That Sly Come Hither Stare

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.

0 Response That Sly Come Hither Stare
Posted By Martha C : October 3, 2012 2:20 pm

Thanks for a fantastic article about “Night Of The Eagle”! I just watched it under the “Burn Witch Burn” title last week on Netflix, mostly because I saw that it starred Peter Wyngarde.

What a great film. The opening narration was kind of unexpected, and dull…I think I washed a few dishes waiting for it to end. Really liked the bridge party scene, I kept wondering “what’s going on here?”.

One thing that distracted ME at least were the numerous lingering shots of Peter Wyngarde…with a tight shirt on…without a shirt on…etc. Not that I’m complaining! :)

Thanks again for insight into a really fun movie!

Martha

Posted By Martha C : October 3, 2012 2:20 pm

Thanks for a fantastic article about “Night Of The Eagle”! I just watched it under the “Burn Witch Burn” title last week on Netflix, mostly because I saw that it starred Peter Wyngarde.

What a great film. The opening narration was kind of unexpected, and dull…I think I washed a few dishes waiting for it to end. Really liked the bridge party scene, I kept wondering “what’s going on here?”.

One thing that distracted ME at least were the numerous lingering shots of Peter Wyngarde…with a tight shirt on…without a shirt on…etc. Not that I’m complaining! :)

Thanks again for insight into a really fun movie!

Martha

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 3, 2012 2:30 pm

Martha, it’s a great setup. The campus politics leading into the bridge party. If you didn’t know what the movie was about (which you wouldn’t in the original British version without the opening narration and the title “Night of the Eagle”) you’d be wondering, “Where’s this all going?” Then, unexpectedly, you’d see her find the idol and destroy it and you’d be intrigued. I mean, you still are but the opening narration kind of spoils the mood. Fortunately, the movie that follows is good enough to make you forget it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 3, 2012 2:30 pm

Martha, it’s a great setup. The campus politics leading into the bridge party. If you didn’t know what the movie was about (which you wouldn’t in the original British version without the opening narration and the title “Night of the Eagle”) you’d be wondering, “Where’s this all going?” Then, unexpectedly, you’d see her find the idol and destroy it and you’d be intrigued. I mean, you still are but the opening narration kind of spoils the mood. Fortunately, the movie that follows is good enough to make you forget it.

Posted By swac44 : October 3, 2012 4:00 pm

For some reason I read that title as “That Sly Come Hitler Stare.”

The mind reels…

Posted By swac44 : October 3, 2012 4:00 pm

For some reason I read that title as “That Sly Come Hitler Stare.”

The mind reels…

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 3, 2012 4:07 pm

Hitler stares should be avoided at all costs.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 3, 2012 4:07 pm

Hitler stares should be avoided at all costs.

Posted By Cary Watson : October 3, 2012 7:55 pm

I’d see it just for Peter Wyngarde. He’s got a fantastic voice, and he starred in a fun English tv series in the early ’70s called Jason King, a character who was an early “inspiration” for Austin Powers. Tragically, his career was put in cold storage by being arrested for gay sex in a public washroom in 1975. He also turns up in Flash Gordon, his face hidden by a metal mask.

Posted By Cary Watson : October 3, 2012 7:55 pm

I’d see it just for Peter Wyngarde. He’s got a fantastic voice, and he starred in a fun English tv series in the early ’70s called Jason King, a character who was an early “inspiration” for Austin Powers. Tragically, his career was put in cold storage by being arrested for gay sex in a public washroom in 1975. He also turns up in Flash Gordon, his face hidden by a metal mask.

Posted By Qalice : October 3, 2012 9:02 pm

Thank you for this review and for confirming that this picture was adapted from “Conjure Wife!” I read the book years ago, and I knew a picture had been made from it, but I forgot the title. Oh, I’m dying to know if the movie has my favorite line from the book: “I want my soul back.” I love Fritz Leiber most for his “Fafhrd and Gray Mouser” series, but he could write a good horror story, too. And he wrote a satirical novel about writing and marketing, “The Silver Eggheads,” that I can’t recommend highly enough (no matter how far off the subject of this post).

Posted By Qalice : October 3, 2012 9:02 pm

Thank you for this review and for confirming that this picture was adapted from “Conjure Wife!” I read the book years ago, and I knew a picture had been made from it, but I forgot the title. Oh, I’m dying to know if the movie has my favorite line from the book: “I want my soul back.” I love Fritz Leiber most for his “Fafhrd and Gray Mouser” series, but he could write a good horror story, too. And he wrote a satirical novel about writing and marketing, “The Silver Eggheads,” that I can’t recommend highly enough (no matter how far off the subject of this post).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 3, 2012 10:50 pm

Cary, Wyngarde is very good in the film and matches well with Janet Blair, and the two seem to genuinely care for each other. He was a huge sex symbol in Britain for years, even after the arrest, and his look by the early seventies is the definitive Austin Powers hipster. I mean… well, see for yourself.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 3, 2012 10:50 pm

Cary, Wyngarde is very good in the film and matches well with Janet Blair, and the two seem to genuinely care for each other. He was a huge sex symbol in Britain for years, even after the arrest, and his look by the early seventies is the definitive Austin Powers hipster. I mean… well, see for yourself.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 3, 2012 10:53 pm

Qalice, I’ve never read the book so I can’t make any claims to how faithful the movie is to it. Also, I’ve seen it three times and right now it is completely eluding me as to whether your favorite line is in it or not. Sorry about that.

