Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) Retrospective

Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a psychology professor lecturing about belief systems and superstition. After a scene in which his wife searches frantically and finds a poppet left by a jealous work rival, he discovers that his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), is practising obeah, referred to in the film as “conjure magic,” which she learned in Jamaica. She insists that her charms have been responsible for his rapid advancement in his academic career and for his general well-being. A firm rationalist, Norman is angered by her acceptance of superstition. He forces her to burn all of her magical paraphernalia.

Almost immediately, things start to go wrong: a female student (Judith Stott) accuses Norman of rape, her boyfriend (Bill Mitchell) threatens him with violence, and someone tries to break into the Taylors’ home during a thunderstorm. Tansy, willing to sacrifice her life for her husband’s safety, almost drowns herself and is only saved at the last minute by Norman giving in to the practices he despises.

Tansy attacks him with a knife while in a trance, but Norman disarms her and locks her in her room. Her limping walk during the attack gives Norman a clue to the person responsible for his ill luck: university secretary Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston), the wife of Lindsay whose career had stalled in favour of Norman’s. Flora uses witchcraft to set fire to the Taylor home with Tansy trapped inside.

Using a form of auditory hypnosis over a loudspeaker system, Flora convinces Norman that a giant stone eagle from atop the university chapel has come to life to attack him. Lindsay arrives at the office and turns off the loudspeaker, and the illusory eagle vanishes. Tansy escapes her burning home and rejoins her no longer skeptical husband. On their way out of the campus, Lindsay sees the chapel’s heavy doors are ajar (left thus by Norman in his “escape” from the eagle), and insists upon securing them despite Flora’s protests. As she waits for him, the eagle statue falls from the roof and kills her.

The novel had previously been adapted in 1944 for Universal’s Weird Woman starring Lon Chaney Jr, but the film downplayed the supernatural element and the result was unsatisfactory. Beaumont and Matheson, close friends who’d worked together on The Twilight Zone, were fans of the novel and both felt the time was right for a more faithful adaptation. In an interview with Lawrence French, Matheson describes the gestation of the screenplay:
‘We went out to a bar one night and started talking about the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber … At the time, Chuck and I were both working for American International, so we did it on speculation, because we knew we didn’t have the rights to the novel. When we finished the script we showed it to James Nicholson (the President of American international) and (he) liked it very much. AIP then bought the rights to the book from Universal and paid each of us $5,000 for the script … I wrote the first half and Chuck wrote the second half. Our script writing styles were very similar, so after we wrote our own sections, we met again and combined our two sections into a first draft.’

At the time, AIP had a co-production deal with Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy’s Anglo Amalgamated, with whom they’d collaborated on Circus of Horrors and Konga. AIP passed the script to AA, who in turn assigned it to their production partner Independent Artists, run by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn. Albert Fennell, fresh from executive producing The Innocents with Jack Clayton, acted as the hands-on producer.

The film benefited from a budget set at £50,000, more than double the sum allocated to the ‘B’ movies that Independent Artists were turning out at the time. Peter Cushing was initially approached to play the lead role of Norman Taylor, but declined in favour of Hammer’s Captain Clegg. Peter Wyngarde was subsequently cast, bringing to the role a masculinity and sexuality that, in truth, Cushing would have been unable to provide. American Janet Blair was supplied by AIP as Wyngarde’s co-star, playing Taylor’s wife, Tansy. Sydney Hayers was assigned to direct, on the strength of his successful helming of Circus of Horrors the previous year.

All three authors involved in Night of the Eagle’s screenplay were prolific writers for film and television specializing in horror, mystery and science fiction. Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont were fans of the novel and wanted to work on something together, so decided to adapt it. They were paid $5,000 each by James H. Nicholson of AIP, who passed the project over to AIP’s regular co-producers, Anglo-Amalgamated in England. They agreed to finance, allocating the movie to Independent Artists to produce. Producer Albert Fennell bought in George Baxt to work on the script. The original script (commenced by Matheson and completed by Beaumont) was published in the Gauntlet Press edition of He Is Legend, a Matheson tribute anthology, but not in the subsequent paperback.

Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife was first published (in shorter form) in 1943 in Unknown magazine and as a single book in 1953] For Night of the Eagle, the New England setting of the novel was changed to rural Britain. Weird Woman (1944, starring Lon Chaney Jr.) and Witches’ Brew (1979, starring Teri Garr, Richard Benjamin, and Lana Turner) were also based on Conjure Wife.

