We begin with a vision of darkness. The screen is black. A disembodied voice offers to protect us; casting a verbal spell to ward off any and evil spirits in the auditorium. Sure, it’s hokey — but the fact that the voice belongs to none other than the great Paul Frees escalates such a campy moment up to that of utter fabulousness. And, just as soon as that tacked-on American prologue to the British supernatural thriller Night Of The Eagle — released in the U.S. as Burn, Witch, Burn — has concluded, the real fun begins.
Peter Wyngarde takes the stage here as a cynical psychology professor named Norman Taylor. One fateful day, after lambasting the belief in all things supernatural (although he believes in God, naturally) to his students, Norman returns home to discover that his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), has been practicing the arts of witchcraft for quite some time now. In fact, she claims that her positive spells have proven triumphant, since he has only recently begun his new teaching tenure at Hempnell Medical College.
Norman, however, is outraged, and forces his wife to take all of her witchery items (charms and such) and toss them into the fire. Unfortunately for Prof. Taylor, one of those articles is a pendent Tansy has been using to protect her beloved hubby whilst he is away at work — one that contains his picture.
Soon enough, strange things begin to happen. Mysterious calls. An invisible but nevertheless ubiquitous force radiates when Taylor plays back a reel-to-reel tape recording of his own debunking of witchcraft. A car accident. You know, the usual stuff. Is now Norman cursed due to his own foolish behavior? Or is there something less mystical going on here, like a devious plot between mortals that have something against our hero for some reason? Only time will tell in this gripping supernatural thriller, and Burn, Witch, Burn tells its well-sculptured Charles Beaumont/Richard Matheson-scripted tale (based on Fritz Leiber, Jr.’s novel, Conjure Wife) majestically.
It’s a real pity that director Sidney Hayers only ever managed to do little more than American television work after this mini-masterpiece. His camerawork here is commendable, giving the movie many moments wherein you literally feel as if you’re incarcerated within the same mental walls as our tormented hero. It’s also a shame that Burn, Witch, Burn never received the critical acclaim that it so rightfully deserves: it’s one of those rare movies that ranks right up there with Carnival Of Souls (1962) and Night Of The Demon (aka Curse Of The Demon) at being utterly creepy and downright eerie.
In all the right ways, of course. Like its aforementioned cinematic brethren, Burn, Witch, Burn seems to be geared for more of an intelligent audience.
Unlike most of the American-made counterparts that were invading drive-ins all over the country at the time (ranging from atomic aliens to antediluvian animals), this is one of those movies that doesn’t have to rely on “monsters” to scare its viewers. A truly memorable moment towards the film’s climax where a giant eagle statue come to life (hence the name of the original title) is about the closet thing you’ll get to a scary creature here (the scene also contains some excellent miniature/rear-projection work for its day — not to mention by today’s standards, as well), but the film ultimately lets you decide whether or not said “beastie” is purely psychological or not.
OK, I confess: Burn, Witch, Burn was never at the top of my Vintage Thrillers list. Honestly, with the exception of a VHS release back in 2000 (under MGM’s sorely-missed Midnite Movies label), I don’t even think I was ever even awarded with the option of seeing this feature until now. Suffice to say, I was missing out on something epic all that time. And now, thanks to MGM’s Limited Edition Collection (a line of Manufactured-On-Demand DVD-R titles), you can all see this enduring tour de force of early ‘60s supernatural horror.
The transfer here is rather praiseworthy: it’s a pretty crisp and clear image overall, with some grain poppin’ up here and there (an addendum prior to the start of the film informs us the transfer was made from the best-existing materials at hand — evidently, asking the Brits for their print was out of the question). The disc’s mono sound comes through quite well, and MGM was even courteous enough to tack on the original US theatrical trailer with this release.