3 out of 5 stars

Night of the Eagle is a British horror classic that has, all too often, been dismissed as a knock-off of Night of the Demon (1957). Though unfair, the comparison is unavoidable as both films are supernatural mysteries, beautifully shot in black-and-white, relying on atmosphere and suspense rather than jump scares. Both feature a staunchly rational academic whose beliefs are shaken to their core, and they share a certain quintessential Britishness despite having an American in a leading role. So, this sympathetically restored print on Blu-ray and DVD from StudioCanal presents an opportunity for many to reassess Night of the Eagle (known as Burn, Witch, Burn in the US) on its own merits and will be welcomed by a devoted cult following that has gathered over the half-century since its initial release, mainly due to its television airings in late-night movie slots.

Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) teaches psychology at Hempnell Medical College, where he emphatically categorises belief in any aspect of the supernatural as “a morbid desire to escape from reality.” This might explain why he’s so concerned when he discovers that his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), has been concealing all sorts of charms—dead spiders, graveyard dirt, animal bones, dried botanicals—around their otherwise idyllic suburban home. Does this mean she wants to escape the reality of their new life in a new town and what he’d believed to be a happy marriage?

We soon learn that they met on a field trip to Jamaica during which Tansy studied the conjure magic of a voodoo practitioner. This implies that she, too, may have been an academic before giving up her career to support her seemingly successful husband. As a rational man, Norman fears for his wife’s sanity and insists that Tansy give up such superstitions. They argue, but in a way that demonstrates their genuine love and respect for each other as she explains that the charms are to protect against psychic attack from a malicious person or persons in their circle of acquaintances.

Indeed, there’s a palpable tension in the air during one of their weekly bridge nights with three other couples who have connections to the College. Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston), in particular, drops barbed comments about underhandedness and hypnotism, which her husband, Lindsay (Colin Gordon), counters with the remark that one can hypnotise the player, but not the cards.

Margaret Johnston, a seasoned stage actress who also appeared in television plays and dramas, is perfectly cast here as the increasingly desperate and dastardly Flora. She delivers an unrestrained performance, complete with eyebrow-undulating and lip-twitching. Her screen presence is captivating, even when she’s in the blurry background.

Colin Gordon is one of many stalwarts of British television spotted in the supporting cast. Some viewers may recognise him from appearances in Z Cars (1962-1978), Doctor Who’s “The Faceless Ones” (1967), or perhaps even an episode of Department S (1969-1970). I instantly recognised him as Number Two from a few episodes of cult favourite The Prisoner (1967-78)—a role that Peter Wyngarde would also play in the episode “Checkmate.”

Norman refuses to accept that his wife’s protective spells have enabled his swift rise through the ranks and insists that Tansy burn her regalia. Under protest, she complies, but as she disposes of the charms in the fire, a photograph of Norman is inadvertently burnt along with the other items. Sure enough, from that point onwards, his luck takes an abrupt turn for the worse.

The next day, he narrowly avoids being struck by a speeding lorry, and his top-achieving student, Margaret (Judith Stott), accuses him of coercion and rape. Her jealous classmate, Fred (Bill Mitchell), threatens him with a revolver.

Norman just about manages to deal with these situations. It seems the underlying respect that the distraught Margaret has for her tutor breaks through, and when confronted, she contradicts her own story, providing an alibi for him at the time of the alleged assault. Norman’s wartime service means he can calmly disarm and subdue the hot-headed Fred.

What these events indicate is that whoever may be ill-wishing Norman is not above manipulating the young and impressionable to achieve their ends. It also illustrates that rational methods—knowledge of psychology and military training—are practical defences against what Norman begins to suspect may be forms of hypnosis. However, things are set to escalate as the slow-build suspense of the first act starts to pay off with a breakdown of what he accepts as reality until he finds himself in a waking nightmare.

Peter Wyngarde is excellent in his only big-screen starring role as an intelligent man of action gradually coming to terms with the idea that his deep-seated beliefs may be wrong. He handles the transition from the traditional leading man through what is effectively a reversal of the gendered tropes of the day, where he ends up in peril as a terrified, trembling wreck. It was this aspect that attracted him to the screenplay. He relished the opportunity to show authentic male vulnerability and fear, and he does so consummately.

A relative newcomer at the time, Wyngarde had only a handful of big-screen credits to his name. These included his non-speaking role as Peter Quint in The Innocents (1960), another taut and unsettling British supernatural mystery. However, he remains best known for his television role as Jason King in Department S and its sequel, simply titled Jason King (1971-72). These shows made him a household name and one of the most recognisable British celebrities of the 1970s. (Jason even became a popular name for baby boys born in that era.)

