Burn, Witch, Burn  Reprint

by Glenn Erickson Feb 20, 2024

What is worse, a demon from hell or academic politics?  One destroys your soul with unimaginable horror, and the other involves the supernatural. A duel of diabolists is underway at a small English college: Janet Blair’s spell-casting faculty wife employs charms and tokens to promote her reluctant professor husband, Peter Wyngarde, but the battle becomes murderous. It isn’t all Pomp and Circumstance, just your average college competition for Tenure. This is a reprint of a review from 2015. We’re reposting because its original host page was taken down.


Burn, Witch, Burn
Kino Lorber
1962 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 90 min. / Night of the Eagle / Street Date August 18, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Kathleen Byron, Reginald Beckwith, Jessica Dunning, Norman Bird, Judith Stott, Bill Mitchell.
Cinematography: Reginald Wyer
Art Director: Jack Shampan
Costumes: Sophie Devine
Film Editor: Ralph Sheldon
Original Music: William Alwyn
Screenplay by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Baxt from the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber Jr.
Executive Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff
Produced by Albert Fennell
Directed by
Sidney Hayers

(Note, this is a reprint review from August 13, 2015. The disc is OOP.)

Sometimes any horror picture will do. But a handful of classic chillers appeal to non-horror fans as well. This English-produced gem investigates how superstition works and why it has power over people.

A superior horror film in all respects, Burn, Witch, Burn sees the ambitious American-International company providing good English filmmakers with American distribution as well as the celebrated horror and sci-fi screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. The resulting thriller gets high marks in every department. In theaters it worked audiences into a creepy panic; a 1974 L.A. County Museum of Art screening elicited applause from a packed audience. It’s perhaps the most respected film directed by the prolific Sidney Hayers, a director who eventually segue’d into a long TV career. Hayers’ other scare classic is a whole different kettle of shocks: 1960’s highly successful mix of sex and gore Circus of Horrors.


The alignment of talent and opportunity that allowed the creation of Burn, Witch, Burn was indeed providential. Matheson and Beaumont collaborated on the script as a spec project,, and then sold it to the studio; Richard Matheson’s good relationship with A.I.P. president Jim Nicholson was probably a big help. Nicholson and Arkoff subcontracted the actual production to the Brits. The original English title Night of the Eagle sounds suspiciously like Jacques Tourneur’s superb Night of the Demon, known to U.S. viewers as Curse of the Demon. Superficially the stories are similar, as both involve the summoning of a demon from Hell. But Burn is sourced from an old novel by Fritz Leiber, an author often promoted by Forrest J. Ackerman. Back in 1944 it was adapted as a B-picture for Universal’s ‘Inner Sanctum’ series, Weird Woman.

The peerless Curse of the Demon took a step back from matinee thrills to examine the nature of superstition and the effort to oppose it as a fraud. Its hero is a rational skeptic. Burn, Witch, Burn offers the same idea in an even more personal context. Another protagonist dedicated to the suppression of superstition clashes with his own wife, who practices voodoo-like black magic picked up on a sojourn in Jamaica. With so many irrational (let’s be honest: flat-out stupid) ‘belief systems’ given credence in today’s culture, the hero’s domestic problem isn’t at all that unusual.


The setting is a provincial English college, complete with ivy on the walls. Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) teaches his medical school class the sociology of belief in primitive superstitions, and is dismayed when he discovers that his lovely wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is practicing black magic right in their college lodgings. Norman bullies Tansy with his anti-hoodoo fervor. He scoffs at her claim that her spells and charms counter ‘evil forces’ and are responsible for his good fortune at the college.

Refusing to believe that other faculty members harbor hostility toward him, Norman burns Tansy’s talismans, sachets, totems and other grotesque items. His fortunes take an immediate flip-flop.    A female student (Judith Stott) accuses Norman of seducing her, and a male student threatens him with a gun. A truck almost runs him down. The administration begins to turn against Norman. His faith in rationality shaken, his livelihood in jeopardy, Norman comes home to discover Tansy missing. She has left a note saying she plans to offer her own life to save his, in a rite she once saw demonstrated in Jamaica.

