Thursday, January 06, 2011

Witching Hour

During my various trips through the horror blogosphere, I always half-expect to stumble across a press release for some new film version of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife. There are already three film versions of the book, so why not one more? But then, I think, what's the point? A Hollywood filmmaker would likely remove the delicious ambiguity of the story. Also, some of the story is rooted in the sexual politics of the mid-20th Century and, thankfully, the world has moved on a bit. (I'll get to that shortly). Besides, there's already a pretty good film version.

When I wrote my ridiculously long piece on Night/Curse of the Demon for Horror 101, I mentioned in passing that one of the films immediately influenced by Curse of the Demon was Sidney Hayer's 1962 version of Conjure Wife, Night of the Eagle (retitled Burn, Witch, Burn for American release, a title I actually prefer). Burn, Witch, Burn reworks the basic situation of Curse of the Demon, in which a hard core skeptic is confronted by the supernatural, but instead of being a retread, it acts as a kind of revision. In Curse of the Demon, the audience knows from the outset that the demon of the title is real. Burn, Witch, Burn makes no such concessions to the audience. I mean, the movie certainly trades on the audience's overall acceptance of the supernatural--a paying audience is there to see a horror movie, after all--but it remains on the fence for almost all of its running time. The appearance of the demon so early in Curse of the Demon was a mistake. Burn, Witch, Burn does not repeat it.

The story follows sociology professor Norman Taylor who begins the movie lecturing about the supernatural. The best charm against the supernatural, he tells his students, is to say "I do NOT believe." He writes it on his blackboard for emphasis. Later that night, Norman and his wife, Tansy, host a dinner party for some of their fellow faculty members, after which, Tansy seems very agitated. She searches the house frantically, eventually finding a charm hidden on a lamp. She burns it. Tansy, it seems, DOES believe in witchcraft and practices it herself. When Norman gets wind of this, he demands that she destroy all her charms and wards and live in the real world. Soon after, Norman is implicated in a scandal with one of his students. He successfully defends himself, but it's clear to him that he's embroiled in some variety of academic warfare against an unknown enemy. Meanwhile, Tansy becomes more and more unhinged. Slowly but surely, the events around him chip away at his rational exterior and he starts to believe in witchcraft. The film's most famous shot finds Norman backed against his black board, where "I do NOT believe" is still written, posed so that he obscures the word "NOT."

Director Sidney Hayers never made anything else in this movie's league, and one is tempted to use Burn, Witch, Burn as a kind of anti-auteurist example. Most of its virtues are derived from its screenplay by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Baxt, and, indeed, from the novel (though it significantly alters some of the novel's implications). I'm not going to do that, though. It would downplay Hayer's very significant contributions to the film. It's well-directed. It's certainly not visually anonymous. It's a film of fairly rich visual textures. Hayers was once an assistant to the Archers, and you can see some of The Archers' influence in the way Hayer's shoots his characters. Kathleen Byron, who plays a supporting character in this movie, once said of her performance in The Archers' Black Narcissus that lighting and make-up provided half of her performance. You could make an argument that that's the case in this movie, too. Certainly, the way she's lit contributes to the freaked-out creepiness of Margaret Johnston's character. Both Peter Wyngarde and Janet Blair are similarly defined by how they are shot, with Wyngarde's craggy face providing a host of shadowed possibilities for cinematographer Reginald Wyer. Hayers is working in an expressionistic mode in this film, and borrows freely from the film noir stylebook.

Apart from the film's dialectic between reason and superstition, the subtexts of the film are varied and interesting. At a basic level, this is a satire of academic warfare. Having witnessed this kind of thing first hand with my own English-teaching partner, I think the more violent version in Burn, Witch, Burn is hilarious. There's also an interesting conversation to be had about gender dynamics in this movie. On the one hand, the movie intimates that, competent though he may be, Norman Taylor's success is partly the result of the invisible hand of his wife. On the other, it suggests that the biggest obstacle to his success is his butch, man-hating, lesbian colleague. There's an unfortunate homophobia in this element of the film, but this film was made in 1962, so it's at the beginning of the conversation rather than the end. The subplot with Norman's student is troubling, too, given that it places a false rape accusation in the mouth of a conniving and hysterical woman. In some ways, this is a portrait of patriarchy under siege, and it uses then-current stereotypes about women who aren't submissive little wifeys as the besiegers. I wouldn't call this misogynist, really, but its gender politics are very much of its time and are correspondingly retrograde.

Regarding the film's main thesis, I can only approve of its embrace of skepticism. Oh, it plays the notes of the supernatural horror movie, sure, but when Norman backs against the blackboard, he doesn't erase his own skepticism. He only obscures it for a while. The film closes on the question: "Do you believe?" I know my answer.

Note: Netflix is currently streaming Burn, Witch, Burn. This is the first time I've ever seen the film in it's full aspect ratio. It makes up for the crappy print of Blood and Roses that they're streaming right now. Well, almost. Anyway, the movie's not on DVD in Region 1, but I know that some of the people who read my blog have multi-region DVD players, so here's a link to the Region 2 edition from Amazon US. Or you could just stream it, I guess.


Jonathan Gerard said...

Note that the Region 2 disc does not include the Orson Welles opening voiceover.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Jonathan.

That wouldn't bother me much. It's kind of goofy and it doesn't really suit the movie. The voice isn't Welles, by the way. It's Paul Frees.