Burn, Witch, Burn / Night of the Eagle (1962) ****

That rare event, a piece of cinematic alchemy. None of the principals had any particular form yet it all comes together quite splendidly.

Director Sidney Hayers was a journeyman, for every Circus of Horrors (1960) or Southern Star (1969) there was Cliff Richard vehicle  Finders Keepers (1966) or Three Hats for Lisa (1965) starring pop star Joe Brown. Apart from The Innocents (1961), Peter Wyngarde did not make another movie for nearly two decades and fame eluded him until he grew one of television’s most iconic moustaches for Department S (1969).

Janet Blair was attempting to revive a moribund career that had stopped dead with The Fuller Brush Man (1948). Ditto Margaret Johnston, nothing since Touch and Go (1955).

More prominent names were attached to the script: Richard Matheson had made B-movie waves with The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Charles Beaumont for The Premature Burial (1962). But the script itself, an adaptation of Fritz Lieber Jr.’s novel Conjure, Wife, was not in itself extraordinary.

Instead, it’s a prime example of what a director can bring to material. It begins with credits on one side of the screen and a wide-open eye on the other. Scenes brim with suspense yet often we have no idea what’s going on and with only music to guide us are sucked into a devilish plot. Most of the time Hayers concentrates on eyes, reaction, rather than lengthy scenes of dialog.

The fact that Hollywood ignored the depth of Wyngarde’s performance seems beyond belief. And you might be interested to know it was one of the earliest feminist pictures, the wife in control, acting as protector for the husband.

Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a handsome successful college professor in the running for promotion. While he locks horns with lazy pupil Fred (Bill Mitchell), he charms others to the point of infatuation, witness Margaret (Judith Stott). But after a bridge party at their home his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) becomes obsessed with finding something. Upstairs, by accident Norman comes across a dead spider that she claims is a good luck charm from a holiday in Jamaica.

Eventually, while he’s asleep, she finds what she’s looking for, hidden in a lampshade and burns it. Later, a suspicious Norman uncovers all sorts of strange objects. All three scenes of the characters looking are filled with suspense and masterpieces if you like of how to use a camera and hook an audience, no explanation given, just a background of increasingly ominous music.

Confronted, Tansy admits she is a witch, that decision triggered by an incident in which her husband nearly died. Her spells, she claims, have brought him not just good luck, but protected him from bad sorcery, his success not just down to his charm. He insists on burning all her material, including, to her horror, a locket with his picture. And no time is spent, a la The Devil Rides Out (1968), in explaining the intricacies of the occult.

From then on his life turns sour. He is nearly run over by a van. Fred makes a complaint against him and then comes after him with a gun, Margaret claims he raped her. Gradually, Norman, an atheist where the Devil is concerned, believing that neurosis causes the wrong kind of faith, comes to realise he is a victim.

They are both up against someone more powerful. Some of the events have a supernatural tinge – doors that swing open in a storm, Tansy praying to “let me die in his place” – but others appear severe accentuations of the normal, a loudspeaker blaring out his voice from a tape recording over the college grounds, an eagle that hunts him down, big enough (in one astonishing scene) to break through a door, and with a 9ft wing span appearing enormous in a corridor.

The curse plays out to a fabulous end, a tremendous finale, full of human drama, emotions ripped apart, confrontation, Norman’s failed schemes to save his wife.

To say I was mesmerised was an under-statement. Just a brilliantly-done little picture with cracking direction and excellent acting all round.

Not only is the picture ripe for reassessment you would have thought it was well worth a remake.

Night of the Blood Monster / The Bloody Judge (1969) ***

Handsomely mounted historical drama set in 17th century England on the brink of revolution  meets Son of Witchfinder General. An uprising headed by the Duke of Monmouth in the south-west threatens to overthrow King James II. Involved in the plot are Harry Selton (Hans Hass), son of suspected agitator Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), whose beloved Mary Gray (Maria Rohm) is in the sights of Judge Jeffreys (Christopher Lee) after he has condemned her sister Alicia (Margaret Lee) to be burned as a witch.

The minute witchcraft enters the equation the narrative thrust is constantly interrupted by scenes of nudity, blood and torture, mostly involving women, but actually the film does attempt to cover the rebellion and its notorious aftermath when hundreds of rebels were executed, the “Bloody Assizes” with “Bloody Judge” Jeffreys to the fore. Conflating witchcraft with a genuine historical episode does not work very well and unlike Witchfinder General (1968), the murder of innocent women is more of a sideshow, despite the brutality involved, and you get the impression the story has been hijacked to accommodate supposed witch Mary in the interests of adding titillation.