Only in Academia.

With its collegiate setting Burn, Witch, Burn brings the diabolical even closer to everyday reality than did Tourneur’s film. Even without witchcraft, the average college faculty is already a simmering cauldron of envy, bitterness and passive-aggressive rivalries. Norman and Tansy host a bridge game with an openly hostile professor’s wife, played by Kathleen Byron of Black Narcissus fame. Norman’s peers remark on his status as the golden boy of the faculty, the new man who will more likely than not leapfrog the seniority line and win the department chair. He doesn’t realize that it’s all a cover for their resentment.

But the Taylors’ real enemy is the catty, insinuating professor Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston, of The Psychopath). Ms. Carr walks with a limp. She’s a bitter backstabber with a grudge against life in general, like one of the coffee-klatch coven folk in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim. The difference is that Flora is also a scheming madwoman, drunk with the ability to summon Satanic powers.

We understand the character dynamics without special explanations. Tansy goes to market like a normal housewife but also leaves her little charms stashed everywhere. She is terrified to discover that one of their bridge night guests has hidden a counter-charm in their salon. When Norman burns Tansy’s defenses in the fireplace, he is struck by a tidal wave of ill fortune — accusations, freak chance accidents. What previously was petty paranoia (the faculty are against us!) suddenly becomes a no-holds-barred battle of sorcery.

Not until Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby would we be invited to seriously consider random bad events as part of a concerted conspiracy of black magic. An appropriate short subject to accompany this movie might be Tex Avery’s cartoon Bad Luck Blackie.

Reginald Wyer’s sharp camera movements and tight, tense angles show he and director Hayers working at their best. Lighting changes express Tansy’s inner panic and Flora’s malicious enthusiasm. By the third act it appears that all the forces of darkness have been aligned against Norman. Do first-time viewers guess what’s coming by the repetition of shots of the stone decorations on the college ramparts?

The film doesn’t explain all of its magic, at least not to this thickheaded viewer. Norman appears to break one spell by making a gesture of faith in a lonely crypt, but I’m not at all sure why a recording of his voice should be so effective in the final act. If that were so, Father Merrin could just distribute a podcast with his voice shouting “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Beezelbub’s minions would be neutralized, everywhere.


It’s no matter, for Burn, Witch, Burn ratchets up the tension with great skill. The tightly organized visuals cue us to exactly the next level of menace at just the right time. The movie’s grip is so tight that audiences jump at the sight of a single telling shot, when Tansy walks just a little bit strangely.

Both theater audiences I saw the movie with applauded at the conclusion. The hoodoo-voodoo thrills cover up the fact that the script faults ’emotional’ females twice over: first for foolishly believing in black magic, and then for weaponizing it. Tansy says she’s protecting Norman, but she’s really cheating for him. For every advance and promotion Norman ‘earns,’ a deserving candidate may be getting the shaft. Does Burn, Witch, Burn simply acknowledge the cynical reality of adult life?  If the consensus is that everything is rigged, only fools and martyrs play by the rules.


But there’s no need for us to lose our sense of humor. Burn, Witch, Burn is a great show for those of us that enjoy the romantic witchcraft comedy Bell, Book and Candle. Why isn’t some Manhattan Van Helsing staking the horrid devil-worshippers Kim Novak, Elsa Lanchester and Jack Lemmon through their pagan hearts?  Well, maybe not Kim Novak.

The beautiful Janet Blair makes an excellent Faculty Wikkan. The Hollywood actress might not be amused to know that she’s now remembered more for Burn, Witch, Burn than her near-classic comedy My Sister Eileen. Peter Wyngarde is the most body-proud sociology professor we ever saw — the actor’s contract must have stipulated that he gets to play a percentage of his scenes with his shirt off. The movie successfully aligns Norman’s skeptical arrogance with his overall vanity.


