Horror does not have a great track record of respecting women. Some of the most revered titles hinge themselves on putting a female lead through serious emotional, physical, and psychological stress. If the character is actually three dimensional with a reason for existing beyond the torment, their horror can rise above pretty girl in peril into something worthwhile. Sadly, that’s not what usually happens in a horror film. Your enjoyment can be hindered by the creative team’s refusal to let female characters drive action and be grounded in reality.
Burn, Witch, Burn, the 1962 film adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s masterful novel The Conjure Wife, takes that fault to the next level: misogyny. What was written to be an exploration of logic versus faith in the context of ancient beliefs (namely, witchcraft) turns into 90 minutes of a big strong man telling women they’re foolish, hysterical, and living in a fantasy world for not agreeing with his perception of reality.
This approach to the material is so tonally wrong for the story it’s disturbing. In Fritz Lieber’s novel, Norman Taylor is a young professor at a university. All of his friends are professors and they all have strong, intelligent wives who also work at the university. The one exception is his wife, Tansey, who is so put off by the passive aggressive and power hungry wives that she chooses not to pursue work in academia. Norman’s thesis is on the ability of folklore and paranormal beliefs to create a sense of hypnosis in the believers. His wife’s secrets give him the chance to test his theory when he discovers a strange good luck charm hidden in their bedroom. What follows is a tightly wound suspense story where a man is forced to reconsider his life’s work at the hands of overwhelming evidence against him.
In the film version, Norman Taylor is a young professor at a university. He has one close friend, another professor, and three other colleagues on campus: the friend’s wife and two other professors. All three of his male colleague’s wives are shrewish women complaining nonstop about how their husbands are being overlooked for promotions. Norman’s wife Tansey avoids the drama by going to their summer cottage or staying home and tending to the house. After discovering his wife has alleged magical charms all over the house, he talks down to her like a naughty two year old (or perhaps a willful dog who refuses to be house-trained) until she admits that she’s foolish and gives up her beliefs.
That tonal difference is but the start of Burn, Witch, Burn‘s myriad of problems. Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson’s adaptation of The Conjure Wife abandons every device that makes the novel so shocking. There is no slow build of supernatural occurrences and misfortunes; they all happen one after the other with immediate dismissal from Norman. The weekly bridge game with the professors and wives that sets a rhythm to the story and allows for a spectacular conclusion is used but once. It’s the last time you see half of the people in the room and only exists to set up a red herring not mentioned again until the final ten minutes of the film.
Any monstrosity that could cause terror is grounded in an inappropriate naturalism. Any act of intentional cruelty is softened unless it’s aimed at a woman. Psychological terror is not permitted as men only respond to real physical stimuli. And any attempt to create a genuine sense of danger or suspense is mitigated by the poor choice to make Norman Taylor an alpha-male misogynist who needs no assistance at all to get and keep what he wants in life.
A film adaptation of a novel does not need to be an exact transfer from page to screen. However, if you’re choosing to adapt a novel that builds a world of false respect and merit-based advancement (women included), you’re foolish to shift the gender balance and treat women as silly little people who don’t understand how the real world works. Arrogance, not misogyny, is Norman Taylor’s fatal flaw and Burn, Witch, Burn suffers for not punishing either throughout the entire running time. There can be no redemption without failure and suspense cannot exist when the lead is too stubborn to even acknowledge that anything bad is happening.
This one’s streaming on Netflix right now. I honestly recommend watching it so you can see one of the most monumentally idiotic shifts in tone I’ve ever encountered on film. It happens a few scenes in when Norman confronts Tansy about her collection. Until that point, the film is perfectly inline with the tone of the novel. Then–BAM! Big strong man must train small stupid wife to believe the right things. Disgusting. And it only gets worse from there.