Burn, Witch, Burn (Sydney Hayers, 1962)

by Douglas Buck March 8, 2020 5 minutes (1075 words) 35mm Anthology Film Archives, part of the program “The Devil Probably: A Century of Satanic Panic”

British psychology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), new on the staff at a private college and already a favored child, realizes to his chagrin that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been secretly practicing Jamaican witchcraft in an effort to protect him from the jealousy of the rest of the educational staff… his staunch disapproval begins disintegrating however after a serious of misfortunate occurrences, leading him to wonder if someone isn’t practicing dark magic against him… and it may be working…

I loitered around New York long enough to catch one last nugget at the Anthology, namely, Burn, Witch, Burn (known also by its British title Night of the Eagle), a film that had been circling about on the outskirts of my radar for what seems forever, mostly because of its intriguing pedigree (based upon an early novel — with the best of the three titles, Conjure Wife — by one of those enormously prolific, now understandably revered scifi/horror authors who churned out endless paid-by-the-page fiction for monthly genre periodicals and pocket paperbacks — in this case, Fritz Lieber — and adapted for the screen by two genre legends – I’m talking numerous classic episodes each of the OG The Twilight Zone, no less – Richard “The Last Man on Earth” Matheson and the dead-way-too-young Charles “The Masque of the Red Death” Beaumont). I figured, with it being screened off a (what turned out to be beautiful) 35mm print, the time had arrived to check it off the list.

First, a gimmicky black screen prologue, an omniscient narrator intones a multi-language spell, meta-style, directly to the audience, to protect us all from evil (apparently, this is only in the US prints, and has the feel of a throw-in for sure, not quite matching with the more elegant presentation that follows, yet, even with its over-theatrically effectively conjures up a carnival barker inviting us in, parting the curtain into the dreamier, slightly unreal world to come). Then a nicely conceived bit of Apollonian artifice, opening credits that scroll over a dark screen with a single, slightly twitching female eye peering directly at us, holding us in our seats with its female gaze, the unsettling orb giving little clue to the emotional state of its feminine owner (terrified? fascinated? Insane? or worse… condemning?), drawing from the cinematic gestalt of many a filmmaking auteur, like a Polanski with Repulsion and a Frankenheimer with Seconds (confession time… this image has a special place to me, as I started with a similarly-themed close up on a female eye peering out of a changing stall in the script for one of my many unmade movies Body Faith). And, bang, right into the next shot, the first as part of the actual diegesis, continuing the roll of cleverly introducing theme cinematically, with Professor Taylor, lecturing on the fallacy of superstition, emphatically writing “I DO NOT BELIEVE” before his college student body (the very words the films ends on, only now with the chalkboard in tatters, the words as broken apart as Taylor’s initially concrete beliefs).

From the great start and through the entirety of its just under 90 minute running time, with a careful narrative precariously shuffling between a gripping tale of Taylor’s increasingly nightmarish descent into realizing the possibility of the real – and dangerous — power of black magic (while leaving alive the notion that it could still possibly be all coincidence and the suggestings of a mind growing troubled with doubt and paranoia), the nicely-realized, deliberately underplayed, suspense pieces the film carefully builds towards (with the “Eagle” of the British title playing a large part… even if I don’t quite understand the significance of this particular impressive bird within the scheme of witchcraft), while also impressively playing out a carefully-conceived, subtly blackly humorous critique of the haughty-taughty British upper crust of the educational set (with the actors perfectly attenuating their performances, their stiff upper lips barely containing a practical hysteria of seething petty resentments and childish attitudes), Burn, Witch, Burn is really solid and just so impressively constructed.

Like many a worthy genre film (as Matheson and Beaumont understood), it swirls around with themes on, and explorations into, female identity and the power of looking and seeing (in interesting complex ways, not the ‘do gooder’ reactionary identity politic style of so many mediocre mainstream horror films of today); it’s a critique and questioning of the male-dominant society and its relation, and ownership, questionable and otherwise, over the female gaze (the scenes of all the teachers playing ‘cards’, as each holds back their own mental cards, with a number of the females operating on a level of a more complex understanding, while also capable of suspicious manipulation, is just another of the perfect illustrations that director Hayers and those two wily vets Matheson and Beaumont concoct), as well as an exploration of belief and superstition, also played out through gender (nicely folding them all together).

It’s great stuff, the kind of mathematical-minded, yet still entirely organic-feeling, script and story-concoctions that film students (and even practicing writers and directors) could learn a ton from (alas, based on my experiences in rep cinemas these days, most of the youngsters who could learn the most would likely be too keyed up on their delusional quests of ‘self-empowerment’, namely dismissing and jeering at any identity politic notions that don’t live up their current standards, to be open to the abundance they could learn)…

For a journeyman director with lots of credits and few notable ones, the surprising Hayers does a really impressive job of not only nicely moving the camera about, but also managing to navigate a difficult tightrope walk in creating a juxta-positional mood; a sense of both intimacy and a kind of slightly distancing observational quality, perfectly mirroring the balancing act the film plays between a rigid sense of reality (maleness?) and the more ethereal, dreamier state that includes faith and things less concrete (femaleness?).

True to many a worthwhile tale, it’s not in the originality, but in the telling. No surprise, considering its writers, Burn, Witch, Burn has the feeling of an extended “Twilight Zone” episode… but unlike most of that ilk, it’s one that had its creators breathing in and building on the additional thematic and narrative space, carving out a gripping, nicely textured and effective little tale of dark magic.

In other words, it’s like an extended “Twilight Zone”… only one done right.

Burn, Witch, Burn (Sydney Hayers, 1962)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review