Night of the Eagle
|Night of the Eagle|
British original poster
|Directed by||Sidney Hayers|
|Produced by||Julian Wintle
Samuel Z. Arkoff
|Screenplay by||Charles Beaumont
|Based on||Conjure Wife
by Fritz Leiber
|Music by||William Alwyn|
|Edited by||Ralph Sheldon|
American International Pictures
25 April 1962
Night of the Eagle is a 1962 British-American horror film directed by Sidney Hayers. The script by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt was based upon the 1943 Fritz Leiber novel Conjure Wife. The film was retitled Burn, Witch, Burn! for the US release (not to be confused with the 1932 novel of the same name by Abraham Merritt).
Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a psychology professor lecturing about belief systems and superstition. After a scene in which his wife searches frantically and finds a poppet left by a jealous work rival, he discovers that his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), is practising obeah, referred to in the film as "conjure magic," which she learned in Jamaica. She insists that her charms have been responsible for his rapid advancement in his academic career and for his general well-being. A firm rationalist, Norman is angered by her acceptance of superstition. He forces her to burn all of her magical paraphernalia.
Almost immediately, things start to go wrong: a female student (Judith Stott) accuses Norman of rape, her boyfriend (Bill Mitchell) threatens him with violence, and someone tries to break into the Taylors' home during a thunderstorm. Tansy, willing to sacrifice her life for her husband's safety, almost drowns herself and is only saved at the last minute by Norman giving in to the practices he despises.
Tansy attacks him with a knife while in a trance, but Norman disarms her and locks her in her room. Her limping walk during the attack gives Norman a clue to the person responsible for his ill luck: university secretary Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston), the wife of Lindsay whose career had stalled in favour of Norman's. Flora uses witchcraft to set fire to the Taylor home with Tansy trapped inside.
Using a form of auditory hypnosis over a loudspeaker system, Flora convinces Norman that a giant stone eagle from atop the university chapel has come to life to attack him. Lindsay arrives at the office and turns off the loudspeaker, and the illusory eagle vanishes. Tansy escapes her burning home and rejoins her no longer skeptical husband. On their way out of the campus, Lindsay sees the chapel's heavy doors are ajar (left thus by Norman in his "escape" from the eagle), and insists upon securing them despite Flora's protests. As she waits for him, the eagle statue falls from the roof and kills her.
- Peter Wyngarde - Norman Taylor
- Janet Blair - Tansy Taylor
- Margaret Johnston - Flora Carr
- Anthony Nicholls - Harvey Sawtelle
- Colin Gordon - Lindsay Carr
- Kathleen Byron - Evelyn Sawtelle
- Reginald Beckwith - Harold Gunnison
Novel and adaptions
Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife was first published (in shorter form) in 1943 in Unknown magazine and as a single book in 1953. For Night of the Eagle, the New England setting of the novel was changed to rural Britain. Weird Woman (1944, starring Lon Chaney Jr.) and Witches' Brew (1979, starring Teri Garr, Richard Benjamin, and Lana Turner) were also based on Conjure Wife.
Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont were fans of the novel and wanted to work on something together, so decided to adapt it. They were paid $5,000 each by James H. Nicholson of AIP, who passed the project over to AIP's regular co-producers, Anglo-Amalgamated in England. They agreed to finance, allocating the movie to Independent Artists to produce. Producer Albert Fennell bought in George Baxt to work on the script. The original script (commenced by Matheson and completed by Beaumont) was published in the Gauntlet Press edition of He Is Legend, a Matheson tribute anthology, but not in the subsequent paperback.
Filming took six weeks. Part of the deal of Anglo-Amalgamated financing was that a star play the lead; Peter Cushing was originally meant to star but decided to make Captain Clegg instead. Musical comedy star Janet Blair came on board and the male lead was offered to Peter Finch; Finch turned the part down and Peter Wyngarde was cast at the last minute.
While not universally regarded as a classic by critics, Night of the Eagle received mostly sympathetic reviews:
The New York Times called Night of the Eagle "quite the most effective 'supernatural' thriller since Village of the Damned" and perhaps the "best outright goose-pimpler dealing specifically with witchcraft since I Walked with a Zombie...in 1943" and noted:
- Simply as a suspense yarn, blending lurid conjecture and brisk reality, growing chillier by the minute, and finally whipping up an ice-cold crescendo of fright, the result is admirable. Excellently photographed (not a single "frame" is wasted), and cunningly directed by Sidney Hayers, the incidents gather a pounding, graphic drive that is diabolically teasing. The climax is a nightmarish hair-curler but, we maintain, entirely logical within the context.
Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader called the film "atmospheric and underplayed in the tradition of Val Lewton" and, despite judging Sidney Hayers' direction as "needlessly rhetorical at times", "eerily effective".
David Pirie of Time Out magazine, while not happy with the casting of Janet Blair, acknowledged Hayers' direction "an almost Wellesian flourish" and the script being "structured with incredible tightness".
Witchcraft had been a recurring theme in the horror genre, though often in combination with Therianthropy (humans turning into animals as in Cat People or The Wolf Man) or Voodoo myths (White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie). Night of the Eagle depicts the use of charms or supernatural powers in an 'everyday' environment and juxtaposes it with a rationalist view which is questioned during the progress of events. Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957), to which William K. Everson compared it unfavourably, works in a similar way.
All three authors involved in Night of the Eagle's screenplay were prolific writers for film and television specializing in horror, mystery and science fiction. Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson in particular were repeatedly hired to adapt (though freely) the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft for the screen, and both were prolific writers for The Twilight Zone.
While the film was accessible to an under-aged audience in the U.S., it was rated "X" (adults only) in the UK on its initial release. It was later re-rated 15, then 12 for UK home video releases.
Film prints for the U.S. release were preceded by a narrated prologue in which the voice of Paul Frees was heard to intone a spell to protect the audience members from evil. For protection, American theater audiences were given a special pack of salt and words to an ancient incantation.
The following DVD-Releases were available in 2011:
- Night of the Eagle, UK 2007, Optimum Releasing
- Burn, Witch, Burn!, US 2011, MGM (DVD-R "on demand").
Out of print are the 1995 US Image DVD, US-Laserdisc and VHS video titled Burn, Witch, Burn!, the British DVD-Box titled Horror Classics, consisting of The Masque of the Red Death, Night of the Eagle and Zoltan, Hound Of Dracula, and the British VHS video Night of the Eagle.
Kino Lorber released Burn, Witch, Burn on Blu-ray in the US on August 18, 2015.
- John Hamilton, The British Independent Horror Film 1951-70 Hemlock Books 2013 p 101-107
- Gary A. Smith, The American International Pictures Video Guide, McFarland 2009 p 36
- 5 July 1962 review of Tales of Terror and Burn, Witch, Burn from The New York Times
- Review of Burn, Witch, Burn from Chicago Reader
- Everson, William K. (1974). Classics of the Horror Film.
- Review of Night of the Eagle in the 1999 edition of Time Out Film Guide, Penguin Books, London.
- Joshi, S. T. (2007). Icons of horror and the supernatural: an encyclopedia of our worst nightmares. 2. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 716. ISBN 0-313-33782-9.
- "1963 Hugo Awards". World Science Fiction Society. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
- Night of the Eagle in the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) database.
- Burn Witch Burn on DVDtalk.com
- Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Michael Weldon, Ballantin 1983
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