Director Sidney Hayers maintains tight control over the pacing. After handling the interpersonal dynamics of the first half with a touch of Hitchcockian melodrama, he seamlessly segues into a build-up and final release of tension. Hayers had already demonstrated an understanding of suspense and set pieces with his proto-giallo thriller Circus of Horrors (1960). In this film, he introduced dramatic camera angles and exploited the lurid Eastman Colour cinematography of the great Douglas Slocombe. This time around, he chose to return to the noir style, shooting in black-and-white and working with experienced cinematographer Reginald Wyer. Night of the Eagle was a late entry in Wyer’s career, which spanned four decades.

At times, the use of increasingly dynamic angles borders on the experimental. Crane shots position the viewer as an all-seeing entity and super-wide-angle lenses effectively distort reality. This is particularly effective in a sequence when Tansy is recovering at their isolated beach house at Cape Cornwall. As she awakens, the faces of the doctor (Norman Bird) and her husband appear distorted and elongated, their features becoming quite aquiline.

Norman Bird is another hardworking British character actor who also appeared in classic television series such as Z Cars and Department S. However, for me, he was most familiar from his brief but memorable cameo in The Medusa Touch (1978) as the father of John Morlar (Richard Burton). Incidentally, on the strength of his performance as Norman Taylor, Wyngarde was hailed as “a new Burton” by some reviewers in the US.

The visual inventiveness and moody suburban gothic atmosphere of Night of the Eagle are repeatedly shattered by strident sound cues that telegraph moments intended to shock the audience. For the most part, William Alwyn’s orchestral score works very well in tandem with some creative sound design. However, perhaps due to unsympathetic post-production, it becomes so overbearing at times that it detracts from the performances and, rather than enhancing any tension, diffuses it.

Probably the most effective scene, in terms of suspense, is when Norman relinquishes his steadfast faith in the scientific, turning to superstition in an attempt to save Tansy, who has offered her life in place of his. In near silence, he performs a ritual according to her instructions, involving the lighting of four candles set around her picture in the crypt of a deserted church. Instead of blaring music, we hear only his ragged breathing, sobs, and the striking of matches. I truly believe that with a different soundtrack, Night of the Eagle would be considered a classic to rival the likes of Night of the Demon, The Innocents, or The Haunting (1963). The church, its overgrown cemetery, and its crypt are cleverly constructed sets designed by art director Jack Shampan, who also worked with Sidney Hayers on Circus of Horrors.

Not only is Night of the Eagle hugely entertaining, but it also has a stimulating socio-political subtext that tackles pertinent issues of its time. It foreshadows the second-wave feminism that was about to enter mainstream discourse with Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, which explored the casual, institutionalised discrimination against women and inspired campaigns for equal rights and equal pay.

The script references the war, reminding us that while the nation’s men were away fighting, women stepped into traditionally male roles such as factory and farm work. Women had proven themselves completely capable, yet when the war was over, they were expected to return to being housewives and homemakers so men could resume work. The support of women donating their time and talents for free in the home was considered essential to help ramp up post-war productivity.

Night of the Eagle embodies the adage that ‘behind every great man, there is a great woman,’ originally coined in the late Victorian era. This recognised that the success of many politicians and businessmen was indeed facilitated by a woman who dealt with the day-to-day requirements of living–home economics, housekeeping, cooking, cleaning, washing, and so on—alongside all the duties of motherhood. Ironically, such acknowledgement was pretty much all the recognition homemakers got until the suffragettes were spurred on to launch their campaigns for women’s rights.

Norman’s notions of masculinity are challenged by the suggestion that his success wasn’t solely down to his brilliance and acumen and that Tansy somehow shared the credit. The secret knowledge of witchcraft becomes a metaphor for both the unpaid, hidden work of women and male insecurity—some might say paranoia—centring on the notion of secret feminine knowledge, even otherness, possessed by women. It could be argued that this very insecurity was what drove the historical persecution of women in the medieval witch trials and remains embedded deep within the dogma of many major religions to this day. Perhaps Norman was right to hide Tansy’s practice of the occult, after all. As the wife of a psychology professor, how would that reflect on his career? Besides, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 wasn’t repealed until 1951, just ten years prior, so he could convince himself he was acting as her protector.

Scriptwriting duties were split between Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, who had both cut their teeth writing for the booming science fiction short story market of the 1950s in magazines such as Amazing Stories and Galaxy. They had both contributed numerous scripts for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and had written screenplays for Roger Corman’s excellent Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. At the time, Matheson was best known for writing The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) but would go on to be one of the most prolific and respected genre novelists and writers of original screenplays. He’s probably best remembered for his novel I Am Legend, filmed as The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), I Am Omega (2007), and I Am Legend (2007)—and for scripting another supernatural cult classic, The Legend of Hell House (1973).

Tragically, Charles Beaumont’s career was cut short by an early death due to a degenerative brain disease. Among his many original screenplays, perhaps a standout was George Pal’s wonderfully imaginative fantasy film, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). He and Richard Matheson were friends who shared an admiration for Fritz Leiber’s already well-respected 1952 novel, Conjure Wife, an expansion of an earlier short story published in the April 1943 issue of the anthology periodical, Unknown Worlds. The story had already been adapted for the screen as Weird Woman (1944), starring Lon Chaney Jr., and presented under the banner of the Inner Sanctum series of B-movies from Universal.

