When I was in college, I never remember there being courses on witchcraft, magic and superstition. I guess it’s not really a course of study with big career potential.Yet today’s movie centers on a college professor who lectures on exactly that. It’s another British fright flick released here in the US by good old American International Pictures. The 1962 film known in the UK as “Night of the Eagle,” here in the US it’s “Burn, Witch, Burn.”
The film begins with a wonderfully bizarre narration by the great Paul Frees (who is also the narrator for Disney’s Haunted Mansion). While we stare at a blank screen, he recites all sorts of gobbledygook so that evil forces won’t have their way while we watch the film. Thanks Paul!
From there, the film centers on Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a psychology professor who often lectures on superstition. Norman is a man of science who dismisses the supernatural. He’s a fairly new member of the faculty, but popular with most of his students. Though he and his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair) occasionally play bridge with the other professors and their spouses, they are still not quite accepted in their community. Especially suspicious of Tansy is female professor Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston).
One night, Norman begins to discover strange trinkets around the house. Dead spiders in little containers…that sort of thing. Turns out that the sceptic’s wife has been dabbling in witchcraft to protect her husband and insure his success. Norman is infuriated and immediately begins destroying all her toys.
Well, that’s all it takes for Norman’s life to begin falling apart. First, he’s almost hit by a truck on the way to the school. Then, a pretty young coed (Judith Stott), who flirted with Norman in the opening scene, accuses him of “violating” her. This leads to her boyfriend (Bill Mitchell) coming after the professor with a gun. The troubles continue at home where someone, or something, persistent keeps knocking on the door. There are also phone calls with no one on the line and strange noises are heard on a recording of one of Norman’s lectures.
The next morning, Norman finds a recording made by Tansy explaining that she has left in order to draw the evil forces away from him…sacrificing herself. He manages to find her near the ocean, where she has tried to drown herself. Upon bringing her back home, Tansy now seems to be possessed. She even tries to kill Norman with a kitchen knife. Out to get answers, Norman locks Tansy up at the house and heads to the school where he discovers that there truly are dark forces working against him.
This is a great little film! It’s got a wonderful creepy atmosphere which builds and builds and builds as the story progresses. It’s interesting to note that, unlike many horror films, here we have a story in which a man is being terrorized by women, rather than the other way around. Janet Blair does a great job as the frantic Tansy. Peter Wyngarde also does a solid job as Norman, though I think his character stays a bit too cool when a more gradual sense of terror would’ve been more appropriate. But the best performance may be Margaret Johnston as the sinister, limping, Professor Carr. Her confrontation with Norman at the film’s climax is not to be missed.
The ending of this film is what really sticks with the viewer. I don’t want to spoil too much, but a sequence where Norman is chased by stone eagles come to life is stinkin’ awesome! In a few shots you can spot the leash, for lack of a better word, attached to the bird’s talons as it swoops. An unfortunate mistake. However, other shots of giant birds crashing through the halls of the university are quite impressive for an early 60’s horror film.
“Burn, Witch, Burn” manages to build a lot of suspense along the way to it’s impressive climax. It’s creative cinematography and flip-flopping of traditional horror movie gender roles make it a unique scary movie experience.