Margaret Johnston has a lark with the plum role of the eccentric Flora Carr — any self-respecting University department has at least one ‘interesting’ personality like her. If actor Reginald Beckwith seems familiar, it’s because he also plays the kooky Mr. Meek in Curse of the Demon. Neither he nor the talented Kathleen Byron is given the screen time they deserve, unfortunately. Lovely Judith Stott made few movies but leaves a strong impression as the student infatuated with Norman, who seems compelled to denounce him. Does the movie inadvertently suggest that female accusers of molestation are hyserics acting under mind control?



The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Burn, Witch, Burn is a fine HD encoding of this still too-obscure horror gem, previously released as a so-so MOD DVD-R. The added detail and texture gives us the pleasing English light, with soft grays and few hard shadows in exteriors. The night exteriors show off the creative lighting schemes of cameraman Reginald Wyer (Unearthly Stranger). Some midnight doings on a remote beach display excellent day-for-night work.

The film is the American release version, which is almost identical to the English original. Some credits vary in the title sequences, and the American final card “Do you believe?” is a simple “The End” in Night of the Eagle. This copy has the vocal introduction added by American-International, spoken over black by Paul Frees. It was routinely dropped from TV broadcasts but was re-introduced in a laserdisc release from around 1996-97. The speech was a perfect mood-setter for kids primed for a take-no-prisoners spook show. It’s in a different spirit altogether from the fairly sophisticated thrills that follow. Frees’ voice soon became strongly identified with Disney’s Haunted Mansion theme park ride.


The audio track in the first reel or so has some distortion, obviously built-in from the available element. Frees’ narration is sibilant and the track ‘crunchy’ overall. This problem was much more pronounced on earlier discs, but I still hear it.

A Scorpion logo appears at the head of the disc, but not on the packaging. That company may be behind the new interview with actor Peter Wyngarde, a nice extra that shows him to be no more self-interested than any other actor. Wyngarde shares good memories of the shoot.


Also present is a commentary with author Richard Matheson, missing from the DVD-R but included on the old laser. Matheson’s comments seem spotty at first, and at times he simply relates what he’s seeing on the screen. But he eventually tells the entire story of the show’s making. Matheson has almost entirely positive memories of the film, its cast and especially Beaumont. He talks about the deal making behind some of his A.I.P. work. He earned only $5,000 for a couple of his Poe pictures, amounts adjusted with bonuses from James Nicholson. He also goes over specifics about some of his other films, like the adaptation of his classic novel I Am Legend into The Last Man on Earth. Matheson seemingly forgets that it was not filmed in America.

An original A.I.P. trailer sells the movie hard but doesn’t misrepresent it or give away the exciting conclusion. Taking a cue from Arrow Video, Kino offers a reversible package art, with an alternate advertising image derived from a print ad. If you’re the kind of horror fan that responds positively to sensitive, smart films like Curse of the Demon, Kino Lorber’s Burn, Witch, Burn will be just the ticket.

(A New Note, 02 18 24: reported last August 26 that Kino was preparing a new disc of Burn, Witch, Burn from a new 4K restoration. It may have been delayed or cancelled, as it was expected ‘later in 2023.’)

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Burn, Witch, Burn
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Very Good
Interview with Peter Wyngarde
Commentary with Richard Matheson
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
August 13, 2015 — reprinted February 20, 2024
(7081burn — 4875burn — originally published at World Cinema Paradise)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Fred Blosser

Saw it in the theater as a kid on release, and years later on laser disc. As I recall, neither it nor the earlier version as WEIRD WOMAN followed Leiber’s concept that all women secretly practice witchcraft. That concept was easy to sell to his mostly male pulp readership in 1943, not so much moviegoers. If memory also serves, the FX of the animated eagle were primitive. Even in quick shadowy shots, it was about as convincing as Big Bird. I’d love to be told that my memory is faulty on both counts!


I suspect Polanski saw Burn, Witch, Burn during his stay in the UK during the mid 60s, it was a TV staple. I was lucky enough to pick up the Blu-ray in a Kino sale. Kino may have reneged on a 4K because IMHO the print used for the Blu-ray is not in the greatest shape, we’ll see!

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