Production began on the 25 September 1961 and continued for eight weeks, finishing on November 17. Along the way, the title was changed from Conjure Wife to Torment, then to Fever Pitch. (In the US, the title would ultimately be changed again, to Burn Witch Burn). Exteriors were shot primarily at Taplow Court near Maidenhead, along with locations at Porthcurno and St Just in Cornwall. Interiors were shot at Elstree Studios. Sets built by art director Jack Shampan on the sound stages not only included the interior of Norman and Tansy’s house and the inside of Hempnell Cottage, but also Tansy’s seaside cottage, an eerie churchyard and crypt, and the reduced-scale Hempnell College sets used during the effects sequences. In addition, Shampan erected in the grounds at Elstree a duplicate of the exterior of Norman and Tansy’s home, specially constructed from asbestos-like materials to facilitate multiple takes for the climactic house fire.

The result is a tightly constructed and genuinely creepy suspense thriller that works almost flawlessly on every level. Hayers’ direction of Beaumont and Matheson’s script is without question his finest hour, ably assisted by Reginald Wyer’s atmospheric monochrome cinematography, Ralph Sheldon’s editing and William Alwyn’s unsettling score.

The term ‘Lewtonesque’ – implying a style and execution on a par with Val Lewton’s singular RKO horror films of the 1940s is often overused, but in this case it is accurate. Lewton’s biographer Edmund Bansak cites it, along with Night of the Demon and The Haunting as ‘the purest examples of their kind’, singling out Eagle as holding an ‘exalted position among the multitude of films that have attempted to duplicate the dark magic of the Val Lewton productions.’ There’s nothing in Hayers’ previous horror movie – the enjoyable but brash Circus of Horrors to suggest he would be adept at the ‘horror by suggestion’ approach, but Lewton’s influence unquestionably permeated the film courtesy of Matheson and Beaumont’s script, which Hayers wisely interpreted with only the minimum amount of tampering. Both screenwriters were Lewton fans and had praised his movies in print. Matheson, in particular, cites Lewton as a major influence on his writing and, as a teenager, had corresponded with Lewton. Unlike Night of the Demon, which lays its supernatural cards on the table from the very outset, Eagle adopts a slow-burn and, arguably, braver approach; with no grandstanding opening sequence to kick-start the story, the narrative has only its inherent intrigue, and the performances of the players, to hook the audience. The tension builds remorselessly from one set-piece to the next, and the subtle ambiguity of the situation is maintained right through to the end.

The limited budget was spent discerningly and it showed on the screen, from the expertly-staged car chase and subsequent crash (shot on roads adjacent to Elstree and involving one of Jack Crump’s fleet of ‘Denham Coaches’ operating out of Pinewood Studios), to the fabulous miniatures through which the ‘giant’ eagle pursues Norman (along with an effective glove-puppet that smashes through the miniature door), to the genuinely impressive house-fire that destroys Norman and Tansy’s home (a replica of the real house that matched the original so perfectly it was also used elsewhere in the film).

The eagle, named Lochinvar, was six months old and weighed seventeen pounds. Its trainer, Walter Joynson, supervised the shots of the bird hopping through the miniature sets and swooping down from the reduced-scale college façade built at Elstree. These shots are seamlessly intercut with night-for-night footage of Peter Wyngarde shot at Taplow Court. Only in one shot does the effects work fall short of perfection; a tether attached to the bird’s leg is visible at one point as the eagle swoops down from the miniature building. The tether was most likely a precaution to avoid a repeat of a two-hour hold-up that occurred during filming when the eagle perched in the roof-gantry of the sound stage and refused to come down.

A number of scenes were scripted and filmed but were removed in the final edit, possibly because of pacing issues or to hit a desired running time. Two such sequences warrant discussion. The first occurs after Tansy is saved from her enforced suicide in the sea. She remains in a semi-trance, able to speak but still largely under the influence of an unknown antagonist. As they drive home, Tansy directs Norman to Evelyn Sawtelle’s house, convinced that she is behind the psychic attacks because of her expertise with hypnosis. Once there, Tansy assaults Evelyn in her bedroom, attempting to strangle her before belatedly realizing she has the wrong person. The removal of this sequence wasn’t entirely without drawbacks: it partially undermines the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the narrative, and it deprives us of seeing more of Kathleen Byron and Anthony Nicholls’ performances.