Never heard of The Silver Eggheads but I’ll give it a look. Thanks.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 3, 2012 10:53 pm

Qalice, I’ve never read the book so I can’t make any claims to how faithful the movie is to it. Also, I’ve seen it three times and right now it is completely eluding me as to whether your favorite line is in it or not. Sorry about that.

Never heard of The Silver Eggheads but I’ll give it a look. Thanks.

Posted By tdraicer : October 4, 2012 10:10 pm

I have to say I almost never have a problem with plot holes in a film because either the film draws me in, in which case I’m inside the story looking out and like the characters in the story plot holes pass me by, or it doesn’t, in which case it doesn’t matter much whether the plot is airtight. Night of the Eagle (I have the region 2 dvd under that title) certainly drew me in.

Posted By tdraicer : October 4, 2012 10:10 pm

I have to say I almost never have a problem with plot holes in a film because either the film draws me in, in which case I’m inside the story looking out and like the characters in the story plot holes pass me by, or it doesn’t, in which case it doesn’t matter much whether the plot is airtight. Night of the Eagle (I have the region 2 dvd under that title) certainly drew me in.

Posted By swac44 : October 5, 2012 7:59 am

I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen this film under either title, although I do remember reading a review of it back when the film was released (as Burn Witch Burn) on laserdisc by Image Entertainment, and wishing then I could obtain a copy, but eventually it slipped to the back of my mind.

Then I remembered why it seemed so familiar: The Conjure Wife was made into a film before, as part of Universal’s “Inner Sanctum” series starring Lon Chaney Jr., in this case Weird Woman in 1944. I’m guessing that Night of the Eagle is likely the better film given its screenwriter and cast, but I thoroughly enjoyed those Inner Sanctum programmers, and the set can easily be found in bargain bins these days with six short features for $10 or so.

Posted By swac44 : October 5, 2012 7:59 am

I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen this film under either title, although I do remember reading a review of it back when the film was released (as Burn Witch Burn) on laserdisc by Image Entertainment, and wishing then I could obtain a copy, but eventually it slipped to the back of my mind.

Then I remembered why it seemed so familiar: The Conjure Wife was made into a film before, as part of Universal’s “Inner Sanctum” series starring Lon Chaney Jr., in this case Weird Woman in 1944. I’m guessing that Night of the Eagle is likely the better film given its screenwriter and cast, but I thoroughly enjoyed those Inner Sanctum programmers, and the set can easily be found in bargain bins these days with six short features for $10 or so.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 6, 2012 8:57 am

tdraicer, you and I go back a long way with this discussion and we’ve always agreed: plot holes don’t make a movie bad by themselves and if you’re noticing them, there’s probably a lot more wrong with the movie. I’d love to have the original British version without the narration, although the narration is easily fast-forwarded over. Still, to have that great credits screen with the original title instead of Burn, Witch, Burn. I might have to switch them out one day.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 6, 2012 8:57 am

tdraicer, you and I go back a long way with this discussion and we’ve always agreed: plot holes don’t make a movie bad by themselves and if you’re noticing them, there’s probably a lot more wrong with the movie. I’d love to have the original British version without the narration, although the narration is easily fast-forwarded over. Still, to have that great credits screen with the original title instead of Burn, Witch, Burn. I might have to switch them out one day.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 6, 2012 8:58 am

A couple of people have mentioned Weird Woman and I haven’t seen it. I’ll keep an eye open for it, though.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 6, 2012 8:58 am

A couple of people have mentioned Weird Woman and I haven’t seen it. I’ll keep an eye open for it, though.

Posted By Ivan : October 6, 2012 5:40 pm

Thanks for bring this film up; I think it deserves greater recognition. It was a semi-staple of Chiller Theater on WPIX in the NYC-area in the 1970s, but I hadn’t seen it till Nflix revived it. Hopefully, it’ll gain a cult from there. Because WPIX showed Twilight Zone all the time when I was a kid, I always felt as if Burn Witch Burn (what it was aired as) was an extra-long episode of the show.

Posted By Ivan : October 6, 2012 5:40 pm

Thanks for bring this film up; I think it deserves greater recognition. It was a semi-staple of Chiller Theater on WPIX in the NYC-area in the 1970s, but I hadn’t seen it till Nflix revived it. Hopefully, it’ll gain a cult from there. Because WPIX showed Twilight Zone all the time when I was a kid, I always felt as if Burn Witch Burn (what it was aired as) was an extra-long episode of the show.

