Burn, Witch, Burn (1962)
In the pantheon of witch movies, I was surprised that I hadn’t ever heard of Burn, Witch, Burn, a sharp-edged little Gothic film from 1962, directed by Stanley Hayers from a script by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson (!). The film has plenty of B-grade bonafides, but it’s not a B-grade film – and features Peter Wyngarde in perhaps his least scene-chewing performance ever.
Wyngarde is Norman Taylor, a psychology professor at an unspecified British university who specializes in superstitions and belief systems. He’s recently returned from Jamaica with his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) and up for a major promotion at the university. Norman is intensely rationalistic, however, claiming that superstition is a matter of belief and not reality – in order for witchcraft to work, you have to believe it will work. This comes into conflict when he discovers that Tansy is a practitioner of “conjure magic,” which she learned in Jamaica. She’s been leaving talismans about the house with the hope of influencing events and protecting herself and her husband. Furious, Norman makes Tansy burn all of the talismans, and unsurprisingly, things start to go horribly wrong.
I went into Burn, Witch, Burn expecting a schlocky witch movie, and I got something far more interesting (though still schlocky). Yes, the usual questions of belief vs. rationality are still there, but the main focus of the film is actually the depth of Tansy’s love for Norman, and vice versa, which leads to her sacrificing her superstition and him, eventually, his rationality. Female intuition and superstition comes into conflict with male “logic,” and the logic begins to break down very quickly. Norman’s logic begins to pale in comparison to Tansy’s beliefs – and whether they are simply psychological games she plays or whether they are true spells begins not to matter. There’s a marvelous showdown nearing the end of the film where Norman’s own beliefs are challenged, one after the other, as he fights to preserve Tansy’s life.
But Burn, Witch, Burn is also gorgeously photographed, calling to mind the more polished Gothic horrors of the same period, such as The Innocents and The Haunting. Hayers has a good eye, making use of the canted angles and deep focus shots, combined with real locations, that make the Gothic real and physically disconcerting. The camera eye melds the concepts of reality and belief, as the viewer begins to see what Tansy and Norman see, drawing into question the existence of the supernatural and rendering it tangible. That notion is disconcerting and Burn, Witch, Burn makes excellent use of it not only through the overt thematics of plot and dialogue, but through the camera eye itself.
All of that being said, Burn, Witch, Burn, as its title suggests, isn’t exactly a nuanced work of horror. Wyngarde is known for his ham acting, and while he’s more subdued here than in practically anything else, there’s still a hefty serving of bacon. But he’s matched in madness by his co-stars – Janet Blair and Judith Scott, in a bit part, especially. Because the plot is just this side of campy, the overacting is easily forgiven, though the wild-eyed shrieking of some characters nearing the end becomes just a bit wearing.
While it never reaches the heights of similarly themed films from the same period, Burn, Witch, Burn does merit more than a cursory glance. The 1960s marked new interest in witchcraft not just as a force of evil, but as a multi-faceted form of magic and belief just as complex, in its own way, as any major religion. While the moralism isn’t lost here, it is beginning to wobble. Witches aren’t for burning any more.