Friday, December 3, 2010


Fritz Leiber surely wasn't the first man to suggest that all women are witches, but, to the best of my knowledge, he was the first fellow to write a novel about it. Leiber's 1943 classic Conjure Wife has been filmed three times, first as Reginald Le Borg's Inner Sanctum entry Weird Woman (1944), then--borrowing its handle from an A. Merritt thriller--as Burn, Witch, Burn (1962; U.K. title, Night of the Eagle), and finally lampooned in Richard Shorr and Herbert L. Strock's sporadically amusing Witches' Brew (1980). Sidney Hayers' early Sixties adaptation remains the best of this bunch, coming far closer to its source material than the earlier, bare-bones version, and offering chthonian theatrics aplenty.

Sociology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) doesn't realize that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been waging an occult battle on his behalf at Hempnell Medical College. Taylor's students, you see, have a higher scholastic average than other instructors' pupils, and this accomplishment has, not surprisingly, bred resentment at the school, particularly among the faculty's overbearing wives. Taylor, of course, is oblivious to all this, involved as he is in his daily struggle against "the morbid desire to escape reality" of the superstitious masses. One evening, after the Hempnell gang's weekly bridge game, the professor discovers a dead spider in a jar in a dresser drawer, where he's searching for a clean pair of pajamas. Tansy explains that the object is simply a farewell gift from a witch doctor named Curubius, whom the couple had encountered on a Jamaican field trip, where Taylor nearly perished in an accident. The professor is mollified, but soon another charm turns up in his jacket collar, and he finds to his chagrin that his wife has hoarded a veritable treasure trove of the talismans. He convinces her to burn the items--among them, a locket with his photograph inside--and his comfortable life commences to disintegrate.

The first crack in the microcosmic egg is a telephone call from Taylor's pupil Margaret Abbott (Judith Stott), a moony blonde who urges him, "after you've undressed me with your eyes," to "take me in your arms." The student--who is crippled Dean of Women Flora Carr's (Margaret Johnston) ward--later turns up in Flora's office, accusing Taylor (who has moments earlier barely missed being run down by a delivery van) of violating her. She subsequently confesses that "something came over me," but there's more mischief in the form of Margaret's jealous boyfriend Fred Jennings (Bill Mitchell), a complete imbecile who accuses Taylor of "deliberately bas[ing] your tests on lectures I've missed." Jennings even pulls a gun on the professor, but Taylor slaps him and gets the weapon away from the hysterical lad.

That night, Taylor receives in the post a recording of a Manchester lecture he recently presented. Believing it was sent to him by his dean--the accompanying letter, however, contains no signature--he plays the tape for Tansy's instructional benefit. The reel emits a psychedelic hum (no Dolby digital noise reduction here, alas), and the increasingly anxious Tansy (who shrilly demands of her husband if he's "going to give me the benefit of your brilliant logic?") turns it off. The telephone rings immediately, but the only sound is the mysterious hum. The power fails as Tansy covers her ears, she snatches the phone from Taylor's hand, and suddenly there's a bloodcurdling cry and the ominous flapping of wings at the front door. She yanks the phone out of the wall, and, as her husband approaches the door, a tremendous wind forces it open, knocking the professor against the wall. An eagle's shadow appears subliminally, vanishing in darkness as lightning illuminates one of Hampnell's several eagle statues scattered across the school grounds.

Once things temporarily settle down, Tansy drugs Taylor's drink ("Now we're joined in spirit"), and late the next morning he awakens to discover that she's decamped, having left a message on their reel machine that "I've gone away so that this terrible curse can no longer touch you." After learning from a colleague, Hilda Gunnison (Jessica Dunning), that her husband earlier spotted Tansy taking a coach--presumably to the couple's seaside cottage--Taylor crashes his car trying to stop her transit. Dazed but adamantly refusing to see a doctor, he borrows another vehicle and heads for their retreat, where his wife plans to drown herself at the stroke of midnight. Discovering a helpful note on curse destruction inside Tansy's copy of Rites and Practice in Black Magic, Taylor grabs some candles--naturally, his flashlight batteries are dead--and hoofs it first to the shore and then a nearby cemetery, unknowingly rushing past his wife, who leans trancelike in the shadows against a rock. Unable to locate Tansy, he breaks into a mausoleum and, in utter philosophical desperation, Crosses Over to the Other Side by sprinkling graveyard dirt over a picture of his beloved that he removes from his wallet. The spell works, and Taylor's waterlogged wife appears, clutching the accursed tape reel, in the crypt entrance.

Tansy eventually emerges from her trance, but back home she abruptly wakens, sits straight up in bed (never a good sign in horror films), and attempts to stab her husband with a butcher knife as the camera cuts to a female hand pressing a blade into a voodoo figurine. The telepathically-controlled Tansy also prominently limps, which reminds Taylor of the orthopedically-impaired Flora. They struggle, Tansy faints, and the professor heads with the distorted tape to Flora's office. "Why did you try to drive her out of her mind?" he asks, to which she mockingly responds, "I knew you were naive, but I didn't know you were as naive as all that. After all that's happened, do you mean to tell me that you still put it down to natural causes?" Taylor believes Flora's hypnotized Tansy in order to jeopardize his position at Hempnell--he and her husband Lindsay (Colin Gordon) are candidates for the college's Sociology chair--but Flora sets him straight by erecting, then setting fire to, a house of Tarot cards on her desk. In the meanwhile, the Taylors' black cat leaps upon a window ledge (or, more accurately, is tossed by someone standing offscreen), knocking a flowerpot onto an oil stove and causing the couple's nice home to erupt in flames. "Burn, witch, burn!" Flora commands her disintegrating cards as Taylor hurries outside.

