The premise of Fritz Leiber’s terrific supernatural thriller Conjure Wife (1943) is one to rank alongside William Burrough’s iffier assertions about women being “the principal reservoir of the alien virus parasite” – and a lot more fun. It’s that all women are witches, and covertly working to further the interests of their husbands in a small New England college town. It’s a brilliant read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
It also, incidentally, introduced me to the music of Alexander Scriabin via his Black Mass sonata.
Happily, Sidney Hayers’ 1962 film (known in the U.S. as Burn, Witch, Burn!) is just as good as Leiber’s novel. The cracking screenplay was written by Charles Beaumont, who died of “a mysterious brain disease” at the tragically early age of 38. (Beaumont’s own stories are well worth reading; Dean R. Koontz called him “one of the seminal influences on writers of the fantastic and macabre.”) Hayers also directed Circus of Horrors (1960) and Payroll (1961), a shamefully underappreciated British hardboiled crime thriller starring Michael Craig and Billie Whitelaw, as well as episodes of many popular TV shows, including The Persuaders!, Magnum, P.I., and The A-Team.
Peter Wyngarde (who, rumour has it, insisted on wearing such tight-fitting trousers that he frequently had to be filmed from the waist up) plays psychology professor Norman Taylor, who is discombobulated to find his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been routinely practising witchcraft to further his career and protect him from the envious machinations of the other campus wives, led by the malicious Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston, wonderful). Being a pig-headed rationalist, he declares it all superstitious nonsense, insists she cease forthwith, and destroys all the charms and hoodoo knick-knacks she has hidden around the house.
Big mistake. Almost immediately, things start to go horribly wrong.
Of course, no witch worth her salt is without her feline familiar. When Norman arrives home after a hard day on campus, he is greeted by a handsome black puss. Later, the cat watches from a comfy armchair as he burns Tansy’s magic charms, and lets out a yowl, as if warning of the catastrophes to come.