Posted By Jenni : October 10, 2012 7:57 am

I saw Horror Hotel and thoroughly enjoyed that flick, so I am going to be on the lookout for Night of the Eagle. Your beginning description sounds just like the beginning of HH, which also starts the same way, a college student seems infatuated with her professor, seeks him out to chit chat after class, her boyfriend doesn’t like the professor, doesn’t trust him.

Posted By Jenni : October 10, 2012 7:57 am

I saw Horror Hotel and thoroughly enjoyed that flick, so I am going to be on the lookout for Night of the Eagle. Your beginning description sounds just like the beginning of HH, which also starts the same way, a college student seems infatuated with her professor, seeks him out to chit chat after class, her boyfriend doesn’t like the professor, doesn’t trust him.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 11, 2012 2:16 pm

Greg: I just had to write and tell you that I loved every word of your articles for “The Wild Bunch”!! I did get to tape it after all. Hooray! I love Westerns so much and “the Wild Bunch” is special to me. I won’t say I love it for the violence,but rather for the characters or the character actors at any rate. Of course for Bill Holden, Bob Ryan, and my friend I never met,Ernie Borgnine! I love L. Q. Jones and Warren Oates a ton! Ben Johnson is terrific in every film he is in! No doubt about it. I love the colors in “The Wild Bunch”. It like a sepia photograph,which I treasure in my heart. I love the fact that Strother Martin is both “The Wild Bunch” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which was filming across the street! Yes, Mexico had to stand in for Bolivia,since the Bolivians were none too happy about the real “Wild bunch” Cassidy and his gang! They refused the film to be made in their country! Okay, so I love film trivia. Thanks again for all your well written words! I just wish I could be half the writer you are one day. Adios,amigo!

Posted By Juana Maria : October 11, 2012 2:16 pm

Greg: I just had to write and tell you that I loved every word of your articles for “The Wild Bunch”!! I did get to tape it after all. Hooray! I love Westerns so much and “the Wild Bunch” is special to me. I won’t say I love it for the violence,but rather for the characters or the character actors at any rate. Of course for Bill Holden, Bob Ryan, and my friend I never met,Ernie Borgnine! I love L. Q. Jones and Warren Oates a ton! Ben Johnson is terrific in every film he is in! No doubt about it. I love the colors in “The Wild Bunch”. It like a sepia photograph,which I treasure in my heart. I love the fact that Strother Martin is both “The Wild Bunch” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which was filming across the street! Yes, Mexico had to stand in for Bolivia,since the Bolivians were none too happy about the real “Wild bunch” Cassidy and his gang! They refused the film to be made in their country! Okay, so I love film trivia. Thanks again for all your well written words! I just wish I could be half the writer you are one day. Adios,amigo!

Posted By Juana Maria : October 12, 2012 1:20 pm

Greg:I just love the photo at the beginning of this article! I was wondering about last week’s theme on TCM of “Directors in Another Director’s Movie” who was the director in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”? Is it L. Q. Jones who directed “A Boy and his Dog”? It was never stated directly. So that is the guess I made. Thanks again for your excellent writing. Adios.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 12, 2012 1:20 pm

Greg:I just love the photo at the beginning of this article! I was wondering about last week’s theme on TCM of “Directors in Another Director’s Movie” who was the director in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”? Is it L. Q. Jones who directed “A Boy and his Dog”? It was never stated directly. So that is the guess I made. Thanks again for your excellent writing. Adios.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 12, 2012 4:11 pm

Juana Maria, thank you so much for your kind words about my WILD BUNCH article for The Essentials. You’re the best!

While L.Q. Jones and Edmond O’Brien each directed a couple of films, TCM was referring to Emilio Fernández who directed over 40 films in Mexican cinema.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 12, 2012 4:11 pm

Juana Maria, thank you so much for your kind words about my WILD BUNCH article for The Essentials. You’re the best!

While L.Q. Jones and Edmond O’Brien each directed a couple of films, TCM was referring to Emilio Fernández who directed over 40 films in Mexican cinema.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 17, 2012 2:01 pm

Greg:Oh Yes! Of Course,”El Indio” Fernandez! One of my favortie actor/directors from Mexico! I seen a ton of his work!The beautiful work he did on the John Ford film “The Fugitive” with Henry Fonda..Those films he made with Pedro Armendariz and Dolores Del Rio! Bravo!!! Viva Mexico!!! Muchas Gracias! I am glad you think I’m the best! Ha ha! No you are! Adios!mi amigo!

Posted By Juana Maria : October 17, 2012 2:01 pm

Greg:Oh Yes! Of Course,”El Indio” Fernandez! One of my favortie actor/directors from Mexico! I seen a ton of his work!The beautiful work he did on the John Ford film “The Fugitive” with Henry Fonda..Those films he made with Pedro Armendariz and Dolores Del Rio! Bravo!!! Viva Mexico!!! Muchas Gracias! I am glad you think I’m the best! Ha ha! No you are! Adios!mi amigo!

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