Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Microreview [film]: Burn, Witch, Burn

The Meat

A few months ago, I reviewed Curse of the Demon, which holds up quite well as a "good" horror movie (as opposed to "campy" or "so-bad-it's-good"), especially since it was made in 1958. It's hard for me to talk about 1962's Burn, Witch, Burn without invoking (see what I did there?) the earlier film, because they're very much kindred in their storytelling, influences, and overall effect.

College professor Norman Taylor has a lot going for him at the beginning of Burn, Witch, Burn -- he's young, with a nice house and beautiful wife, Tansy, he's managed to avoid entangling himself in the ugly campus politics that seem to have ensnared so many of his colleagues, and it looks like he might be in line to be named department chair. He teaches philosophy or medieval superstition, or one of those subjects that is bound to get somebody cursed by demons in horror movies. And guess what happens? He discovers his wife keeps a dead spider as a talisman, and then begins to go hunting through the house, only to discover a veritable compounding pharmacy of witchery-related odds and ends. Tansy confesses that she's been practicing witchcraft to protect him and provide blessings for his career, but Norman makes her promise to cut that malarkey out. After all, witchcraft is just a bunch of malarkey. Right?


Well, you'll have to watch the rest of the movie to find out, but needless to say Norman hits a patch of bad luck after he makes Tansy burn all of her eyes of newt and graveyard dirt and whatnot. Where Curse of the Demon lets you know the score right away, showing you the demon in the opening scene, Burn, Witch, Burn teases out information so the audience accompanies the movie's hero on his journey of discovery, just as in the dark as he is, just as overwhelmed by events and wondering at their meaning. It's hard to imagine that this film wasn't heavily influenced by both Curse of the Demon and that film's direct influences such as the Val Lewton films that helped launch the career of Demon's director Jacques Tourneur. While I find Curse of the Demon the more memorable of the two films, it isn't by much.

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for building the film around a believably honest love story between Norman and Tansy; +1 for legendary writer Richard Matheson's involvement; +1 for being a spiritual bridge for thoughtful horror movies, connecting earlier films like Curse of the Demon and later ones like Rosemary's Baby

Penalties: -1 for some confusion about what exactly's going on with a reel-to-reel tape that seems pretty important; -1 for missing the mark in both of its titles -- the American Burn, Witch, Burn led me to expect a very different film, and the original British Night of the Eagle sounds like a movie about a World War II mission or a father-son bonding adventure.

Cult Film Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]