Review Date: July 3, 2011
Released by: MGM
Release date: May 16, 2011
Widescreen 1.85| 16x9: Yes
Thereís been a long and not so attractive history of vilifying practitioners of witchcraft in both print and cinema. This trend is so pervasive that itís a breath of fresh air to find a film that deals with the subject on more grounded terms. Itís doubly impressive to find one from the early sixties, a time when any deviation from the ďnormĒ was met with immediate rejection. When you think that even today people are still afraid of witchcraft, as if it were some midnight prowler creeping into houses and abducting children, it very nearly seems an act of bravery to have made a witchcraft film that tries to subvert or avoid stereotypes. Is Burn, Witch, Burn
is just that film, or should this tale of witchcraft in the world of academia be burned at the stake? Letís pop this in the DVD player and see what we can divine.
Although Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde
) and his wife Tansy (Janet Blair
) are new at Hempnell Medical College, Norman is already a rising star in local academia. An effective educator, Norman is respected by his peers, admired by his students (except for Fred Jennings (Bill Mitchell
), who is jealous of Margaret Abbottís (Judith Stott
) amorous attention to Norman) and married to a beautiful woman that loves him dearly. Despite a very short tenure at Hempnell heís in line for promotion, the fact of which rubs some of the more senior faculty the wrong way.
At the facultyís Friday night bridge game, an off-handed comment about luck and magic set Tansy on edge. Norman inquires about her nervousness after their guests have left and his wife reveals that she has been a practitioner of magic for years, using it to repel what she believes is the negative magical influence of his colleagues. She is convinced that, should she stop casting her protection spells, harm will befall Norman. Being a man of science and reason Norman immediately rejects his wifeís explanation for his continued success and makes her purge the house of magic charms, which he makes her burn in their fireplace.
Strange things begin to happen immediately after burning all her charms and totems: the coupleís black cat starts acting edgy and nervous, a salacious, breathy caller phones and then a dead spider crawls out of the fire. The following Monday he arrives to school to find that one of his students is accusing him of sexual assault. A recording of one his lectures seems to summon an evil presence that lurks just outside the door of their home.
His skeptical nature is shaken by these events and while he finds it difficult to rationalize and explain away the immediate turn in the coupleís fortunes, heís not quite ready to start believing in the efficacy of witchcraft. Fearing that things are only going to escalate until Norman is killed, Tansy concocts a potion and makes the exhausted Norman drink it. He has fevered dreams of his wife and wakes to find her gone. A message on his tape recorder reveals that she has left and intends to sacrifice her life to save his. He pursues her out to an oceanside cottage where she is going to attempt to take her own life. He is able to stop her and bring her home, but she still she seems possessed by a malevolent force. To save his wife and himself, Norman must put aside his skepticism and confront a powerful practitioner of black magic bent on destroying both Norman and his wife.
Burn, Witch, Burn
is one of many American International US-UK co-productions that produced fodder for the drive-in circuit throughout the sixties. For a low rent drive in picture, however, it certainly has an excellent pedigree. Based on Fritz Leiberís 1943 novel, Conjure Wife, which has been adapted to film at least two other times (Weird Woman
in 1944 and Witchesí Brew
in 1980), with a screenplay co-written by equally legendary scribe Richard Matheson.
The screenplayís interest in the conflict between skepticism and mysticism is still relevant today and the movie is fairly prescient in that regard. Recent political and cultural forces have contributed to the inflation of the old science vs. religion debate and a large portion of the western world is still trying to reconcile faith with fact. If I have any criticism in this regard, itís that the screenplay falls back on the old clichť of the scientist being closed minded, rigid and incapable of accepting anything that challenges his preconceived notions. The reality of the situation is quite the opposite and though I didnít expect it, I would have appreciated if the film had been more reflective of that. Still, itís a horror film and casting their lot with the supernatural would have seemed a prerequisite to the filmmakers of the day.
