That chill is in the air. Halloween is upon us. And what better way to start the month of October than with some witchy delights? Thanks to the fine folks at Kino, we start the month off with the Twilight Zone-inspired Burn, Witch, Burn. Written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, this British horror film blends elements of I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Gaslight (1944) to create an atmospheric examination of belief and superstition, and how relationships can be heavily influenced by a significant other’s adherence to them.
Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a fast rising professor at a British college whose wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has recently returned from holiday due to her emotional instability. Tansy soon declares a belief in witchcraft, attributing her dabbling to Norman’s success. When Norman demands Tansy give up her “protections,” a string of bad luck threatens both of them.
Remember the last film from American International Pictures I watched? Burn, Witch, Burn has to be the best thing from AIP I’ve experienced. Far more restrained and uninterested in gimmickry; this is probably due to the script by Matheson and Beaumont. Classic television fans will recognize the duo as long-time writers for the Twilight Zone, with each penning several legendary works for that series. Matheson, on his own, is also one of the most celebrated authors in the supernatural genre (and he provides audio commentary on Kino’s disc). This probably explains why so much of Burn, Witch, Burn feels like an extended TZ episode, and I’m not saying that disparagingly.
Everything about this film is atmospheric, starting with an ominous voice-over actor introducing the idea of witchcraft over a black screen. The disembodied voice, sounding like Thurl Ravenscroft, starts with the requisite “Ladies and gentlemen” intro you’d often see Alfred Hitchcock or William Castle starting with, usually introducing themselves to the audience as well. (Or, for those who love Disneyland, the intro sounds like it’s beckoning you into the Haunted Mansion.) The narrator discusses evil spells and the need to protect the audience from any blowback from watching the film, again like Castle’s gimmicky “life insurance policies.” I’ve met people who avoid films involving the devil for these reasons – the belief that something from watching the film will transfer to them, and it enhances the film’s premise involving Tansy and Norman.
For all its talk of witches, the film blends horror with romance. Norman and Tansy obviously love each other. In fact, Tansy’s entire reason for engaging in witchcraft in the first place stems from Norman almost dying on a Jamaican holiday. Florid displays of affection are unnecessary nor is doing little more than mentioning Tansy’s brief stay in a “cottage” for reasons unknown. Beaumont and Matheson refuse to tip their hand, and oftentimes that leaves much unexplained or thin. However, the lack of any true interpretation of magic would just create further skepticism and disbelief. This is a tale of ambiguity. Is Tansy a witch or simply crazy? Are the bad things happening because of witchcraft? Coincidence? God? All of this allows individual interpretation based on personal belief (or lack of), as well as prevents the screenwriters from boxing themselves in by explaining the unexplainable.
The mystery of the ill luck, one of the most prominent Twilight Zone features, propels the audience and characters forward naturally. Tansy believes so much in her “protections” as if to develop an addictive relationship to it, looking cold to Norman’s friends and colleagues. Janet Blair’s wild eyed look coupled with her average looks turn this into a story about us and our own superstitions. Peter Wyngarde, most famously known for playing Quint in The Innocents (1961), leads the production as Norman. After declaring “I don’t believe” on the blackboard to his students, it’s only a matter of time before that “don’t” drops out of existence. Norman’s fearful of magic’s hold over Tansy, but when he’s forced to use magic in order to save her, the film takes a Gift of the Magi route, with each believing in the other’s “magic” for the other’s protection.
The third act feels the most like Twilight Zone with the real witch revealed – turning things into a “which witch is which” scenario – and some karmic retribution. Or is it witchcraft? Divine retribution?
Burn, Witch, Burn is a small-scale chiller that will certainly create the chills you need. It hews closely to other British horror productions like the aforementioned Innocents or The Uninvited (1944). Kino’s new Blu-ray looks amazing, and if you’re fans of Twilight Zone and its writers, you can’t do better than a film with two of its most talent scribes; the talent shows.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.