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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Night of the Eagle (1963) review


Peter Wyngarde (Norman Taylor), Janet Blair (Tansy), Margaret Johnston (Flora Carr)

Directed by Sidney Hayers

The Short Version: This exceptional example of British horror about witchcraft benefits greatly from fine performances and a mounting tension that explodes during the scary and supernatural finale. It's one of the best, and seemingly least discussed films on the subject of the occult.

Norman Taylor is a psychology professor at Hempnell Medical College covering topics of superstitious beliefs throughout the ages. He later finds out his wife, Tansy, is secretly engaged in witchery after discovering various mystical paraphernalia about his home. She states that these objects are protection from those who wish him harm. Disbelieving, he forces her to burn her primitive magical accouterments. Immediately thereafter, terrible things begin to happen to Norman eventually forcing him to rethink his own rational beliefs. He comes to the terrible realization that someone he knows is a practitioner of black magic and that they fully intend on killing both him and his wife.

This strikingly well made British chiller is based on the novel, 'Conjure Wife' by Fritz Leiber. It benefits from a hauntingly taut script by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (and a third writer, George Baxt), both whom contributed their pens to classic episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Aside from some top tier talent working on the script, the director had previously helmed the trashy color film, CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960) a few years earlier. This was a stark contrast when compared to the meticulously handled B/W horror of NIGHT OF THE EAGLE which, apparently, was inspiration to Dario Argento for his SUSPIRIA (1977).

What makes Hayers film stand out above many others is that it isn't strictly a horror film, but also a psychological terror tale. It isn't until the last half that the supernatural elements take precedence. Norman Taylor is a pompous, yet logical man who believes in what is tangible and explainable through science. In his modern world, there's no room for oldeworld eccentricities and the primitive practices of frightened, uncivilized people. How totally shocked and taken aback he is when he discovers his wife dabbles in sorcery and wears talismans.

Rebuking her stance that his success and wealth are due to her protection through magic, Taylor nonetheless pushes Tansy to burn all her artifacts despite her insistent trepidation. By the end of the film, his previous declaration of "I do not believe" etched onto the chalkboard in his classroom is inadvertently changed to "I do believe" when he backs against the board out of fear when chased by a giant eagle during the finale.

Hayers movie bears similarities to other choice B/W demonic horror movies of the time such as Jacques Tourneur's NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) and John Llewellyn Moxey's CITY OF THE DEAD (1960). The former with its foreboding fear of the unknown and the tangible presence of evil in the form of a terrifying demonic beast parallels the giant eagle summoned through black magic in Hayers movie. The latter is similar in its structure and several characters, although Moxey's movie is more preoccupied with being drenched in eerie atmosphere than the densely plotted exposition of the Hayers picture.

Distributed in America through AIP under the more widely known aka of BURN, WITCH, BURN! (1963), that title is a line of dialog spoken late in the movie. It's also a line uttered in an energetic fashion by Christopher Lee in the previously mentioned CITY OF THE DEAD (1960). There's also some excellent lighting here that accentuates the peculiar and frequent sense of dread that culminates in a well shot and tense ending sequence wherein Taylor is accosted by a giant eagle from hell. Peter Wyngarde (he was Klytus in FLASH GORDON) is the lead among a cast of skeptics and mystics. He commands the screen as the protagonist and everyone else are quite mesmerizing in their portrayals.

Announced, but never released to DVD in America (as of this writing, anyway), it is available in Europe at least in a very nice looking package. This is a seldom discussed horror thriller that deserves far more recognition and a film that is one of the best films to deal with the subject of witchcraft and the occult.

This review is representative of the Italian Sinister Film R2 PAL DVD


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent review Brian, and that it hasnt generated more comment doesnt surprise me - this is a criminally underrated film, and lies in a semi-obscurity it doesnt deserve. The UK DVD released by Optimum is a decent (though devoid of extras) release that to the best of my knowledge presents the film in its correct aspect ratio. 'Night of the Eagle' takes itself and its audience very seriously and explores the occult in a thoughtful and mature manner. The dominance of matriarchal forces in line with the black arts does indeed foreshadow 'Suspiria'. I have to admit though, I prefer this to Argento's film.

Will Errickson said...

I'd love to see this--I read the Leiber book ages ago. But "Night of the Eagle"? Sounds like a spy movie.

venoms5 said...

@ Shaun: Actually, Shaun, I was almost certain you would comment on this one! I agree that's terribly underrated. The OAR on the Italian DVD is 1.85:1. I think that was the aspect ratio when it played on cable almost a decade ago. Is that right? It also has a stills gallery and an intro from Luigi Cozzi in Italian only. The Italian dubbed track sounds really rough, but there's English subs. The English track is quite robust and clear.

@ Will: I don't think you'll be disappointed with the film, Will. I first saw it on cable about 7 or 8 years ago under its more well known English title, BURN, WITCH, BURN. I had seen images of it in books for years and was anxious to finally see it. Had I seen it as a kid, I may not have appreciated it as much. If you liked NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957), this is very similar.

Will Errickson said...

I *do* like NIGHT OF THE DEMON very much, and that was the movie I thought of when I read your post.

Steve Miller said...

I love this movie. I was going to post a review of it (along with "Spider Baby") this week before a Life got in the way of my movie-watching time. Thank God I mostly pre-programmed by "31 Nights of Horror" posts this month. :)

I'll get back to them in November, I hope. I haven't watched "Burn, Witch, Burn!" in a long time. (BTW, I line up behind Shaun as far as considering this film superior to "Suspiria".)

venoms5 said...

I concur, Steve, great, great movie. By the way, say "Superior to SUSPIRIA" twelve times real fast!

Anonymous said...

Agree that NIGHT OF THE EAGLE is sadly underrated. I'll never forget the first time I saw it: it was during a blizzard at the 1993 World Horror Convention in Stamford, Connecticut, at which Matheson was the guest of honor. By that point I'd been corresponding with him for several years, and had already interviewed him for FILMFAX for the first time, but had never met him in person. That night, after I had dinner with the Mathesons and Peter Straub, he introduced a screening of the film, which I still think is one of his best. For further information about NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (, now on sale.

I Like Horror Movies said...

I completely forgot about Night of the Eagle since I could never locate it on R1. I am all in if it bears and resemblance at all to my favs CITY OF THE DEAD and NIGHT OF THE DEMON. Thanks for another great recommendation dude!

venoms5 said...

@Bradley: What a great story and a great movie!

@ Carl: It in-frequently turns up on cable under its US title of BURN, WITCH, BURN!. It was supposed to have come out on DVD from MGM last I heard. I assume their financial problems kept that from happening.

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