Posts Tagged ‘richard matheson’

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.

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The Last Man on Earth (1964)

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If humanity were to suddenly be subject to an airborne disease that turns its victims into the walking dead, who do you think would be the last man standing? No, not those idiots on The Walking Dead. Only one man could possibly survive the zombie/vampire apocalypse, and look good doing it too: Vincent Price.

Based on the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth stars our Mr. Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, a biologist who has spent three years as the only man on Earth apparently not infected by a horrific airborne plague that claimed his wife, daughter, and best friend. The film takes us through Morgan’s typical day as he awakes, hangs garlic over his doorway, and heads out into the abandoned city with a bag of wooden stakes to find and destroy more of the vampiric creatures that were once the human population. He has to return before the sun goes down, though, for the vampires come banging on his door, threatening to kill him. He spends some time trying to get into radio contact with other living beings, but all to no avail. It appears that he truly is the only man left alive.

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The Last Man on Earth reportedly inspired George Romero to make Night of the Living Dead, so all you Zombie-philes should get down on your knees and praise this weird little movie. This is a zombie movie before there were zombie movies, but the vampiric creatures share much in common with Romero’s later conception of the walking dead. Half brain-dead and only really powerful in numbers, the vampires seem to lack basic organization, banging on Morgan’s door and shouting threats without being able to organize themselves well enough to actually break into his house. Morgan’s contempt for the people that were once his friends is pathetic. In a flashback sequence, we learn of the origins of the plague, and of the slow decay of surrounding civilization as more people fall victim. When Morgan wanders the deserted city in search of vampires, the film provides an effective sense of the desolation and loneliness of streets without people and stores left empty. There is something horribly realistic in the first 3/4s of this tale of worldwide pandemic, the terror and mistrust perhaps all too real in this day and age.

Price gives one of his most affecting performances, at once sympathetic and slightly sinister as he struggles with his day-to-day existence, forced to burn the mutilated bodies of the vampires. He’s the only character on screen for most of the film’s runtime. Despite the somewhat hokey voiceover that was far too common in films of this period, Price’s performance elevates the film (as his performances so often did) – his elation at spotting a dog running loose in the streets is heartbreaking, for here he sees at last some hope of companionship in his long, lonely existence. Morgan is a monster and a hero in the same breath, and his suffering plays out over the contortions of Price’s remarkably expressive face.

The weakness of The Last Man on Earth lies in its denouement, which I won’t spoil for the reader. A relatively effective set-up is punctured in the final act, leading to a curiously unsatisfying conclusion. While miles ahead of its successor I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, The Last Man on Earth does not quite make good on its narrative promises.

Yet for all that, there is much to like about this odd little film. Price here embraces the melancholic suffering so prevalent in many of his best performances. He has taken the world’s cares on his shoulders, and become a monster in the process. Nothing could be so heart-breaking.