Sidney Hayers was a journeyman director. His death earlier this year ended a career that spanned several decades. Most of his work was for series television, stretching from the original British “Avengers” series to “The A-Team” and “Remington Steele” to more recently “C15: The New Professionals” and “Space Precinct”. Hayers could have died as anonymously as many other directors who had slaved away for the small screen. He could have, save for this little masterpiece.
Fritz Leiber’s novel “Conjure Wife” had been filmed as “Weird Woman” in 1944 and as “Which Witch is Which?” in 1980. The best one came in 1962 from Hayers written by George Baxt, Charles Beaumont from “The Twilight Zone” and “One Step Beyond” and the legendary Richard Matheson.
In this version we meet Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) and his wife Tansy (Janet Blair). Norman appears to have everything – the wife, the house, the car, his youth, and the cushy university position. He seems to have everything BUT a belief in the supernatural. A professed skeptic, imagine his surprise when he finds Tansy has been performing witchcraft to further his career. Once Norman puts an end to her little hobby the weird stuff really begins. When the professor put a stop to his wife’s protection spells, he never thought to ask what they might need protection from. He’ll soon learn that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that someone is not out to get you.
There is no gore in this film; it’s shot in black and white. What it feels like is some long lost 90-minute episode of “The Twilight Zone”. Unlike the other two versions that devolve into comedy, camp, or just cheese, “Burn, Witch, Burn” maintains both its tone and the line of ambiguity about whether the witchcraft actually works. Wyngarde is fantastic in a finely nuanced performance. He comes off as a good person but flawed; he’s not always the nicest human being and with that ego comeuppance is assured.
Still, this is Hayers’ ship, and he steers it flawlessly. The film is never less than gripping, and past a certain point, you have no idea where this movie is going. With neither the budget nor the technology for flashy effects, the filmmakers had to fall back on quality acting, writing, directing, and editing. They succeeded. Hayers may have died with mostly a small-screen resume, but future generations will always be able to stumble upon this little classic to lead the way to his other work. That’s at least one more masterpiece than most people get.