Peter Wyngarde plays Professor Norman Taylor, a professor at University on some subject I didn't catch (I assume sociology), who seems to have it all; a wonderful house, wonderful wife, students who admire him, and a career on the fast track at the university. Taylor is first seen as the movie opens, coolly deriding belief in the supernatural as a relief valve for unconscious anxieties and as a way for irrational people to try and handle things they can't understand, things that science could explain to them if they weren't so damn superstitious, etc., etc. As you know, in horror movies, this is equivalent to painting a big old bull's eye on your forehead and cheerfully passing around rifles and ammo.
Leiber's lovely twist is that this devoted rationalist has a superstitious wife. In fact, it comes out over the course of a weekend that Tansy (cool name, huh?) has been practicing fetish magic that she learned in Jamaica (where he had almost died in a terrible accident during their, uh, honeymoon, I think). Disappointed and apppalled, he insists that she destroy all her various fetishes of protection, items for spellcasting, etc. She tries to explain that there are forces trying to destroy them and that these fetishes are all that protect them, but acquiesces and lets them be destroyed because, hey, it's the 50's and she's a housewife.
Of course, after the husband destroys the fetishes, things start to go very wrong, very fast, and Taylor finds himself and his career beseiged by bad turns. In the end, he finds himself fighting to save the life of himself and Tansy from various curses and manipulations. Tansy, you see, isn't the only faculty wife who is a witch........ I'd like to read the novel now (I've got it around here somewhere) because whereas in the movie only Tansy and the mysterious cursor are witches, in the novel, all women are witches.
The real shame about this movie and the novel it's based on are that they aren't better known. Although no one else has ever seemed to mention it, it seems to me that this basic idea (guy finds out his wife is a witch, and his life is turned upside-down by her secret one) is obviously the inspiration for the TV series, Bewitched. Leiber's been dead for a couple of years now, but I assume that he died the way a lot of the sci-fi/fantasy greats have died, in general obscurity and probably near-poverty. Not that anybody knows Sol Saks, the guy who created Bewitched, either, but I can't help but think he may have had a little more money in the bank when he went than Fritz did.
The movie is quite good, very Val Lewtonish, and keeps its cards up its sleeve until the very end. It helps, I'm sure, that the script is Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, pretty much the driving force in decent horror works coming out of Hollywood through the 60's and early 70's. By not making all women witches, but rather just a pair, the movie is surely more palatable to many than the original plot, but it loses some of its extraordinary effectiveness as metaphor about the differences between men and women, and the secret lives of women in a dominantly male-oriented world (to say nothing of the satire of academia). I'm sure many people have noticed how some men's lives seems to improve immeasurably when they get married; "behind every great man is a great woman" and all that. But Burn, Witch, Burn is most effective in its first half when you see the cost of that; Janet Blair as Tansy does a great job of conveying carefully conveyed anxiety, cautiousness and fear. But before you fully find out what's going on, Tansy's anxiety seems to suggest something else; the feeling of anxiety, lonelinees and crushing responsibility that ground up many a housewife before women were able to move more strongly into the workplace.
Most women work now, even those who are married, and it may very well be past the point where Leiber's original idea could be conveyed convincingly, and for society and women in general, that's a good thing. So for better or worse, Burn, Witch, Burn is probably as close as we're going to get onscreen.
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