Director – Sidney Hayers
Cast – Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Kathleen Byron, Reginald Beckwith, Jessica Dunning, Norman Bird
Release Year – 1962
Reviewed by John of the Dead
While witches have always been a well-known element in the genre, I have noticed that they are seldom used overall, especially in this day and age. I have never been a huge fan of witches, but I do enjoy films that involve witchcraft and black magic, so Burn, Witch, Burn was a flick I was looking forward to seeing, and I must say that all of the positive buzz I read regarding this piece rang true for me. Giving us a truly awesome and well-crafted story adapted by some of horror’s best writing minds, Burn, Witch, Burn results in a very clever and pretty horrifying early 60s watch that showed you do not need much to deliver a good horror effort except talent and will.
Norman Taylor(Peter Wyngarde) is a bright and successful sociology professor with a seemingly perfect life. He has a beautiful home, a gorgeous wife, and despite being the newcomer to his university he is the frontrunner to be promoted to the chair of his department. When Norman learns of his wife Tansy(Janet Blair)’s delving into the black arts of witchcraft, something he constantly barrages in his lectures, he forces her to burn her charms and protective devices that she claims have brought him the success he has found, and soon learns his rational mind may have deceived him.
I have noticed that the 60s era of horror is often overlooked by the blood-soaked 70s and 80s, which I admit are my favorite horror decades, but that by no means indicates that the 60s was a weak decade for the genre, because it was far from that. Some of the most beautiful and captivating horror films debuted during that era (Blood and Black Lace, The Masque of the Red Death), and many of them came with awesome storylines such as this one. Adapted from Fritz Leiber Jr.’s novel “Conjure Wife”, by none other than longtime horror writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, this story plays off like one of their “Twilight Zone” episodes but with a full runtime that allows for a well-developed story. I loved the idea of a well-educated non-believer of anything intangible being subjected to the horror’s of witchcraft due to his belief system (or lack thereof), and this was only made even more awesome when you consider he had a seemingly perfect life resulting from something he hated. Horror has always had a love for the average middle class family because it shows that horror can strike pretty much anyone, and our writers took full advantage of that in giving us the most unlikely of victims to suffer in this one. His wife being the culprit behind the witchcraft provided good conflict for the viewer as Norman was forced to hide her progressively odd behavior from his cohorts until he can figure out what is going on regarding the odd occurrences he is suffering, because there is no way (to him) that witchcraft could be the culprit. I loved how the very moment Norman had his wife burn her charms and other witchcraft devices it seemed his string of luck ran out and his life turned upside down with constant dilemmas with the potential to ruin everything that he has. The first two acts of the film were solid and kept me guessing as to whether or not witchcraft was to blame for the events taking place, and while the third act contained a pretty sweet revelation that changed to the scope of the film I felt that it did lag a bit. Thankfully, the lagging was short-lived and was easily made up for with the revelation, the high levels of horror, and a sweet climax topping off this great story.
Director Sidney Hayers(Circus of Horrors) did a great job presenting this piece to us, with great sets that are reflective of the subject matter at hand during the progression from Norman’s great life, in which his home is comforting and bright, to the fateful decision of destroying his wife’s witchcraft devices, which then turns the feel of the film on its head and gives us dark and spooky atmosphere the rest of the way out. The acting performances are top notch, although I did have a problem with how supporting actress Margaret Johnston portrayed Flora Carr, a colleague of Norman with a hatred for his wife and his success. I found the execution of her character to be very unlikable (I enjoy likeable antagonists) and downright silly at times, mostly taking place during the always ever-important third act. Aside from this I found no gripes with Hayers’ direction, especially when you consider that he used few gimmicks to create the horror presented in the film. He relied solely on atmosphere, characters, camerawork, and a few very creative scenes involving statues that come to life to give us one of the better classic horror films there is.
Overall, Burn, Witch, Burn is an awesome classic horror film that comes with a well-told story regarding witchcraft and a man’s sudden demise when he lets his logical mind shut the doors to the powers around us. The storyline is what sells the film, and the mystery element reigns high thanks to an awesome adaptation by two of horror’s greatest writing minds, and great direction that relies on few gimmicks to give us a truly horrific tale from the early 60s.