REVIEW: Night of the Eagle

  • Released through Independent Artists
  • Country of Origin: Great Britain
  • Duration: 87 minutes
  • Format: Black and White
  • Released: April 1962
  • Certificate: 15 (UK)

Character: Professor Norman Taylor

SCREAM

Sociology professor Norman Taylor seems fortunate indeed. He has a smart, beautiful wife, Tansy, who helps him with his research. They share a pleasant house, flashy sports car and well-appointed coastal cottage. He is popular with his students at Hempnell College, respected by his academic colleagues and acknowledged as a front-runner for the college’s chair in sociology. He does not realise that he and Tansy are bitterly resented and envied by his colleagues’ wives, especially Evelyn Santelle and Hilda Gunnison. Only the crippled Flora Carr, who works at the college with her husband Lindsay, seems to take a more charitable view.

Norman’s pleasant complacency is disrupted when he discovers that Tansy has been practising witchcraft. Her belief in magic originates from a field trip to Jamaica two years’ before, when they became acquainted with a warlock who succeeded in bringing a young girl back from the dead, albeit at the cost of her mother’s life. True to his almost religious faith in rationalism, Norman insists that Tansy burn all his magical paraphernalia, despite his wife’s fearful objections. She warns him that they are the targets of malicious spells cast by someone at the college.

That evening Norman receives an amorous phone call from an infatuated female student, Margaret, who subsequently accuses him of raping her. Bill, her distraught boyfriend, threatens him with a gun. Norman easily disarms Bill and the rape accusation is soon proved to be false, but Norman’s problems continue. When he plays an audiotape of one of his lectures received in the mail, it carries a strange distortion that seems to summon something to his house. Tansy stops the tape, but the strange throbbing sound resumes when Norman answers the phone. His wife disconnects the call just in time to prevent catastrophe. Norman attributes Tansy’s fear to an over-active imagination.

Realising that she will never persuade Norman of the danger they face, Tansy gets him drunk and performs a ritual that substitutes her life for his. The next morning he wakes to find her gone, but learns from Hilda that his wife is on her way by bus to their coastal cottage. A recording left by Tansy makes it clear she plans to sacrifice herself in his place. Although he catches up with the bus carrying Tansy, a near-collision with a truck delays him. When he eventually reaches the cottage, there is no sign of Tansy, but he finds her notes on a magical ritual used to break curses. The ritual must be performed in ‘the house of the dead in the place of the dead’.

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In a crypt in the local churchyard, Norman performs the ritual and Tansy is saved from drowning in the ocean. She seems to be in a trance. He takes her back to their home, where she suddenly wakens, removes a carving knife from a kitchen drawer, and limps to the chair where Norman was dozing. During the subsequent struggle, Norman disarms Tansy, who collapses. After returning her to bed and locking the bedroom door, Norman takes the distorted audiotape with him to the college.

There, having recognised his bewitched wife’s limp, Norman confronts Flora and accuses her of hypnotising Tansy out of resentment and jealousy. Flora mocks his rationalistic explanation of all the misfortunes that have recently befallen him. She arranges Tarot cards to represent the Taylors’ home and Tansy, then sets alight the cards. A fire is immediately started outside Tansy’s bedroom. Fearing the worst despite his scepticism, Norman runs from Flora’s office to return home. Flora plays the throbbing audiotape over the college’s public announcement system. It brings to life the stone eagle on the college roof above the main entrance. The eagle pursues Norman back into the college.

Lindsay’s arrival at his wife’s office forces Flora to turn off the tape, sparing Norman’s life. Finding that the damage caused by the giant eagle has vanished, Norman returns to his house. It is engulfed in flames, but Tansy is safe thanks to the local fire department. Lindsay tells Flora, as they leave the college, that Norman has been appointed to the chair in sociology. The stone eagle above the college entrance inexplicably topples from its perch and crushes Flora.