Even as the story of the rebellion unfolds, the threat to the crown spelled out, the origins of the revolt mostly made clear (Monmouth being the illegitimate son of Charles II, and nephew to James II) although the sectarianism behind the rebellion is ignored, the narrative keeps jumping back to the witch element. Jeffreys connects the parallel narratives, hunting down rebels and witches, while handling most of the exposition. Given the budget, there’s a surprisingly good battle sequence, cavalry charging cannon. Given his later reputation, Jeffreys also reflects on the meaning of justice.

And while there are some camp moments – Jeffreys playing the organ while attired in grand robes, dancing girls sticking pins in his effigy – the twists and turns (Mary captured and rescued, captured again)  are effective enough. Despite the copious nudity, there a couple of low-key love scenes and, oddly enough, a touching moment when Mary licks the blood from a dead prisoner. And for all the blood, that is effect rather than cause, nothing too gory.

But with the powerful all-mighty, and investigators able to plant evidence, and the innocent forced into immoral acts to save their loved ones, lawlessness is apparently next to godliness. But in reality the wicked did not get away with their crimes so various villains get their come-uppance.

Most peculiar sight is Christopher Lee in a love scene where he is not about to sink his incisors into a neck. Occasionally, the film bursts into German with English subtitles – as if various versions were pillaged to produce this copy – or has lines like “you turn me on.”

However, fans of Spanish cult director Jess Franco (The Girl from Rio) who expected something more along the lines of 99 Women (1969) and Venus in Furs (1969) may be disappointed that he spends so much time on the historical elements and less on the random T&A. You might not be surprised to learn of the involvement of ubiquitous producer Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967).

The Crimson Cult/ Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) ***

Horror is a small world and at any moment you are likely to bump into stars of the caliber of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele – or in this picture all three. Investigating his missing brother Peter sends antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) to a remote country mansion where he encounters owner Morley (Christopher Lee), his seductive niece Eve (Virginia Weatherall), the wheelchair-bound authority on witchcraft Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff), deaf mute Elder (Michael Gough) and a centuries-old mystery.

Morley can legitimately deny that Peter has ever set foot on the premises since it was common for the brother to adopt an alias when seeking out significant antiques. By the time Robert amasses sufficient clues to challenge Morley on this particular issue, it appears that further ideas of more sinister goings-on may be illusory. On his first night Robert observes an annual celebration of the Black Witch but although an effigy is burned this festival appears to have more to do with the innocent consumption of alcohol and heady bouts of sex than satanism.

Thanks to career reinvigoration after Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets” (1967)
Boris Karloff gained top billing in the British release.

And after a while, Robert indulges in carnal delight with Eve. However, he is plagued by a nightmare that involves a grotesque trial by a jury wearing animal heads. Gradually, he learns that Morley, meanwhile, is such a congenial host, and his niece delightful and sybaritic company, that the finger of suspicion points at Elder, who does take a pot shot at Robert, and the professor who has a collection of instruments of torture.

Were it not for veteran director Vernon Sewell (Urge to Kill, 1960) beginning proceedings with some kind of black mass complete with floggings and female sacrificial victim, the audience might have been kept in greater suspense. As it is, the non-violent annual celebration throws us off the scent as does the seduction of Eve and the prospect that Robert’s nightmare is little more than psychedelic hallucination. The denouement is something of a surprise. The ritualistic aspects of the picture are well done and given this is a Tigon film rather than Hammer you can expect harsher treatment of the S&M element, flagellation delivered by women, especially for the period.  

In the U.S. – where it was shown both as “The Crimson Cult” and “The Crimson Altar” – Christopher Lee was accorded prime billing status.

The eerie atmosphere and well-staged witchcraft scenes are a plus, but, despite the involvement of a handful of horror gods, the movie’s reliance on lesser players to drive the narrative is a minus. Lee, Karloff and Steele (though in a more minor role) are all excellent as is the demented Michael Gough but Mark Eden (Attack on the Iron Coast, 1968) is too lightweight to carry the picture although Virginia Wetherall in her first big part suggests more promise.  More of Lee, Karloff and Steele would have definitely added to the picture but since this type of film often requires the young and the innocent to take center stage that was not to be.

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