Now unspools the most spectacular part of the picture. Flora cues Taylor's lecture tape, which thunders over the school's public address system. As the professor runs across campus, there's a flapping sound and the camera zooms in on the stone eagle guarding the entrance to his classroom building. The statue comes alive, and a real, enormous eagle launches itself at him. Taylor stumbles into the building and locks the door behind him, but the creature bursts through in pursuit. As the monstrous bird advances upon Taylor in his lecture hall, Flora's husband fortuitously enters her office and switches the sound button from the p.a. system to the tape speaker. The creature vanishes (as does the damage it's caused), leaving behind a completely discombobulated Taylor, while Flora, looking exceedingly stricken herself, stops the tape. Taylor returns to his engulfed home to find that Tansy's made it out safely, and, as the Carrs depart from the campus, Lindsay informs his wife that Hempnell's awarding the Sociology chair to Taylor. She's sarcastically skeptical, but the stone eagle tumbles from its perch and crushes her to death, so there. As the closing shot lingers on the partially-unreeled tape, the film asks, "Do You Believe?"

After all that excitement, it's difficult not to. Burn, Witch, Burn mischievously turns the conflict between science and magic inside out. Taylor, whose given name denotes the norm, represents the masculine laws of Nature, while Tansy (a flower, from the Greek athanasia [immortality]) and Flora (derived from the Roman flower goddess) symbolize female Supernature. Science is Appollonian; magic, Dionysian. To Taylor, superstitions spring from "primitive beliefs" and constitute "a science devoid of all empirical values," one that is "completely based on a priori observation." Yet, to the professor's credit, he is keenly aware that, even though genuine science contains "feats which put our old-fashioned magicians to shame," it also encompasses a daemonic capacity for destruction: "Today we can press a button and the whole of mankind is obliterated." Taylor's pessimism reflects the thematic concerns of technology and chaos so prevalent in post-Hiroshima/-Nagasaki filmmaking. In the final analysis, however, reason remains for our sociologist the only game in town, but the diabolic drubbing he's just endured ought to make for a rather interesting lecture. Whether he'll deliver it is, of course, another matter entirely.

Tansy adores her husband, but complains that his "stuffy old books"--all written by narrow-minded men, I'll wager--"invade every corner of our lives," and she teasingly threatens to burn the volumes. Taylor, for his part, avers that "if we were to investigate all the strange rituals performed by women based on their so-called intuition, half the female population would be in asylums." Yet Tansy is willing to sacrifice herself for Taylor's career ("You have so much to offer this world"); indeed, her character is one of the most devoted wives in the entire history of cinema. Her selfless attempt to drown herself is a return to liquid nature. Fortunately for her, once Taylor surrenders to unreason, Tansy is reborn from, rather than obliterated in, the oceanic womb. Flora, at the opposite extreme, is the Divine Mother in her aspect of violence and death. As she grins, skull-like, above an office lamp at Taylor, her ghastly underlit mouth constitutes a vagina dentata. It's appropriate that her drab husband's androgynous name is Lindsay, for Flora, despite her schoolmarmish dress, demonstrably wears the pants in their relationship; indeed, it's obvious there's more than a little repressed desire for the virile Taylor partially motivating her spiteful spellwork. Flora's left side limp symbolizes left-hand path magic, sometimes referred to as Vama Marg, the Way of Woman. Ironically, as is true in Tansy's case, her witchery is all on behalf of her spouse; these women live through their husbands' accomplishments, or perish through the lack of them. However, in Hayers' adaptation of Leiber's tale, only Tansy and Carr seem to possess actual secret powers. Significantly, Tansy's development of her abilities is the result of her encounter with the Third World warlock Curubius, which spiritually reverses the evangelical imperialism of the colonial powers.

The employment of witchcraft as a metaphor for academic politics is charmingly cheeky and scarcely imperceptive. The Hempnell coterie, composed as it is of what Tansy derides as "petty scholars," is a poisonously envious bunch; in fact, one of Taylor's colleagues jokingly inquires if the professor's "sold [his] soul to the Devil," which supposedly accounts for his success. Sorcery here is the radical upstart in Academe, as the old scientific paradigm reverts to "new" magic, whose classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) are all put to artful use in the scenario. Hayers' film arguably fires an early shot in the West's ongoing culture war(s), indulging postmodernism's disdain of rationalism while celebrating the survival of a pagan metaphysics that monotheisms have never been entirely able to extinguish.