The second missing sequence originally formed part of the climax in which Norman is chased by the giant eagle. As scripted, Norman briefly takes refuge in a laboratory, only for the eagle to pursue him through the door into the room. A miniature laboratory was specially built to intercut with the full-size set. Norman throws a succession of bottles and jars at the creature, holding it off long enough for him to escape through another door and, finally, to take refuge in his own classroom. During the filming of these scenes, Peter Wyngarde scored a direct hit with a bottle on the expensive lens of the camera, shattering it to pieces. All that remains of these missing sequences are a couple of on-set production stills, and the wonderful charcoal-and-watercolour storyboard of the end sequence, drawn by Jack Shampan, held in the special collection of the BFI.

Sidney Hayers

Interview with Director Sidney Hayers
How did you get the job of directing your next horror movie, Burn. Witch, Burn?
Sidney Hayers: The same way, through Julian Wintle, the same producer. By the way. I didn’t look upon Burn. Witch, Burn as a horror movie. I looked on it more as sort of a psychological drama, really.

When it was first announced, Peter Cushing was going to play the male lead opposite Janet Blair. Why was he bumped?
Sidney Hayers: I think it was because he was ill, because he was a very sick man, actually. And another reason is that they thought Peter Wyngarde would be a better balance with Janet Blair I know that was another factor that crept into it.

How did you like working with Wyngarde?
Sidney Hayers: Peter is a good actor. Slightly effete, but basically very pleasant. I found Janet Blair a great pleasure to work with; she was very responsive and she did some very difficult stuff without any complaint. In the scenes on the beach (where Blair goes into the sea). I know the weather was pretty bloody cold and she didn’t like that at all. We had to spray her down with hot water and give her fresh clothes.

Did you read the original novel in preparation?
Sidney Hayers: Yes, and I also read the script of an earlier version (Weird Woman, 1944), which I have never seen.

George Baxt doesn’t get a writing credit on the American prints of Burn, Witch, Burn, and yet he goes around talking as if it was his script.
Sidney Hayers: No, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont wrote the script, and George didn’t have a lot to do with it. I can as sure you. If he did anything, it was very very small, because the (Matheson-Beaumont script was hardly changed at all.

So when Baxt talks about co-writing the film…
Sidney Hayers: Rubbish. That is not true.

What were your budget and shooting schedule?
Sidney Hayers: I think in those days they were making films like that for around $200,000, and we shot them in about six weeks. We shot at Beaconsfield again, and the school was a place called Taplow.

You used a zoom lens in shooting. Was that for effect, or just to help you meet a schedule?
Sidney Hayers: At that time the zoom was hardly used, and Burn, Witch, Burn was one of the forerunners. I did it for effect. There is also a sequence where I used a 9mm lens to show Peter Wyngarde from Janet Blair’s point of view. If you put a 9mm lens on your eye, you can see the scene and you can see your shoes and your legs and everything. see ? I used it on Peter in the scene where Janet is coming out of the trance-he’s saying, “Tansy! Tansy!” and she starts to open her eyes. The effect gave him a nose like that (indicates a long nose) and ears that sort of come out. Almost like the effect of an eagle. [The movie’s British title is Night of the Eagle.] I used this lens on his close-up. and he actually screamed when he saw it in rushes he said, “Sidney, you’re not gonna use that! For God’s sake!” But I certainly did use it!

Did you think all the subjective shots you used added to the effectiveness?
Sidney Hayers: Well, I did at the time. Whether I would still think so if I saw it today. I don’t know.

In the scene where Wyngarde is almost hit by the truck, it sure looks as though that truck got awfully close.
Sidney Hayers: He thought it did hit him–and he yelled like hell!

A silly story that’s come down through the years is that Wyngarde wore very, very tight pants which caused… problems.
Sidney Hayers: That is not true. I’m sure that story has grown because of the situation where he was caught by the police in England (engaged in homosexual activity in a public rest room). I cannot honestly recount one instance of that. We also had Margaret Johnston in the cast (as Flora Carr), and she was very good she was an actress who at that time was working as an agent. I’d seen something she was in and thought she would be very good as this woman who limps around and that sort of thing. So I basically was responsible for casting her. Kathleen Byron (Mrs. Sawtelle) was a rather humorless woman-she was once a girlfriend of Michael Powell. I didn’t really like her too much then, but she seemed to be what we required for that particular part, which was like a busybody.

Tell us about how you shot the scenes with the giant eagle.
Sidney Hayers: In those days, of course, we didn’t have the trick effects we do today. We had two corridors made, one for Wyngarde to run down, then another, identical one, (scaled down to the size of the eagle. We also threw shadows of Wyngarde running on the same shot as the eagle coming down the corridors; and we could put the eagle’s shadow behind him (as he ran). In another part of that sequence, Wyngarde sees the eagle in the lab and starts throwing bottles at it. Something funny happened there: (Cinematographer) Reg Wyer asked me, “Do you think we ought to put a glass on the front (of the camera), in case he hits the lens?” I said, “Are you kidding? He stands as much chance of hitting that lens as I do of hitting the moon!” We start shooting and Wyngarde starts screaming and he throws a bottle and boom, right in the lens. Just absolutely shattered it!

