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Peter Wyngarde (Norman Taylor), Janet Blair (Tansy), Margaret Johnston (Flora Carr)
Directed by Sidney Hayers
The Short Version:This exceptional example of British horror about witchcraft benefits greatly from fine performances and a mounting tension that explodes during the scary and supernatural finale. It's one of the best, and seemingly least discussed films on the subject of the occult.
Norman Taylor is a psychology professor at Hempnell Medical College covering topics of superstitious beliefs throughout the ages. He later finds out his wife, Tansy, is secretly engaged in witchery after discovering various mystical paraphernalia about his home. She states that these objects are protection from those who wish him harm. Disbelieving, he forces her to burn her primitive magical accouterments. Immediately thereafter, terrible things begin to happen to Norman eventually forcing him to rethink his own rational beliefs. He comes to the terrible realization that someone he knows is a practitioner of black magic and that they fully intend on killing both him and his wife.
This strikingly well made British chiller is based on the novel, 'Conjure Wife' by Fritz Leiber. It benefits from a hauntingly taut script by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (and a third writer, George Baxt), both whom contributed their pens to classic episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Aside from some top tier talent working on the script, the director had previously helmed the trashy color film, CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960) a few years earlier. This was a stark contrast when compared to the meticulously handled B/W horror of NIGHT OF THE EAGLE which, apparently, was inspiration to Dario Argento for his SUSPIRIA (1977).
What makes Hayers film stand out above many others is that it isn't strictly a horror film, but also a psychological terror tale. It isn't until the last half that the supernatural elements take precedence. Norman Taylor is a pompous, yet logical man who believes in what is tangible and explainable through science. In his modern world, there's no room for oldeworld eccentricities and the primitive practices of frightened, uncivilized people. How totally shocked and taken aback he is when he discovers his wife dabbles in sorcery and wears talismans.
Rebuking her stance that his success and wealth are due to her protection through magic, Taylor nonetheless pushes Tansy to burn all her artifacts despite her insistent trepidation. By the end of the film, his previous declaration of "I do not believe" etched onto the chalkboard in his classroom is inadvertently changed to "I do believe" when he backs against the board out of fear when chased by a giant eagle during the finale.
Hayers movie bears similarities to other choice B/W demonic horror movies of the time such as Jacques Tourneur's NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) and John Llewellyn Moxey's CITY OF THE DEAD (1960). The former with its foreboding fear of the unknown and the tangible presence of evil in the form of a terrifying demonic beast parallels the giant eagle summoned through black magic in Hayers movie. The latter is similar in its structure and several characters, although Moxey's movie is more preoccupied with being drenched in eerie atmosphere than the densely plotted exposition of the Hayers picture.
Distributed in America through AIP under the more widely known aka of BURN, WITCH, BURN! (1963), that title is a line of dialog spoken late in the movie. It's also a line uttered in an energetic fashion by Christopher Lee in the previously mentioned CITY OF THE DEAD (1960). There's also some excellent lighting here that accentuates the peculiar and frequent sense of dread that culminates in a well shot and tense ending sequence wherein Taylor is accosted by a giant eagle from hell. Peter Wyngarde (he was Klytus in FLASH GORDON) is the lead among a cast of skeptics and mystics. He commands the screen as the protagonist and everyone else are quite mesmerizing in their portrayals.
Announced, but never released to DVD in America (as of this writing, anyway), it is available in Europe at least in a very nice looking package. This is a seldom discussed horror thriller that deserves far more recognition and a film that is one of the best films to deal with the subject of witchcraft and the occult.
This review is representative of the Italian Sinister Film R2 PAL DVD
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I've been a huge movie buff since childhood catching old horror and monster flicks on Shock Theater and kung fu movies at the drive-in during the late 70's and early 80's. I've had a long time fascination with, and appreciate all genres of fantastic cinema, good and bad. One fans cheese is another fans juicy steak. I like both equally and seldom find a film I truly dislike as I will find something of interest in just about anything. The bulk of the films or tv series' seen here are mostly from my childhood, or films I own in what has become an Amazing Colossal DVD collection.