Everyone is on their game in Night of the Eagle, an American-financed, British-made horror movie that gets it just about all right, even though the ingredients don’t look like they’re up to much.
Peter Wyngarde stars, a cult actor here one year on from The Innocents – one of the best British horror films ever made – sinking his teeth into the role of the rationalist lecturer who has all his beliefs upended when he discovers his wife is a witch.
Norman Taylor (Wyngarde) is doing OK at the college where he lectures and when not instructing his students on the real underpinnings of superstition (something vaguely to do with neurosis, it’s suggested) is being lined up for a big promotion. This Norman’s fellow lecturers can tolerate, just about, because he’s a likeable chap, but it rubs all the wives up entirely the wrong way.
Norman believes his gilded career and comfortable life are the result of talent, hard work and natural charm but all that is called into question when he happens upon a stash of weird juu-juu artefacts back at his home. Souvenirs of that trip to Jamaica, says wife Tansy (Janet Blair). But there is obviously more to it than that, and when Norman in a moment of manly hubris burns all the gee-gaws, his life starts going wrong – an allegation of sexual misconduct at the college, a near-fatal car accident, even the weather seems to be against him, the storms howling and lashing his house.
Everyone has a lot of fun as the mood shifts from the natural to the supernatural and depictions of a honeyed life in the English home counties – gorgeous house, lovely open topped sports car (you’d be wet all the time, but hey) – give way to something starker and darker, with director Sidney Hayers regularly getting right up in his actors’ faces to give us his version of deep focus (a lot of depth, not so much focus).
Janet Blair lays on the sauce as the witch wife, histrionic and really overdoing it. But then so is everyone, though Wyngarde overdoes it in a slightly different way, putting in a performance which is intensely forceful rather than exaggerated. It’s as if everything has taken its cue from director of photography Reginald Wyer, who goes for increasingly strong and dramatic side lighting once things start going south. William Alwyn’s score plays along too, tying everything together satisfyingly as it swirls and bangs about. It’s loud in the mix too, which only adds to the sense of rising derangement.
The film was cllaed Burn, Witch, Burn in the USA. It’s a better title, one that catches the mood of mounting frenzy. It also came with a preamble Stateside, in which a voiceover incants a spell designed to keep the cinema audience safe from evil. It’s unnecessary – this film easily flies high enough on its own supply.
There are weirdnesses, some of them inexplicable, like casting Kathleen Byron – a genius at mad, dark looks (see Black Narcissus) and then not really using her. Or casting people who are far too old to play teeange students, always a problem with British movies of the era, though not uncommon everywhere else. And there’s a special effects sequence, as all the magical chickens come home to roost and a stone eagle comes to life and starts pursuing Norman through the college, which really shows up the lack of budget.
Sidney Ayers gets around this by being very sparing with glimpses of it, working it into his increasingly theatrical finale, which turns out to be a false finish inserted – guessing here – to give Janet Blair more to do (she’s the American star, after all, and had once co-starred with Cary Grant). This leads to an even more dramatic finale, before, finally, resolution arrives in a reveal which introduces a late plot twist that is entirely unearned.
It would matter more if Ayers hadn’t successfully conjured a mood in these various finales, montaging together the loud music and dramatic lighting with extreme close-ups and swift edits into something working the gothic and histrionic to brilliant effect. A case of sheer directorial talent overcoming questionable producer choices.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023