Peter Wyngarde plays Norman Taylor, an up-and-coming professor at Hempnell Medical College in a small English town. In fact, Norman appears to be the favorite to take over as chair of one of the most important academic departments. His male colleagues don’t seem to mind—they like Norman, some even admire him—but the wives of his peers are not pleased at all. They resent Norman and his attractive, intelligent wife Tansy, whom they dub “the newcomers.” Tansy (Janet Blair) is acutely aware of this resentment, noting that she doesn’t enjoy the weekly bridge night with “petty scholars and jealous bickering wives.”
But that’s the least of Tansy’s problems. You see, she dabbles in witchcraft—just a little here and there to protect Norman and bring him luck. Unfortunately, she has become aware of “other forces”—powerful, evil ones—intent on bringing harm to her husband. As for Norman, he is oblivious to all of this, having started his last lecture by scrawling on the blackboard: “I do not believe.”
For most of its running time, Burn, Witch, Burn (known as Night of the Eagle in Britain) places the viewer in the shoes of Norman: We start out as non-believers, but gradually encounter inexplicable events that compel us to re-evaluate whether or not we do believe. The only flaw in this otherwise intelligent exercise in suggestive horror is a climax that shows too much (and not in a convincing way as in Curse of the Demon).
Janet Blair, as the sympathetic heroine, anchors the film. She’s a marvel in my favorite scene, which takes place after the bridge party. As Norman plays frivolously with a deck of cards, Tansy senses the presence of evil in the room. She begins to search the den, slowly at first and then more frantically, explaining (badly) that she’s looking for a lost grocery list. When she finds a hidden evil charm, her subtle look of horror is perfectly realized.
The rest of cast lends exceptional support, especially Margaret Johnson as a professor who is married to one of Norman’s colleagues. I only wish that Kathleen Byron, so brilliant as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus, had more to do.
The academic setting, with the campus’s cold stone statues, contributes nicely to the atmosphere. One suspects, too, that Matheson and Beaumont were injecting some dark humor into the proceedings by suggesting that successful academic careers are a result of witchcraft.
Other versions of Conjure Wife pale beside this one. Lon Chaney, Jr. starred in Weird Woman (1944), an okay entry in the Inner Sanctum film series. Witches Brew (1980) was played for laughs, with Teri Garr as the bewitching spouse.
(Note: The U.S. version includes a prologue against a black screen in which Orson Welles discusses the history of witchcraft and casts a spell to protect the audience during its viewing of the film.)