A successful school teacher discovers that his wife has been dabbling in white magic and that his house is filled with good luck charms and talismans. As he is a non-believer in the occult, he burns the whole lot in the fire. Unfortunately for him, an enemy with a grudge is now free to use all of their black magic to attack the teacher and his wife – with devastating results.

IN RETROSPECT

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Very much regarded as a classic of the genre, Night of the Eagle is a well-shot black and white chiller with plenty of spooky moments to enjoy. Made in an era when the best horror moments still came from subtlety and a brooding atmosphere, the film conjures up a nightmarish world of spells and powerful forces beyond our comprehension. Some fine acting from the distinguished cast help to make us care for the characters and believe the events that play out.

The film kicks off happily enough, with teacher Norman Taylor, a resolute non-believer in the supernatural, lecturing his students on superstition and the like. Soon, however, he discovers that something is amiss at home and his house is filled with dead spiders, locks of hair, dirt from cemeteries and allsorts. He destroys all of these, much to his wife’s horror, and then the real nightmare begins. Taylor’s life begins to fall apart. He is accused of raping a female student at the school, and his wife suffers a nervous breakdown. Eventually he is forced to revaluate his opinion on the black arts when he realises that the misfortune he is suffering is the work of an emery masquerading as a close friend.

Strong on atmosphere, Night of the Eagle is packed with suspense and tension as the horror of the situation escalates up until the finale. The trappings of a good score and nice photography make this easy on the eye and ear, and PETER himself is very good as the lead who ends up being absolutely terrified and a broken man. Janet Blair, on the other hand, is a little irritating – unfortunately at this particular period in the cinema actresses who had to display fright had a tendency to overact (widening their eyes, screaming, etc.) which can look a little dated. The supporting cast are fine, with Margaret Johnston as a creepy, limping fellow teacher who has a few secrets to hide.

Probably the best-remembered part of this film is the ending, which sees PETER trying to save his wife from their burning home. Along the way, one of the stone eagles on the roof of the school comes to life and chases him through the corridors, until he is saved at the last moment. A simple effect, this, but a clever and memorable one. During this chase, PETER rubs up against his blackboard and a phrase previously written on there – “I do not believe” becomes simply “I do believe”. A lovely little touch in what is a very nice film indeed, not totally brilliant but providing enough thrills and chills to be an above average entry in the genre.

FILM FACTS

The working title for the film was ‘Torment’, but was changed to Night of the Eagle. Burn, Witch, Burn was always meant to be the title for the American release.

The indoor scenes where shot at Beaconsfield Studios in Buckinghamshire, while the outdoor locations where at Cape Cornwall, St Just, Cornwall; Porthcurno Beach, Porthcurno, Cornwall; and Interesting? Yes No Taplow Court, Berkshire.

Night of the Eagle was the second film adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s classic horror story, ‘Conjure Wife’. In 1944, Lon Chaney played Professor Taylor in ‘Weird Woman’, opposite Evelyn Ankers as his wife.

During the filming of one scene, Peter was accidently hit by a lorry but was, thankfully, uninjured.

Peter Cushing was actually producer Albert Fennell’s first choice to play Professor Taylor, but he fell ill just prior to the start of filming in 1961, and so PETER WYNGARDE was called in to replace him.

There was another scene in the original script in which PETER, as Norman Taylor, had to find a gramophone needle that had played only Scriabin’s 9th Piano Sonata, otherwise known as the Black Mass. However, director Sidney Hayers decided to cut it from the final film.

In the United States, where the film was released under the title, ‘Burn, Witch, Burn’, special “De-Witching” ceremonies were performed by cinema managers before every screening, and sachets of salt were given out to patrons who hadn’t already been “hexed”.

The eagle which appears in the film was called Lochinvar, and had been loaned from London Zoo.

In 1993, a special edition widescreen version of the film was released on video in the United States containing a three minute introduction, written by Paul Frees and narrated by Orson Welles.

