Tuesday, October 13, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: College Politics Take a Unexpected Turn in Burn, Witch, Burn

Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont were frequent contributors to The Twilight Zone, being responsible for some of that series’ most memorable episodes. So, it should come as no surprise that their adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife is a thoughtful, genuinely spooky excursion into the world of contemporary witchcraft.

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.)

8 comments:

  1. Rick, this is an excellent review. I have seen this movie several times. The last time I saw was last October. It is more of a psychological thriller than a horror movie. I agree that the stone statues are quite chilling in the movie. This movie presents witchcraft as a normal person would see it. Are witches for real or not! It has a good ending too.

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  2. Splendid review! I've seen this creepy feature and enjoyed immensely. I agree that Sister Ruth should have been in it more. And I actually prefer the U.S. title. BURN, WITCH, BURN! Thanks, Rick!

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  3. Thanks for reminding me of this gem. I first watched it because Peter Wyngarde was in it and I loved him in The Avengers' episodes Epic & A Touch of Brimstone.

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  4. This is indeed a frightening film! Norman writing "I do not believe" on the chalk board doesn't mean that he is impervious to evil or its effects as the story unfolds. The bridge party sounds safe, on the surface, but Norman and Tansy have invited evil into their house. This is a worthy write-up of an extremely well crafted film. Bravo, Rick!

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  5. Gilby, thanks for mentioning the AVENGERS episode, "A Touch of Brimstone". Not just because Peter Wyngarde is in it, but because... you know... that outfit...

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  6. Well, Sark, that outfit is probably the reason US audiences did not get to see A Touch of Brimstone when it first aired. (Well, that and whips too) But that's why when I was a girl I thought Emma Peel rocked -- She was smart, beautiful, and could kick a man's butt when she needed to.

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  7. Thanks for all the comments. Hey, if we're going to be sidetracked to a TV show, it might as well be an awesome one like "The Avengers" (and, of course, I remember that episode!). But back to toto2's comment: Do you recall what happens when Norman brushes up against the chalkboard near the end of the film? His back inadvertantly erases the word "not."

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  8. Rick,this film sounds really good. Wonderful review. The end sounds really creepy.

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