TITLE: Night of the Eagle aka Burn Witch Burn!
YEAR RELEASED: 1962
DIRECTOR: Sidney Hayers
CAST: Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon
SIMON BALL calls Night of the Eagle “one of the best British horrors about witchcraft ever made”
‘I Do Not Believe’
These are the words that psychology lecturer Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) chalks up on the classroom blackboard in the opening sequence of the 1962 British chiller Night of the Eagle. Norman is a scientist driven by fact and has no time to believe in such evident rubbish as superstition and witchcraft.
Naturally what Norman does not realise is that behind the genteel façade of their faculty bridge parties, Hempnell Medical College is a hotbed of enchantment and devilish black magic. When Norman discovers that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been practicing witchcraft, in order to advance his career, he has her collect all of the talismans and charms concealed about their home and consigns them to the fire.
Bad idea, Tansy isn’t the only woman seeking to advance her man’s prospects through a bit of sorcery. Before long Norman is accused of violating (well it is 1962) one of his students, but the hexed girl’s charge is easily disproved, so the hocus-pocus gets ratcheted up a step and all kinds of creepy stuff happens. Tansy casts a spell to become the focus of all the harmful magic, then bewitched takes off to their seaside cottage intent on getting drowned. So Norman has to race against time to come to terms with witchcraft being very real and then cast a counter spell to save Tansy’s life.
In my opinion Night of the Eagle is one of the best British horrors about witchcraft ever made. The screenplay by Richard Matheson (author of I am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man etc.) and Charles Beaumont, eschews the clichéd black masses and human sacrifice that festoon other black magic movies of the period, in favour of something a lot more personal and intimate. The witches of Night of the Eagle act alone, using objects to work their enchantments through sympathetic magic. This is nowhere more apparent than at the conclusion of the film, when Norman confronts wicked witch Flora (Margaret Johnston) in her college office. Calmly sitting at her desk she builds a house of tarot cards and sets light to it uttering the words ‘Burn Witch Burn’ (the film’s US title). Norman realises that his own house will be up in flames with Tansy locked in the bedroom.
As Norman takes of for home Flora brings the stone eagle that perches above the medical school entrance to life (yes there had to be an eagle in here somewhere). OK the effects are a bit shaky and at one point you can see the wire trace attached to the bird, but the scene where Norman is pursued through the college back to his own class room and backs up against the blackboard to erase the word ‘Not’ is immensely powerful.
Night of the Eagle is based upon the story Conjure Wife by the American author Fritz Lieber who is probably best known for creating the sword and sorcery heroes Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Direction by Sidney Hayers is tight and like a lot of films made in the 1950s and 1960s, the 80 minute or so duration means that he whole story rattles along at a cracking pace. The film is beautifully shot in black and white by Reginald Wyer with some incredibly atmospheric use of lighting and composition, the photography of Margaret Johnston’s face under lit by the lamp on her desk for example, is quite stunningly eerie. The musical score by William Alwyn perfectly complements Wyler’s photography, adding another layer to the creeping suspense and dread.
For me one of the cleverest aspects of the movie, is through the use of (what was then) modern communications technology as a medium for the sympathetic magic worked by Flora. Norman’s enchantment is achieved not through stray hairs or toenail clippings, but through a tape recording of one of his lectures. Flora initially plays the tape down the telephone line to facilitate the spell’s entry to Norman’s home, then mails a copy to his home and finally plays it over the college public address system. It’s this tampering with the parameters of an ancient belief system through the technological trapping of the modern world that makes Night of the Eagle such an intelligent and interesting film.