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“I DO NOT BELIEVE!” Written emphatically on a blackboard in the presence of his students, Professor Norman Taylor (PETER WYNGARDE) dispels belief in witchcraft and all trappings of the supernatural. However, Taylor’s wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), has been liberated from so much scientific logic by a mind-expanding experience in Jamaica, where a witch doctor literally brought the dead back to life, and it is Taylor’s discovery of her convictions that serves as the catalyst for Burn, Witch Burn. Made in England in 1961 as Night of the Eagle, this renowned thriller has achieved cult status – along with Jacques Tourneur’s Night Of The Demon (1957) and Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) – as one of the finest examples of black magic ever put on the screen. Its reputation has steadily gained momentum and it is only now, with the release of this LaserDisc, that the film is readily accessible to a new generation of connoisseurs and aficionados of terror.

Burn, Witch, Burn was directed by Sidney Hayers, whose only other excursion into fantastic cinema was 1960’s Circus of Horrors, starring Anton Differing. Hayers went on to helm many memorable episodes of “The Avengers” in Britain and continues to this day, yet Burn, Witch, Burn remains his most accomplished work. The fortuitous collaboration of writers Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man), Charles Baumont (Masque Of The Red Death) and George Baxt turned Fritz Leiber, Jr.’s thrice-filmed novel “Conjure Wife” into a taut, gripping screenplay. Superb production values were overseen by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn. Leiber’s work first hit the screen in Universal Pictures’ Weird Woman (1944), starring Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney in the second instalment of the studio’s famed “Inner Sanctum” series. This adaptation is certainly not faithful to its material, making Burn, Witch, Burn the definitive version of the novel (in 1980, a third filming – somewhat pirated, as the Leiber original was not given screen credit – appeared as the horror/comedy Witches Brew starring Richard Benjamin, Teri Garr and Lana Turner). Interviewed exclusively for this LaserDisc presentation, the still-vivacious Janet Blair remembers the production with enthusiasm and respect. She recalls her first day of shooting was Tansy’s drowning scene off the northern coast of England.

“It was bitterly cold and I had to go over this rocky cliff and continue to walk into the ocean for what seemed to be for me an eternity. By the time I was retrieved out of the water, I was frozen and soaked to the bone. One of the grips ran up to me and made me drink from a thermos which was filled with brandy. Being a non-drinker, I immediately spat it out. So much for the glamorous work of a movie star! “Originally I was told Peter Finch was to be by leading man, but lost no time in becoming utterly bewitched by my co-star, PETER WYNGARDE, who was so dramatic and sexy that I nearly forgot I was acting! I do believe this was one of Peter’s largest film roles at the time, and I remember after a day’s shooting he drove me to my hotel and continued that atmosphere of a happily married couple. I adored working with him.” Also commenting for this disc release, director Sidney Hayers fondly recalls the shooting as very quick and fun to do. After some initial misgivings about the casting of WYNGARDE and Blair, he was quite pleased to find these two professionals had great chemistry together. He remarked that even Ms. Blair said at the time she gave this role her all and considered it to be some of her finest work. Hayers also remembers that the actress playing the true villainess of the piece, Margaret Johnston, had by then become a theatrical agent representing one of the actors in the film. Hayers persuaded her to play the unbalanced Flora, ruthlessly driven to practice the black arts against renowned thriller has achieved cult status – along with

Tansy, thereby creating one of the screen’s most memorable wretches. The giant stone eagle which terrorizes PETER was in actuality an eight-foot Styrofoam figure that could do no harm should it fall from great heights. The script called for full camera as this prop is transformed from its solid state into a living, winged gargoyle. As Hayers puts it, “It is PETER WYNGARDE’s acting and intense focus that really allows the audience to suspend disbelief.” Neither Ms. Blair nor Mr. Hayers have seen the film in thirty years, and were most gracious to share their thoughts on the film’s amazing longevity with horror fans. Now, for the first time on the home screen, Burn, Witch, Burn is presented in its proper 1.75:1 aspect ratio, giving the viewer the chance to see the film as originally intended. Also featured here are the film’s original British title sequence (Chapter 33) and Paul Frees’ deliciously demonic rendering (created strictly for the American version) of the incantation that will protect one from deadly contact with the supernatural evil of Burn, Witch, Burn. “DO YOU BELIEVE?”

