The 1962 witchcraft-in-the-suburbs oddity Burn, Witch, Burn! (aka Night of the Eagle) is awesome for a number of reasons, the first of which is that its protagonist is named “Tansy”.
Seriously, say that name to yourself a few times and tell me if you don’t want to name every animal, plant and child in your life “Tansy” from this day forward. Tansy makes everything sound nicer! “I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to put Tansy down”… “The bad news, Tansy, is that it’s metastasized”… “Mr. and Mrs. Smith, we have confirmed that your daughter Tansy was the shooter.”
Anyway, the Tansy at hand (Handsy?) is Tansy Taylor (Janet Blair), the dutiful wife of university professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), who teaches psychology at a tony British college when not dodging the affections of swooning co-eds and navigating the political waters of academia.
Tansy Taylor?! Seriously, shut the fuck up. She sounds like the missing member of the Archie Gang and I LOVE IT.
After stumbling upon some interesting items in his sock drawer (like, oh, a dead spider in a carved-bone box – nothing strange about that!), Norman starts to suspect that Tansy picked up some voodoo housekeeping tips while they were in Jamaica. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine tourists picking up anything more sinister than a contact high and a few Bob Marley t-shirts in Jamaica, but whatever.
Norman ransacks the house and, sure enough, the joint is LOADED with dolls, dead spiders, sachets of herbs, and other assorted gris-gris. He confronts Tansy and she is visibly shaken, insisting that her charms have been protecting them from the vicious local community and warning him that destroying them will have dire consequences.
Norman doesn’t believe in witchcraft – we know this because the movie begins with his writing “I DO NOT BELIEVE” on a chalkboard. (Subtle!) So he burns everything.
Academics! When will they learn…
Sure enough, things start to go very wrong for Norman and Tansy. A pert, grade-A student of Norman starts making obscene phone calls to him, strange packages start arriving… and of course there’s the matter of someone leaving tiny voodoo dolls in their lampshades and embedding curses in audiotapes and phonecalls.
Yes, witchery is afoot among the Paper Chase set! The idea that stuffy old professors and their wives are hurling curses at one another under the tables at bridge night in order to get tenure is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard … and yet somehow Burn, Witch, Burn! manages to ground all of this hokum in relatively believable domestic normalcy. It’s kind of like Bewitched without the laugh track or Uncle Albert’s unfortunate tendency to wind up on the sex offenders registry.
Anyway, things escalate – and get quite spooky in spots, thanks to some clever spells and copious use of lightning machines – and eventually Norman winds up within the hallowed halls of his university, where he is stalked by a 15-foot-tall eagle. I’m not going to try to explain this scene other than to say it’s fucking awesome.
There are also death curses, attempted suicides, and lots of ominous drumming. Things resolve somewhat predictably if you’ve been paying even a tiny bit of attention, but it’s all done with such well-coiffed aplomb that you won’t mind.
And if the kooky “faculty wife witch” isn’t enough to rate on the camp meter, just get a load of Norman’s pants. Seriously – they come up to his nipples and threaten to strangle the man altogether. It’s a hilarious look, and in the charmingly apelike Wyngarde’s numerous shirtless scenes (he’s pretty well put together, all told), they have the effect of making him appear to have no ribcage. I guess that was all the rage in 1962?
Director Sidney Hayers had previously helmed the fabulous Circus of Horrors (starring Donald Pleasence) and would go on to direct several decent cheapie thrillers (Inn of the Frightened People, In the Devil’s Garden, Deadly Strangers) and a shitload of American television in the ’80s. Here his hand is steady and despite a bit of sluggishness in the middle, for the most part Burn is a riot. Special kudos to Janet Blair for totally selling her completely ridiculous role of devoted witch trophy wife, especially when things start going totally witchiepoo.
Overall, a unique modern twist on classic witch tales and a stylish look at 1960s university life, to boot (and I’ve heard that its source novel, The Conjure Wife, is also quite good). Definitely worth checking out on a dark and stormy night.
RATING (OUT OF 5):
Burn, Witch, Burn is Unrated but could probably be shown in its entirety on television, despite some wonderfully creepy sequences and the creeping dread that is Peter Wyngarde’s chest hair. It is available on Netflix Instant Queue, so get on that shit!