I also like the feminist bent of the film. While the male characters trump around concerned mainly with their academic politicking, puffed up on their own importance and seemingly masters of their domain, itís actually their wives that wield true power. With their Machiavellian machinations the film is as much about Tansyís antagonism with the opposing witch even though they barely share screen time, than it is about the erosion of Normanís cynicism. Itís also interesting to note the more progressive setting of the UK. At a time when a large part of the US was still racially segregated, an Asian student can be seen in Normanís classroom.
With such a strong and effective emphasis on atmosphere and suspense, itís a shame when the movie resorts to cheap, and cheap-looking, thrills in the last ten minutes. Thereís a goofy and unconvincing attack by aÖcreatureÖthat very nearly undoes all the filmís hard work up to that point. The saving grace is that they donít show it very much. I wonít spoil just what creature is conjured up but, if youíre truly curious, the British title of this movie flat out spoils it. This version is the American version, which differs from the UK version in that it begins with a two-and-a-half minute incantation to dispel the evil spell that supposedly resides in the film itself. The sort of cheap theatrics youíd expect from a William Castle picture. I get the impression that the finale was a concession to the American investors, since sensational monster attacks would be an easier sell on the drive-in circuit that a moodier and more atmospheric picture would be.
Itís an effective little chiller but, considering some of its groundbreaking contemporaries like Psycho
, Peeping Tom
, Carnival of Souls
or even the films of H.G. Lewis, itís definitely a bit behind the curve. Itís a competent but very conventional movie. Rosemaryís Baby
remains the definitive film on the subject of malevolent witchcraft. Living up to what are undeniable classics of horror cinema is not a fair standard to hold any film to, and to its credit Burn, Witch, Burn
holds up exceptionally well.
While I would certainly like every film to get a ďlegitimateĒ release, the economics of the business make that untenable. For those who want a physical copy of their favorite obscure treasures the burn-to-order business model makes the most sense. I mean, honestly, unless this is a personal favorite how often are you really going to watch a movie like this? Once, maybe twice a year? Some may chafe at paying full price for what is perceived as an inferior product but, until stream and on-demand libraries make the durability of physical media irrelevant, burn-to-order is a good stopgap measure. Iíd much rather have them on DVD-R than not at all. These options donít present a false dichotomy. Those are really the only two choices available right now.
As part of MGMís made-to-order limited edition collection, Burn, Witch, Burn
hasnít been given a full-on remaster that a regular retail release would, but youíd hardly know it without the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie. Burn looks absolutely fantastic for such an obscure film of this vintage. The source material is in good shape, with very few blemishes. The opening shot of the college is one of the worst; the picture improves considerably after that. The black and white cinematography is well represented with strong contrast. Most surprisingly is a healthy and well reproduced level of grain throughout the movie, giving it a decidedly film-like look. There have been retail releases that havenít looked this good. Any fans with trepidation that this burn-to-order disc will be inferior in quality need not worry.
The Dolby Digital 2-channel mono soundtrack is almost equally strong: well balanced with always discernable dialogue. The score occasionally a bit shrill and tinny and on the verge of clipping, but those moments are few and far between.
The technical polish of this release is comparable to any title in MGMís Midnite Movies line. There are collectors that, on general principle, are hesitant to pay even $20 for a DVD-R. I canít necessarily fault that position, though I still find the burn service to order a great way to obtain obscure films that otherwise would have continued to languish in obscurity.
The sole supplement is a trailer (2:27), the quality of which is more along the lines of how I would have expected the feature to look. Itís typical of AIP pictures of the period: hoary and sensationalistic and a poor representation of what the feature actually delivers.
Burn, Witch, Burn
is an enjoyable, if slight, entry into the canon of Satanic cinema. Itís no undiscovered masterpiece but itís still well worth seeking out. With an emphasis on atmosphere, unusually strong feminist leanings, an interesting look at the politics of academia and a slightly less sensational look at witchcraft than was common at the time Burn, Witch, Burn
is a classy horror flick that just falls short of classic status.
Movie - B
Image Quality - B
Sound - B
Supplements - C
- Running time - 1 hour and 30 minutes
- Rated Not Rated, PG
- 1 Disc (DVD-R)
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital Mono