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(Above): From an American Press Book

 COMMENTS

“…Warner have bundled these under the ‘classic’ banner, but there’s only one truly great film here. ‘Eagle’ isn’t but it’s still highly accomplished. WYNGARDE (who went on to play moustachioed TV crime fighter Jason King) is excellent as a college professor caught in a web of domestic strife and witchcraft. It benefits greatly from having the crispest transfer in the set, the cool monochrome helping to ramp up the tension…” DVD Review says:

“Night of the Eagle – Highly entertaining – probably Hayers’ best film, not that there is much competition. Oh, I don’t know – one or two of his episodes of ‘The Professionals’ were… Yeah, all right, I’ll shut up now… PETER WYNGARDE is shot from the waist up, because he insisted on wearing immodestly tight trousers. Ah, PETER WYNGARDE – now there was real man. Spirit of 1969 – where are you now, PETER, when we need you and your devilishly handsome moustache the most?”

PETER, Janet Blair and Sidney Hayers have their say on…

PETER…

“Can an actor’s personal life be affected by a fictional supernatural screen role?” asks PETER WYNGARDE, star of Night of the Eagle.

Answering his own question, the handsome young actor avows that while a year ago he would have thought an affirmative ridiculous, today he has real doubts after starring in two successive tales of the supernatural.

“I laughed at stories that my fifteenth century weekend cottage in Kent was haunted, but since making ‘Burn, Witch, Burn’ and before that other “spook” thriller, The Innocents, I’m beginning to have my doubts,” PETER says.

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The young actor revealed that during the making of both pictures he would often wake up in the middle of the night sweating – that the roles got right under his skin and made him think of the terrifying subject matter.

Night of the Eagle’ and The Innocents have made me over-susceptible to ghosts, strange noises and things that go bump in the night,” PETER says. “And now I’m beginning to wonder how I stand up under the influences of witchcraft and the supernatural which have dominated these motion picture roles.”

 American International Picture’s Press Release 1962

JANET BLAIR…

Interviewed exclusively for this Laser Disc presentation, Janet Blair remembers the production with enthusiasm and respect. She recalls her first day of shooting was Tansy’s drowning scene off the northern coast of England.

“It was bitterly cold and I had to go over this rocky cliff and continue to walk into the sea for what seemed to be for me an eternity. By the time I was retrieved out of the water, I was frozen and soaked to the bone. One of the grips ran up to me and made me drink from a thermos which was filled with brandy. Being a non-drinker, I immediately spat it out. So much for the glamorous work of a movie star!

“Originally I was told Peter Finch was to be by leading man, but lost no time in becoming utterly bewitched by my co-star, PETER WYNGARDE, who was so dramatic and sexy that I nearly forgot I was acting. I do believe this was one of PETER’s largest film roles at the time, and I remember after a day’s shooting he drove me to my hotel and continued that atmosphere of a happily married couple. I adored working with him.”

SIDNEY HAYERS

Also commenting for this laser disc release, director Sidney Hayers fondly recalls the shooting as very quick and fun to do. After some initial misgivings about the casting of PETER and Janet Blair, he was quite pleased to find these two professionals had great chemistry together. He remarked that even Ms Blair said at the time she gave this role her all and considered it to be some of her finest work.

Hayers also remembers that the actress playing the true villainess of the piece, Margaret Johnston, had by then become a theatrical agent representing one of the actors in the film. Hayers persuaded her to play the unbalanced Flora, ruthlessly driven to practice the black arts against Tansy, thereby creating one of the screen’s most memorable wretches.

The giant stone eagle which terrorizes PETER was in actuality an eight-foot Styrofoam figure that could do no harm should it fall from great heights. The script called for full camera as this prop is transformed from its solid state into a living, winged gargoyle. As Hayers puts it, “It is PETER WYNGARDE’s acting and intense focus that really allows the audience to suspend disbelief.” 


The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

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