On a more intimate level, Burn, Witch, Burn facilitates Taylor's headlong confrontation with his irrational feminine side. When the professor moves towards the door after the mysterious phone call, Tansy orders him not to open what is plainly the door of his unconscious, because she knows that her husband cannot face what lies beyond. At the beginning of the film, Taylor writes the words "I do not believe" in all capitals on his classroom blackboard, but when the giant eagle corners him against the board, he accidentally erases part of the sentence with his back, altering the declaration to "I do believe." His desire to hang onto his empiricism at all costs reflects, as Flora points out, Taylor's fear "of being wrong." Her homicidal utilization of his lecture is an almost-successful attempt to turn the professor's words against him and destroy his "Aristotelian mind," as well as his sculptured body.

Reginald Wyer's black-and-white cinematography is striking, from the shot of Tansy spinning the fringe of a lampshade in search of a charm Flora has left behind to the superimposition of flames over Tansy's face, foreshadowing the climactic house fire (which is also adumbrated in the bridge evening when Taylor's house of cards collapses). As Taylor desperately searches for his wife, he's literally framed in darkness. Tansy's descent into the sea recalls a similar moment in Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and, though it's clearly a day-for-night shot, the shore sequence shimmers with oneiric ambience. The entire cast is excellent, with Wyngarde (who later, hippie-haired and mustachioed, rocketed to U.K. fame as ITC's Jason King [1971-72]) radiating a particularly rugged intelligence; American torch singer Blair and London stage actress Johnston are equally splendid. My only disappointment is that the great Kathleen Byron (best remembered for her role as the sexually-crazed Sister Ruth in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus [1947]) as "middle-aged Medusa" Evelyn Sawtelle has so little to do in the film, though her brief appearances are memorably malicious, deploring as she does Taylor's "manag[ing] to charm better grades out of his idiot students" than the rest of the Hempnell nonentities. Muir Matheson contributes a sonically disorienting score, and Hayers, who previously helmed the engagingly lurid Circus of Horrors (1960), directs with vigor, especially in his staging of the eagle sequences. "I felt sorry for the poor thing," he later recalled of his beleaguered avian actor "...but I was very pleased with the result. I remember going to see the film with an audience at the Odeon in Leicester Square, and afterwards in the toilets I eavesdropped on these two guys saying how scared they'd been."

An amusing, William-Castle-inspired prologue was added to the film for its U.S. release. "Ladies and gentlemen," the legendary four-octave voice artist Paul Frees gravely intones over a blank screen, "the motion picture you are about to see contains an evil spell." Frees hammily proceeds to "dispel all evil spirits that may radiate from the screen during this performance" by invoking various dark deities to "cast a protecting shield above those gathered here present." It's flamboyant stuff, and certainly puts the viewer in the mood for some supernatural thrills.

The picture's authorship has been a subject of considerable dispute. The screenplay is credited to Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; Matheson even provided an audio commentary for Orion/Image Entertainment's long-out-of-print 1995 laserdisc. However, novelist George Baxt's name appears as a co-scenarist in Europe and Asia. Asked about this discrepancy in Filmfax, Baxt contended that "Beaumont asked [producer] Sam Arkoff, 'Please don't put anybody's name on our credits, we've written everything alone.' And Sam said, 'I've got to give Baxt credit--he wrote the whole script. It has no resemblance to what you wrote.'" Baxt claimed to have composed "at least ninety percent" of the film, and--furthermore--he "did it in four days." ("The script was an embarrassment," he alleged. "Sidney Hayers was near tears when he got it.") Those remarks did not at all sit well with historian Christopher Koetting, who wrote to Filmfax that he has access to the original script. "I have checked the claims Mr. Baxt makes regarding the scenes he supposedly added," Koetting stated for the record, and "I have found him to be wrong on every count." Rebutting Baxt's protestation that he "'hated that goddamn eagle they had," the historian asked, "Then whose idea was it? The statue monster was originally a gargoyle--not a bird."

Orion/Image's disc presented a near-mint print of Burn, Witch, Burn in its original aspect ratio of 1.75:1, while MGM's now-deleted videocassette counterpart was released in fullscreen only. The disc also contained a letterboxed version of Night of the Eagle's title sequence, in which Baxt is listed as co-writer, Wyngarde is billed before Blair, and Ms. Blair's eye is presented in closeup, as opposed to the painting of the organ used in American International's release. The ninety-minute film was issued in the UK under its original title on a 2007 Optimum DVD, but I've not seen this edition. United Artists announced a remake of Conjure Wife, under Billy Ray's direction, in 2008, but thus far nothing has materialized, ectoplasmic or otherwise. It's high time for Image to reissue this spellbinder stateside.


Bradley, Matthew R. "Baxt Stabs Back: Real Horror Hotel(er) Tells How to Write Horror Right." Filmfax, Number 50 (May/June 1995).

Koetting, Christopher. "Re:EDITS," letter. Filmfax, Number 54 (January/February 1996).

Rigby, Jonathan. English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema. London: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd., 2000.

Schreck, Nikolas. The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated Guide to the Devil in Cinema. London: Creation Books, 2001.

Winters, Joseph. "Witchcraft Through the Cinema." Scary Monsters Magazine, Number 74 (April 2010).