Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sexual-Harassment Gargoyle

Burn, Witch, Burn (aka Night of the Eagle): adapted by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson from the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber; directed by Sidney Hayers; starring Peter Wyngarde (Norman Taylor), Janet Blair (Tansy Taylor), and Maragret Johnson (Flora Carr) (1962): It's an all-star writing team-up as genre greats Richard Matheson (Duel, Hell House, a lot of Twilight Zone episodes) and Charles Beaumont (a lot of Twilight Zone episodes) adapt Science-fiction-and-fantasy Grandmaster Fritz Leiber's terrific 1940's fantasy novel Conjure Wife for the big screen.

The action is moved to England and compressed in time, doing some violence to the original, but the result is still an enjoyable, fast-paced bit of modern horror-fantasy set in the cut-throat world of academia. Yes, academia. Professor Norman Taylor seems to have led a charmed life both personally and professionally. And he has. But he's about to find out the cost. And witchcraft is involved. And possibly Sexual-Harassment Panda.

Two bits of goofiness mar the very beginning and the very end, seemingly added by a nervous studio. But they're minor. This story of modern witchcraft has some real thrills and horrors awaiting, along with one pissed-off eagle-shaped gargoyle. The film-makers do a nice job of suggesting as much as possible, a necessity given the budget and visual effects limitations of the time. The most chilling scene relies on no visual effects whatsoever -- just Tarot cards, a match, and an increasingly panicked Norman Taylor.

My main beef with the movie would be that the scariest line of the novel -- and the events that flow forwards from it -- have been replaced here by a more conventional ending in which our protagonists are quite a bit less intelligent than they are in the book. Oh, well. Still a superior tale of magic and its discontents. Recommended.

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