Noted horror-fantasy writer Fritz Leiber wrote an effective short story entitled “Conjure Wife” which depicted a group of catty campus wives who advance their husbands’ careers through witchcraft. In 1944, Universal Pictures produced a low budget adaptation as part of their Inner Sanctum series under the title WEIRD WOMAN which featured Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Gwynne, and “scream queen” Evelyn Ankers in the lead roles. Although this adaptation was a passable retelling of the original Leiber short story, the definitive version was yet to be made. In 1962, such a version was co-produced by England’s Independent Artists and the United States’ own American International Pictures. Originally titled NIGHT OF THE EAGLE in Great Britain, the film was re-titled BURN, WITCH, BURN when AIP released it in the United States on a double-bill with the fourth Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, TALES OF TERROR. With an effective and interesting script by expert horror-fantasy writers and “The Twilight Zone” veterans Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont and some excellent performances by lead actors Janet Blair, Peter Wyngarde, and most especially Margaret Johnston, this version is fondly remembered as an excellent horror thriller in the tradition of NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1958) and THE INNOCENTS (1961). BURN, WITCH, BURN now gets a most-welcomed Blu-ray release courtesy of Kino Lorber.
At a small college in a quaint British village, noted anthropologist Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde, FLASH GORDON) seems to have it all…his beautiful wife Tansy (Janet Blair, THE BACK ARROW), a lovely home and a rewarding career as a popular professor with the strong probability that he will be promoted to department chairperson very soon. This does not sit well with the jealous and petty wives of Taylor’s colleagues most especially Evelyn Sawtelle (Kathleen Byron, TWINS OF EVIL) and Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston, THE PSYCHOPATH). These women feel their husbands’ many years of service to the college far outweigh the much younger Professor’s Taylor’s recent triumphs.
Meanwhile, after discovering Tansy has been dabbling in witchcraft (having learned the practice on an anthropology expedition with her husband in Jamaica), the staunch non-believer of the black arts Taylor destroys all her good luck charms which she vehemently claims has protected him from the evil forces at the college who want to destroy him and his career. Soon after spectacularly burning all Tansy’s charms, Taylor’s life turns for the worse. First, he is almost run down by a truck. Secondly, a female student, Margaret Abbott (Judith Stott), accuses him of raping her. Thirdly, Margaret’s jealous boyfriend Bill Jennings (Bill Mitchell, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) threatens Taylor with a gun, and finally, strange noises and supernatural phenomena terrorize Norman and Tansy during a violent thunderstorm. As the strange occurrences become more and more sinister (including what seems like the possession of Tansy), Taylor must confront his own doubts and fears and ask a very viable question…is it possible that all the recent events have been caused by witchcraft or are they all coincidence? Norman’s quest for an answer leads him and the audience to a very thrilling climax.
Director Sidney Hayers was no stranger to British horror as he directed the spectacular cult classic, CIRCUS OF HORRORS in 1960. He does an excellent job in sustaining a sinister mood throughout BURN, WITCH, BURN! while Reg Wyer’s moody black and white cinematography is also an asset. William Allwyn’s music is also excellent especially the scenes set at the abandoned cemetery. In addition, the stars are all extremely convincing and the pleasant surprise here is how well the all-American Janet Blair holds up quite nicely opposite her British co-stars. The scene in which Miss Blair is possessed by the spirit of the film’s true villain is particularly memorable. Miss Blair was an extremely talented actress/singer who was a Columbia Pictures’ contract player in the 1940s. For some reason however, she did not become a huge movie star which is an absolute shame because she carries this film so well. Her co-stars Wyngarde and Johnston are also excellent throughout as are the other supporting players. As a side note, Wyngarde gets top billing in the British release print (entitled NIGHT OF THE EAGLE) and in the American release print Blair gets star billing. Wyngarde also appeared as a vengeful ghost in another classic of British horror cinema in Jack Clayton’s brilliant 1961 film version of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” entitled THE INNOCENTS.
MGM previously released BURN, WITCH BURN as an on-demand DVD as part of their Limited Edition Collection, but Kino Lorber now rescues the film with this scrumptious new Blu-ray release, produced by Scorpion Releasing’s Walt Olsen. MGM’s HD masters is presented here masterfully, in 1080p and preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This a largely blemish free transfer which is nicely crisp, carrying excellent detail and well modulated gray scale. Blacks are consistently deep and whites are also reproduced perfectly. The disc’s DTS-HD Master Audio mono track has clear dialogue, and all the bewitching noises and sound effects are reproduced with just the right amount of clarity. No subtitle options are included. As this is the AIP version represented here, the Blu-ray also retains the campy pre-credit voice-over narration by Paul Frees uttering an incantation to protect the audience members from any spells the witches may put on them.
Extras include an excellent new on-camera interview with actor Peter Wyngarde (24:26) who starts by talking about getting cast in THE INNOCENTS, and then receiving the script for NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, which became his second film. He continues to tell how he thought the script was “absolute rubbish” but agreed to do the film for an amount that would enable him to buy a sports car he’d been eyeing. Wyngarde actually thinks it’s a good film, as he talks about his character, his initial encounter with the film’s eagle, and he has nice things to say about Blair and Johnston. He calls director Hayers as “marvelous”, and describes the location shoot in Cornwall as difficult yet happy. He also mentions that Blair’s house (in Hollywood) burnt down while they were shooting the film, and that he attended a rather empty theatrical premiere (along with Alan Bates and director John Schlesinger in attendance). The interview concludes with the actor talking about some of his other screen and television roles. An audio commentary with screenwriter Matheson (who passed away in 2013) was originally recorded for a 1990s laserdisc edition of the film, and it’s now resurrected for this Blu-ray. Matheson, who is on the track without a commentator, starts off by telling how he and friend Charles Beaumont went about writing the script (each taking on one half) and then taking it to AIP, a company they both previously worked for, and how they were satisfied with the end results. As Matheson was not present during the film's production, he points the components which make him fond of it (and some differences between the movie and the original literary source), and he also touches upon his great work on “The Twilight Zone” series as well as some of the other films he wrote for AIP. The original AIP theatrical trailer is also included. (Joe Cascio)
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