Taking the initiative, they decided to write their own new and improved adaptation. In what seems to have been an unusual approach, Matheson adapted the first half of the novel while Beaumont worked on the second, only stitching the script together once they were happy with their solo-written sections. This remains evident in the finished film, with a marked shift in pace and atmosphere for the third act. As both had contracts with American International Pictures, they submitted their script there, but it was ultimately passed on to British B-movie production company International Artists.

The distribution deal came with the stipulation of an American lead, played by Janet Blair. This was a departure for the actress, known for musicals and comedies like Tonight and Every Night (1945) where she appeared alongside Rita Hayworth, although she had also starred in the crime thriller I Love Trouble (1948), swashbuckler The Black Arrow (1948), and comedy The Fuller Brush Man (1948). Tiring of turning down similar or unchallenging roles, she semi-retired from cinema, keeping her hand in television dramas throughout the 1950s, until the script for Night of the Eagle lured her back to the big screen.

Night of the Eagle is so very British that the US audience had to be offered a different version. Some cuts included an additional scene in the third act where Flora turns up in person to menace Tansy, just in case American viewers were too slow on the uptake to grasp the psychic elements. Alongside free sachets of protective powders (actually plain salt) being handed out at screenings in the US, a tacky prologue was also added. It was an incantation intended to protect the audience from the evil magic that would supposedly radiate from the screen during the film. It’s rather silly and complete nonsense, but if one imagines hearing it in a completely dark cinema it might have helped create a sense of foreboding to carry the viewer through the slow-burning first act. The uncredited narrator was Paul Frees, a very busy voice actor who had voiced hundreds of cartoon characters, dubbed the US versions of Godzilla films, provided the alien voices for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) and would go on to be the chillingly effective voice of the supercomputer in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).

The legacy of Night of the Eagle is clear in several supernatural thrillers, including some heavy references in Haunted (1995) with Aidan Quinn playing the same rational academic stereotype in an adaptation of James Herbert’s 1988 novel of the same name. And I can’t help thinking of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) in which Alida Valli as the German dance mistress appears to be mimicking Margaret Johnston’s show-stealing performance as Flora—right down to the limp, tight sadistic grin, and hairstyle—and the similarities between the sequences involving stone eagles coming to life are undeniable.

UK | 1962 | 87 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Burn Witch, Burn: Anna Bogutskaya on Night of the Eagle. In a thoughtful and well-reasoned 25-minute video essay, Bogutskaya analyses the dynamics between the characters of Norman and Tansy. She also examines what was then an unusual portrayal of magic, introducing Caribbean-born ‘conjure magic’ which is pitted against a blend of traditional English ‘hocus-pocus’ and pseudo-psychological techniques that blur the lines between superstition and science. Additionally, she discusses the narrative from a feminist perspective, positing that cinema often portrays the occult as something feminine that must be denied yet feared by male protagonists. Bogutskaya argues that here, Wyngarde’s dishevelled masculinity makes for a refreshing change, with the man becoming the imperilled person needing the protection of a woman, creating an intriguing study of victimhood. Finally, she looks at the legacy of Night of the Demon in relation to later suburban gothic films, including those by David Lynch, Wes Craven, and Joe Dante.
  • Archival 25-minute interview with Peter Wyngarde. In which he recounts various anecdotes from around the time he made Night of the Demon, including turning down the script and then phoning his agent back after seeing a Bristol Motors car he coveted, demanding its price as his fee for the film. He was very pleased with the outcome and his performance. He recalls working with Janet Blair and shares some behind-the-scenes titbits, including having meat pinned to his back while an eagle chased him. He also provides a brief overview of his career up to his appearance as Klytus in Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980).
  • US Theatrical Trailer.
  • UK Theatrical Trailer.
  • US Alternate Opening Credits.
  • Four art cards.
  • Archival Audio Commentary with screenwriter Richard Matheson. This was originally recorded for the 1995 LaserDisc release and is of great interest to those interested in the writing process for novels and screenplays. Matheson wasn’t present during production, so there’s not much in the way of making-of information, and he can only comment on what we see on screen. He discusses the differences between the book and his script, and how the ending in particular was simplified and changed significantly to make it more practical and visually impactful. He also discusses his career and compares his different approaches to genre and format. He takes us back to his days writing for pulp magazines and talks about his development as a writer, admitting to making all the mistakes any young writer makes—except he never wrote a story “about a couple who land on a planet and end up being Adam and Eve!”
  • Behind-the-scenes stills gallery.
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Cast & Crew

director: Sidney Hayers.
writers: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson & George Baxt (based on the novel ‘Conjure Wife’ by Fritz Leiber).
starring: Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Kathleen Byron, Reginald Beckwith & Judith Stott.