Richard Matheson says he doesn’t understand why the eagle breaks through the door, but later the door is seen intact again. To be honest. I don’t either
Sidney Hayers: Wasn’t all that supposed to be in Wyngarde’s imagination? To me and, apparently, to Matheson! it’s very unclear. If the eagle was real. why isn’t the door broken at the end of the scene? And if it’s in Wyngarde’s imagination, why does the eagle statue fall on Margaret Johnston? The movie wants it both ways. which is a big problem. Hayers: Oh, it was, very much so, yes. We could feel the pull of that as we were making it.

Are you proud of Burn. Witch, Burn?
Sidney Hayers: Yeah, I quite like it.

The completed film was evaluated by the British Board of Film Censors, under the title Fever Pitch, on 13 February 1962 and was awarded an X Certificate. There’s no indication that the script was ever submitted for vetting prior to production, as was the case with many ‘horror’ productions at the time, but since the material was self-evidently designed as a psychological (rather than a graphic) horror piece, perhaps it was not deemed necessary. Either way, the film was passed without any cuts. An additional note in the BBFC files shows that the title was changed to Night of the Eagle on 22 February 1962, no doubt in the hope of attracting the same movie-going audience as Night of the Demon. The film opened in the UK on 13 May 1962, receiving top-billing alongside the excruciating Bob Monkhouse and Hattie Jacques comedy, She’ll Have to Go. The Monthly Film Bulletin for June 1962 found Night of the Eagle to be ‘… fresh and exciting for the most part, skillful in its reliance on suggestion, naggingly effective as a study of psychic attack.’

In the US, AIP changed the title to Burn Witch Burn (apparently chosen over another alternative title, Witch Wife), adding an opening voiceover and superimposing over the final shot the question ‘Do you believe?’ It was released as the lower half of a double-bill headed by AIPs Tales of Terror on 25 April 1962. Intriguingly, The New York Times review of the film on 5 July 1962 states: ‘Don’t let the ads and marquees fool you about yesterday’s new double-bill (from American-International) at neighborhood theatres. The top-billing goes to ‘Tales of Terror’ … Skip it, if possible, and don’t miss ‘Burn Witch Burn’, tucked underneath … quite the most effective supernatural thriller since ‘Village of the Damned’ … For all we know it may be the best outright goose-pimpler dealing specifically with witchcraft since ‘I Walked with a Zombie’, with that superb Caribbean flavoring, way backin 1943.’ Burn Witch Burn was subsequently nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1963.

For unknown reasons, AIP felt the need to add a long audio preface to the film for its initial theatrical run in America. For a full 2-and-a-half minutes over a black screen, the audience heard a spooky introduction full of dread and incantations. It is actually a marvelous bit, delivered by ubiquitous 1960s voice talent Paul Frees, who is summoning his best Orson Welles takeoff. It begins, “Ladies and gentlemen: The motion picture you are about to see contains an evil spell, as used by practitioners of witchcraft for centuries. Even today, in many parts of the world, people practice black magic and witchcraft…” At this point the announcement prepares the viewer for some of the totems that will soon be on view in the movie by mentioning “charms, amulets, voodoo candles, grave dirt [and] locks of hair.” Then Frees shifts into high gear: “I am about to dispel all evil spirits that may radiate from the screen during this performance,” as he proceeds to recite some mystic gobbledygook. Given that AIP’s only outlay was a fee for the considerable talents of Frees, they no doubt achieved a bit of low-rent William Castle-style ballyhoo with this stunt.


Sidney Hayers

Julian Wintle
Leslie Parkyn

Samuel Z. Arkoff
Albert Fennell
Nat Cohen
Stuart Levy

Charles Beaumont
Richard Matheson
George Baxt

Based on
Conjure Wife
by Fritz Leiber

Peter Wyngarde – Norman Taylor
Janet Blair – Tansy Taylor
Margaret Johnston – Flora Carr
Anthony Nicholls – Harvey Sawtelle
Colin Gordon – Lindsay Carr
Kathleen Byron – Evelyn Sawtelle
Reginald Beckwith – Harold Gunnison

The Dark Side#181
Cinefantastique v03n02

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