Cinema du Parc does Repertory Well

Burn Witch Burn

by Donato Totaro Volume 3, issue 6 / November 1999 6 minutes (1378 words)

My curiosity about a film entitled Burn, Witch, Burn has been peaked ever since purchasing an original one-sheet of the film in the mid-1970’s. With the film still unavailable on video, I had written off the likelihood of every seeing the film. However, thanks to Mitch Davis, regular Fantasia Festival programmer and recent addition to the Cinema du Parc programming team, my wait ended on October 8th. And I was not at all disappointed. In fact, Davis is not far off when he refers to it in the program notes as a “masterpiece.” Burn Witch Burn (original British title being Night of the Eagle) is an extremely interesting entry in the supernatural horror sub-genre with strong characterisation, effective black & white cinematography (Reg Wyer) and set-pieces that rank with the best of Hammer and Universal.

Peter Wyngarde, better known to UK viewers as the modish television spy Jason King, plays Norman, a young, up and coming professor at a small, provincial college. Norman seems to have it all. A loving, caring wife (Janet Blair), great looks and body (which he flaunts at every turn with skin tight shirts and pants), a sharp mind, popular with students, and the envy of colleagues. All this (and more) seems to be the reason behind his mercurial rise to (imminent) position of department chair. However, rather than the proverbial skeleton, Norman has a witch in his closet, the witch being his wife Tansy.

We discover this after the film’s second scene, a dinner/bridge party hosted by Norman and Tansy for Norman’s colleagues and their wives. The audience senses a palpable mistrust between Tansy and the other wives during this dinner scene. At this point, we interpret this as career jealousy on the part of the wives toward Norman’s quick and smooth rise up the academic ladder. The minute the guests leave, Tansy desperately scours the house in search of something, eventually finding an evil doll strapped to a lamp (by one of the wives, we assume). Meanwhile, Norman discovers a talismanic object hidden in his coat, as well as other black magic objects hidden throughout the house. Norman, already suspicious of his wife’s strange post-dinner behavior, confronts Tansy, who is forced to tell him that she has been using witchcraft to protect him from evil forces that she claims are out to sabotage his career (shades of Rosemary’s Baby).

In the film’s opening classroom scene Norman writes the words “I do not believe” on the board as an antidote to any form of non-rational thinking. Being a devout man of science and reason, Norman does not take kindly to his wife’s dabbling in the black arts. Since Norman sees himself as self-made man, the implication that Tansy’s black magic has secured his success is a major service blow to his ego. As we would suspect from such a character, Norman does not heed her cautionary explanation and forces her to burn all her paraphernalia.

Following this scene, and faster than you can say Ouiji board, Norman’s comfortable world begins to crumble. The spiral of bad luck begins when a female student accuses him of rape and her jealous boyfriend accosts him in a series of increasingly violent confrontations. While his life turns into a living nightmare, Tansy decides that her only recourse to saving her husband is a sacrificial suicide. Up until this moment the only possible reason the film offers as cause of Norman’s bad luck is a trip mentioned to Jamaica, where they encountered a witchdoctor who resurrected a dead girl (In contrast to Tansy, the skeptic Norman holds out for a natural explanation for the girl’s resurrection.). The plot finally reveals that Tansy was in fact saving Norman from another witch, his gimpy-legged female colleague Flora, played to evil perfection by Margaret Johnston (the film’s best female performance). With this narrative knowledge, we now understand in hindsight the wary glances shared by Tansy and Flora during the dinner scene, as well as the scene’s coy dialogue (“jinx” “dark horse”, etc.), and can read the scene as two witches staking each other out.

The film builds to its climax with a series of effective set-pieces. A tape of Norman’s lecture is used by Flora to spin her bad fortune (the use of modern technology such as tape recorders and telephones foreshadows the hugely successful Japanese series, Ring). Flora tells Norman that she too is a witch, and then starts a fire at his beachhouse by igniting a stack of playing cards. Norman rushes off to save his wife from the burning house. Norman’s search for his wife along a rocky beachfront, though marred by over zealous music, is one of the film’s visual highlights. Tansy eludes Norman by hiding out among the rocks before her suicidal walk into the ocean. Norman, with his rationalist front now severely impaired, enters a deserted churchyard where he performs a candle-lit incantation that summons a dripping wet Tansy back from the land of the dead. This leads to a Dreyeresque sequence where Norman carries the unconscious Tansy to a friend for observation. In this latter scene, director Hayers startingly switches the narration to an impressionistic subjective point of view, beginning with a point of view shot from Tansy’s supine position as she is being carried in Norman’s arms (inspired by the famous subjective point of view coffin shot from Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, 1932); and in the following scene by the camera assuming Tansy’s physical space looking out subjectively at Norman and a male friend observing her. In this latter sequence Tansy’s semi-comatose state is suggested by the camera’s smeared edges, an effect reminiscent again of Vampyr‘s gauze-effect.

The film’s final scenes are full of clever and ironic touches. For the most part director Hayers maintains a subtle approach to the depiction of horror. The single exception being the stone eagle atop the school fa├žade that, through Flora’s witchery, animates itself and sweeps down toward an unsuspecting Norman. Though Hayers includes far too many ominous cutaways to the stone eagle throughout the film, the scenes with the eagle still remain effective. Hayers reverts to a restraint approach by keeping the eagle mostly offscreen. In one particularly ironic moment Norman is backed up against his classroom chalkboard by the eagle, his jacket erasing the word “not” from the board phrase “I do not believe.” Even the scene of Norman chased by the oversized eagle through the school corridors, achieved through cutting and miniatures, holds up well. As a note, according to the film’s production history the stone eagle, like the demon in Night of the Demon, was not in the original script and only added to bolster commercial potential. The film does resolve itself in an all too pat manner. Flora, who has been using a tape recorded incantation, voodoo dolls, and the power of suggestion to sabotage Norman’s career/life, is fittingly crushed to death by the stone eagle she reanimated to try and kill Norman. Meanwhile Tansy is resurrected to resume her marriage with Norman.

Like Rosemary’s Baby would do six years later, Burn, Witch, Burn effectively brings the supernatural into a contemporary modern setting. Like Romero’s classic contemporary witchcraft tale Jack’s Wife, the film presents a witch version of Stepford Wives, with the implication that the town’s wives are all part of an underground coven unknown to all the husbands. One can even go further and offer an intriguing feminist reading, where all the pompous men are actually puppets in the hands of their scheming, more powerful wives. In either case, as a proto-feminist horror parable, or a subtle, intelligent occult horror film, Burn, Witch, Burn is a gem that merits both a theatrical and video revival. Thanks to the Cinema du Parc’s decision to include retrospective films as part of their programming, I no longer stare at my one-sheet with curious wonderment.

Directed by: Sidney Hayers Writing credits: Fritz Leiber Jr. (novel Conjure Wife, as Fritz Leiber)

Peter Wyngarde…. Norman Taylor

Janet Blair…. Tansy Taylor

Margaret Johnston…. Flora Carr

Anthony Nicholls (I)…. Harvey Sawtelle

Colin Gordon…. Lindsay Carr

Cinema du Parc does Repertory Well

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 3, issue 6 / November 1999 Film Reviews   british cinema   horror   repertory