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Night of the Eagle (1962)
7th May 07
Psychology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a rather staid (read ‘level-headed') and unemotional fellow, has a promising future ahead of him, which causes his fellow university professors to REALLY despise him. Life deals him a rather large surprise when it appears that the superstitious malarkey he talks about in class is actually a little closer to home.
It turns out his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is a practicing witch who has been using her powers to not just aid his career but protect them both from dark forces that she claims are out to do him wrong. Being the sceptical bore that he is Norman forcibly removes and has all her magic charms burned despite her protests. Almost immediately Norman’s luck changes for the worse… much worse!
A colleague at the university happens to also be a witch (must be a nice area to live in!), complete with an Angela Lansbury-styled hairdo-from-Hell, using black magic to destroy the bland Taylor's reputations and maybe even their lives!
Based on the novel Conjure Wife by science-fiction / fantasy author Fritz Leiber Jr. (the second of three films to have been so - the others being the 1979 comedy Witches' Brew and the 1944 Lon Chaney Jnr. vehicle Weird Woman), director Sidney Hayers' Night of the Eagle is a black and white curiosity which met a healthy reception from the critics and is considered a masterpiece by some, but gets a kind of ‘so what?’ reaction from this one.
Hayers, who also directed Circus of Horrors (1960) before delving into forgettable nonsense such as the third Battlestar Galactica movie Conquest of the Earth and TV work on the likes of um, Baywatch and Magnum P.I., had three guys known for their own spooky stories adapting the source material – Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt.
Matheson is arguably the most famous of these with his I Am Legend novel already filmed as the excellent The Last Man on Earth and the so-so The Omega Man and due again soon on the big screen with big-eared Will Smith! With 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man and episodes of The Twilight Zone amongst others under his belt he was widely considered one of the best of the business at the time, as was Charles Beaumont.
In adapting the source material they rip out the idea that all academic wives are engaged in witchcraft and whittle it down to just two. They also removed the themes of possession and people ending up in another’s body as well as changing the stone dragon into a stone eagle for the movie’s ending. Compared favourably to the far superior Night of the Demon, the movie relied on a gimmick at the theatres it was showing at whereby little envelopes were handed to audience members. Within these envelopes were iron filings and salt to ‘protect the viewer’ from any spells, all of which no doubt ended up in the bin on the way out.
Where Night of the Eagle fails is that there is no empathy for a stropey stiff who tells his wife that what she has told him is rubbish and then burns her charms. She may have been talking crap but where's the harm in indulging her even if just for a giggle? When things go tits up for him starting with accusations of rape and bullying this viewer was there egging on worse things for Norman. That didn't stop things from running their pedestrian and too obvious course from one frustrating incident to another. There are no surprises, just a constant confirmation of what was expected.
The acting is so overwrought that it does your nut in. Mr. Wyngarde, later TV's Jason King, made a far more welcome contribution to genre cinema with his General Klytus in 1980's Flash Gordon.
Things do kind of pick up towards the end when a stone eagle is brought to life to kill off Norman. Naturally one wouldn’t expect a film of this period to exhibit the standard of special effects work we see today - however to see a very visible harness on the bird of prey that swoops down during an otherwise effective and surprising climatic sequence is a little disappointing.
Still the print is nice and crisp and handsomely mounted however for a movie that has been so well received by other critics there are no real extras at all especially to explain why on earth anyone else could like it.
Night of the Eagle was released ny Optimum on their Horror Classics banner on April 30th.