Posted by Greg Ferrara on October 3, 2012
Sometimes when movies from other countries get released in America, funny things happen. Usually it has to do with the title and sometimes with certain elements of plot. One of my favorite horror movies of all time, the 1960 British witch chiller, City of the Dead, found itself titled Horror Hotel when released in the states. I prefer the original title but what was really troubling was the omission of most of Elizabeth Selwyn’s (Patricia Jessel) curse upon the town in colonial America where she is burned at the start of the film. You see, she mentions Satan and stuff and, well, we can’t have that in a theater because our youth would be corrupted or some such nonsense like that. Never mind that she’s an old school movie witch who would invoke Satan, best to just leave it all out. Two years later, in 1962, another great British witch movie would have a title change and an intro added rather than taken away. The movie was Night of the Eagle and it’s both excellent and underseen.
In 1962, American International Pictures got the distribution rights to Night of the Eagle and promptly changed the title to Burn, Witch, Burn which, interestingly enough, is the opening line of Christopher Lee in the aforementioned City of the Dead. They also assumed both that the audience was ignorant of occult curses (a reasonable assumption) and too stupid to learn it along the way as the movie shows it and talks about it. As such, they added a full two and half minute explanation, delivered by the incomparable Paul Frees (you might think you don’t know him but, trust me, you know him – he did voiceover work for practically everything in the fifties and sixties) that ends with Frees chanting a spell that will protect the audience from evil spirits while watching the movie. It’s exceedingly pointless and not nearly as much fun as the description sounds and, honestly, when you watch the movie, it’s safe to skip over it completely and start at the opening credits where the real movie begins proper.
The movie itself is told in the same straightforward, efficient way that both City of the Dead and Village of the Damned before it used to such great effect. It opens on a college campus as Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is wrapping up his sociology class on, of course, the occult. A female student, Margaret (Judith Stott), appears to have a crush on him while her would-be boyfriend, Fred (Bill Mitchell), finds Taylor a bore. When Margaret leaves the class, Fred stops her in the hall to tell her what a dirty old man Taylor is until Taylor shows up and he backs down.
Outside, a professor friend of Taylor’s, Harvey, gets in the car with his wife, Evelyn (Kathleen Byron from Black Narcissus) and her friend, Flora (Margaret Johnston) and Evelyn and Flora complain that Taylor is going to get promoted to head of the department over their husbands and how he doesn’t deserve it. Also, they liberally disrespect his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair). Clearly, Norman and Tansy aren’t very popular among the locals. And when all of them show up at the Taylor’s home for bridge that night, tensions run high and condescending tones run deep. Once everyone has gone home, Tansy begins a frantic search, but for what?
She tells her husband she’s looking for a grocery list she’s misplaced but she’s obviously lying. Later, when he’s asleep, she begins searching again until she’s found it, a cursed idol, a tiny one, hidden on the chandelier. One of the other women placed it there to curse her husband but Tansy found it before any damage could be done. So far so good until the next day, at least, when Norman finds all the charms and amulets that Tansy has placed around the house for his protection and can’t believe his eyes. Surely his wife isn’t so illogical, so superstitious that she honestly thinks the reason he has succeeded at this college is because of her charms and spells. Surely she can’t be that stupid. So, he gathers them all up and forces her to watch as he burns them in the fire. Done. No more hocus-pocus.
Oh, did I mention that the very next day, that student that likes him so much, Margaret, goes to the dean and accuses Taylor of rape? And Fred pulls a gun on him in his office. And that promotion seems pretty unlikely now. Hmm, guess you burned those charms a little too fast there buddy. Oops.
Needless to say, unprotected by his wife, Norman finds his entire professional life falling apart. But that’s just the start of the story. Where it goes from there takes the viewer to zombie curses, possession with intent to kill and one big, psychotically angry eagle. Yes, it earns its name, Night of the Eagle, when a certain stone eagle on the main campus building is brought to life with a spell cast by Flora and that eagle is looking to kill Taylor. Primary Lesson of Movie: If you find charms around the house that your spouse is using to protect you, don’t burn them!
Night of the Eagle does a lot of things right and what it does wrong is wrong in only the slightest sense. It provides a bit too much exposition in the beginning (making that opening narration even more ridiculously unnecessary) where Tansy spends several minutes of screen time explaining the charms and curses and how it came to be. It’s not really necessary to explain it all and, in fact, there are other things in the movie, like the tape-recorded sound of a high-pitched tone that can be used over phones or loudspeakers by Flora to hypnotize her prey, that aren’t explained at all. The tone can even be turned against Flora which makes even less sense. Honestly, a lot of the movie doesn’t make any sense at all but as I’ve said before, it’s the atmosphere and mood that makes a horror movie good, not whether every single thing is explained. Fill a movie with the right feel and pacing and acting and audiences will forgive lapses in logic every time.
The movie was adapted from a novel by Fritz Lieber, Jr, entitled Conjure Wife, by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, two names that should be familiar to anyone who’s watched The Twilight Zone or seen any of the numerous movie versions of Matheson’s fiction. They’re excellent writers and the movie definitely has a Twilight Zone feel to it thanks to the familiarity of their style.
Sidney Hayers directs with an eye towards the actors. He doesn’t let the cinematographer, Reginald Wyer, roam around too much, more content to let the actors’ faces do most of the heavy lifting. For the most part, it’s the right call. When we need wide shots of the cemetery or the beach, we get them. When we need just the right angles to film that massive eagle zooming in for the kill, we get it. But when that kind of thing isn’t in play, he turns to the actors for a surprising amount of close-up shots. And Margaret Johnston, as Flora, uses her facial contortions for all they’re worth. When she has her final confrontation with Taylor in the movie near the climax (that’s it pictured at the top of the post), her face alone, with the lighting from below, turns the scene into a fantastic showdown between good and evil.
The actors are all good with Wyngarde playing pompous and self-important to just the right degree before pulling back to make his character sympathetic to the audience. Janet Blair is very good at portraying a woman desperately trying to keep her husband’s life from falling apart and Margaret Johnston is absolutely delightful as Flora, easily the best performance in the whole movie.
Night of the Eagle plays as both a great witch movie and an artifact of a different time in our sociological evolution. Although Flora teaches at the college as well, it’s her husband she tries to get promoted. The witches in the film seem to focus all their energies on protecting their husbands and advancing their husbands’ interests, not their own. And when Norman gives Tansy a scolding for believing in superstitions, you’d swear he was talking to a child. It’s a different set of rules from a different time but the story stays true to the genre: good and evil, science and superstition and paranormal showdowns. It’s a horror movie from another era, relying on mood and feeling as much as shocks and twists of plot. It succeeds because of it and the inconsistencies and illogical turns are easily ignored. After all, what good would common sense for it do? It’s witchcraft, wicked witchcraft.
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