audio commentary by cowriter Matheson.
A sensual, freaky trip into the unknown, BURN, WITCH, BURN offers the rarely discussed downside of Elizabeth Montgomery’s mixed marriage. Furthermore, it is guaranteed to have even the most snarky viewer question being a disbeliever. I also predict that it will be one of the most repeated platters you’ll every spin out of your collection. And that you CAN believe!
BURN, WITCH, BURN. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K1655. SRP: $29.95.