Monday, October 27, 2008

Grey Market Cinema: Night of the Eagle [aka Burn, Witch, Burn!] (1962)

Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a rising star at the college which employs him as an instructor; he is well-liked by both faculty and students, and he’s on the fast track to a promotion in his department. So he’s a bit taken aback when he learns that his wife Tanzy (Janet Blair) has been practicing witchcraft on him in order to advance his career—he considers it a bunch of superstitious nonsense, and insists she discard all her “charms” and whatnot. Shortly thereafter, his luck goes sour: he’s nearly hit by a van; a female student (Judith Stott) accuses him of rape; and her jealous boyfriend (Bill Mitchell) points a weapon at him after learning of the girl’s situation. Tanzy, convinced that evil forces are conspiring after Norman, tries to commit suicide so that her husband will be spared of his “curse”—and Norman soon learns that the idea of witchcraft isn’t so irrational after all.

The British title of this 1962 psychological horror film is Night of the Eagle but since the version I purchased (from AC Comics/Smarty Pants Entertainment) is the U.S. version (released by American International Pictures as Burn, Witch, Burn!) I’ll refer to it by its American name from now on. (There is a Region 2 version available at, which has the British titles.) I thought I’d seen this film before; if I had, I’ll confess that it may have been a long time since I didn’t recall a lot of it—which is a good thing, since Burn has quite a few surprises up its sleeve. It’s based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, which was originally filmed in 1944 (Weird Woman) as part of Universal’s Inner Sanctum programmer series starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (I talked about it here), and is usually considered by fans as the best of the bunch. The 1962 remake, however, is the definitive adaptation: just seeing the credit “Screenplay by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont” will reassure you that you’re in for a cracking-good horror film.

Burn, Witch, Burn! is highly reminiscent of another great horror movie, Night of the Demon (1957; the recut U.S. version is known as Curse of the Demon), which has a similar plot in that it asks a rational man of science (played in this instance by Dana Andrews) to accept the belief that witchcraft can and does exist when he finds himself in peril at the hands of an admitted warlock (Niall MacGinnis) out to do him bodily harm. Both films are top-notch, but Demon edges out ahead due to its strong cast (which also includes Peggy Cummins and Liam Redmond) and expert direction (by Jacques Tourneur—I’ve often referred to Demon as “the greatest film Val Lewton never made”).

Burn! and Demon also share a similar plot device in that both of its protagonists are menaced by frightening supernatural creatures: Andrews by a smoke-belching demon in the 1957 film, Wyngarde by a giant eagle in Burn! Demon director Tourneur was forced to use the demon by the film’s producers—he wanted to merely “suggest” the creature, as was the case in many of Lewton’s classic RKO horror films—and while I don’t know if was the same situation for Burn’s Sidney Hayers I kind of wish that he, too, had gone the Lewton route…only because the special effects in Burn! aren’t quite capable of convincingly pulling off the “giant eagle” sequence.

Burn! has a great supporting cast: Margaret Johnson (playing a professor whose physical infirmity masks a rather sinister persona), Kathleen Byron (as a catty faculty wife), Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Jessica Dunning, Norman Bird and Reginald Beckwith (who, coincidentally, was in Demon as well). In the U.S. version, the ubiquitous Paul Frees narrates a brief prologue that supposedly will protect the audience from evil spirits and witchcraft (which started me to wonder as to what happened to those poor schmoes who were still at the theatre candy counter while this went on)—proving once again Pete Fitzgerald’s assertion that “Paul Frees is EVERYWHERE!” Three stars.

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