Burn Witch Burn
Despite some perceived production issues in disc mastering or perhaps the quality of the source material the MGM limited edition series is well worth the investment for the serious film buff. This manufactured on demand series digs up many of the rarest treasure in film history. Many are little cult classics that we originally watched in a local movie theater, grind house or drive-in. many may scoff at these venues; the broken down temples to flicks we frequented as teens. But the fact of the matter is for most of us this is where a lifelong love affair with cinema began. If not for our initial appreciation for many of these ‘B’ flicks we might not have moved on as fans to enjoy the greatest examples of the cinematic arts available. Having come of age long before the time of high definition digital presentation the quality of this series is actually quite nostalgic and I’d rather have a less than perfect copies if these movies that were part of my formative teen years than not have them at all. One of the current set of this series is a little gem called ‘Burn Witch Burn’ or perhaps you remember it by its original billing; ‘Night of the Eagle’. The film is on the higher end of the production spectrum but for this DVD and its original creation. As ‘B’ films go this is definitely one of the most worthwhile of the lot. I remember going to the local movie house to see this as part of our regular Saturday afternoon matinee. I saw it again during a college movie night at the dorms so seeing it again after all these years it was a lot like finding a time machine. Many of these MGM classics have this effect with each one highlighting films long since relegated to memories. Most are not available any other way but so far every one of this series I have watched are a lot of fun and still hold up as an evening’s popcorn flick. In the case of the film under review here ‘Burn Witch Burn’ has its own niche in film history and is a required addition for the serious collector. This movie is an example of the early works of members of the horror and fantasy community’s royalty. This alone makes this a must have for devotees of horror and the occult.
The original novel that served as the source of the film came from ‘Conjure Wife’) by Fritz Leiber, Jr. he was one of the founding fathers of modern science fiction listed among such greats as Asimov and Ellison. With a firm foundation in Shakespeare and a renowned chess master his works were typified by plots that were subtly constructed and expertly executed. No matter how great a novel may be a significant requirement for a successful translation to the screen depends on the author handling the script in this case the studio managed to get the participation of a man hailed as a genius by right of his own stories Richard Matheson. His ‘I am Legend’ is a masterpiece of science fiction and horror. Here he collaborated with another author who like Matheson was a significant contributor to the original ‘Twilight Zone’, Charles Beaumont. With this triune of genre giants the story here is as far from a ‘B’ flick as possible. The director Sidney Hayers began his career in various aspects of filmmaking leading up to several movies similar to this. The later part of his professional life was engaged in directing episodes of a vast selection of television series ranging from ‘The Avengers’ to ‘Knight Rider’ and ‘Greatest American Hero’. This provided him with means to tell a story in a concise, straightforward fashion. For this movie the combination of literary foundation and directorial style elevates the film to something that is classic in its endurance as a defining example of the genre. The film met with respectable accolades from the critics and has been hailed as a superior supernatural thriller. The only criteria as a ‘B’ film is the venues that it most frequently was show, certainly not from the aspect of craftsmanship. This movie will remind you of what horror films were like before the regrettable advent of torture porn flicks. This is a tautly constructed thriller that will grab and hold your attention.
Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a professor of psychology whose curriculum focuses on culturally based superstitions. He is suitably surprised when he discovers his wife; Tansy (Janet Blair) is a practicing witch. Upsetting him even more than that discovery is his wife’s insistence that her supernatural intervening was largely responsible for his successful position in the academic community. His reaction is to demand she destroy all the charms and artifacts Tansy used in the performance of her craft. Almost immediately Norman’s life both personally and professionally plummet. His students had regarded him as a favorite professor but suddenly file charges of aggressive and sexually impropriate behavior against him. To make matters worse Norman and Tansy are targeted by rival witch who will stop at nothing to destroy them both.
Between the smart screenplay and the moody, atmospheric directorial style the film builds slowly, lulling the audience into the world of small town academic life. Once that is accomplished we are pulled deeper into the dark and supernatural world of curses and revenge. Wyngarde is an English actor that held a coveted role in the long running science fiction series, ‘Doctor Who’. Any alumnus of that series knows exactly how to sell the unnatural as if it was a matter of fact. This is one of the many factors expertly at work here that elevates this movie well beyond anything that modern filmmakers try to pass off as horror lately.