Burn, Witch, Burn! (DVD Review)27 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Stars Janet Blair, Patrick Wyngarde.
With 156 original-era “Twilight Zone” episodes in all, you know it can’t be true — yet it does sometimes seem as if Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont wrote all the series’ most beloved ones between them. For anyone who finally gets around to seeing this unfussy horror sleeper, one of its treats pops up in the opening credits: The two share writing credit for this adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s source novel Conjure Wife, which had previously been filmed by Universal in 1944 as Weird Woman and made DVD-available a few years back courtesy of that studio’s “Inner Sanctum” box set.
Burn is one in a slew of recent “on demand” titles from Fox, though it was also released letterboxed long ago on a nifty Image Entertainment laserdisc back when Image was doing a praiseworthy job with the American-International library then owned by Orion (read: more adventures in the byzantine world of shifting movie “rights”). Theatrically speaking, AIP had picked up Britain’s dully-titled Night of the Eagle for distribution in early ’62 and come up with something that sounded a lot more lurid for the newspaper ads. You can’t say that as a come-on grabber, Burn, Witch, Burn doesn’t linger in the memory.
So does (without making a big deal out of it), the movie — which provides a novel twist on the backbiting rivalries that have always existed in academia, where faculty spouses act on their jealousies despite the phony smiles they throw each other during supposedly collegial bridge games. The cast’s one recognizable name here is Janet Blair, a cleft-chinned cutie at Columbia in the ‘40s (she played Eileen in the original movie of My Sister Eileen) and later a short-lived TV co-star with Sid Caesar after the departure of Imogene Coca and Nanette Fabray. I’m pretty sure the script here doesn’t specifically identify her character as an American, but an obvious Yank demeanor helps her in a role where she’s characterized by the other wives as “different.” And, indeed, she’s always running off solo to the vacation home she shares with her starchy prof-with-a-future husband (Peter Wyngarde, wired about as tightly as Blair).
Wyngarde’s character doesn’t hold much with the supernatural, but wife Blair has been a believer ever since “that trip to Jamaica” in which his very serious illness got cured — she is convinced — thanks to her struck-up friendship with a local witch doctor (take two Tylenol and smoosh them with the blood of a spider). As a result, she has since accumulated a whole slew of spooky trinkets (the kind you hide in the underwear drawer), and when her put-off spouse demands she get rid of them, all sorts of dreadful things start to happen. A couple mishaps involving moving vehicles are bad enough. But then he’s accused in blindsiding fashion of having “violated” a student — an amusingly antiseptic Thatcher-ian kind of word to describe sexual liberties he’s allegedly taken with a moonstruck young woman in his class. Think 1953’s Personal Affair (Herbert Lom and Glynis Johns) or 1963’s Term of Trial (Laurence Olivier and Sarah Miles) for what’s at stake here. Maybe it was a good idea to have been on the good side of a witch, after all.
There’s a lot of spoiler potential here, so let’s just say that everything gets a whole lot crazier and that Blair isn’t the only one on campus who’d fit right in with those creepy mixers thrown by the neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby. And also that this clever psychological drama, which rarely oversells itself, was probably overshadowed at the time by Robert Wise’s The Haunting (a movie I’ve never been crazy about), which came out later the same year. All things considered, Burn is generally regarded as the career high of journeyman Sidney Hayers, though he did also direct one of my personal pets (Circus of Horrors) and finally ended up in TV directing the likes of William Shatner, Pamela Anderson and Mr. T (what have you done lately?)
Another of the faculty wives is played by Kathleen Byron, who’d previously been screen-immortalized in Black Narcissus as the Himalayan nun who goes sexually bonkers over David Farrar. Burn, filmed 15 years later, finds her character in the dumps and dissatisfied with her lot in life as we watch her har-umphing behind a steering wheel in what looks like some collegiate driver’s pool. Byron almost looks like someone who had been a nun, gone sexually bonkers and now has to suffer through those damned bridge games as penance.