Saturday, 27 November 2010

Night of the Eagle (1962)


Burn, Witch, Burn!

The contribution of the production/distribution company Anglo-Amalgamated to the history of British horror is often overlooked in favour of Hammer, Amicus, and to a lesser extent Tigon. Although they didn’t specialise in the horror genre, they proved to be more daring than their contemporaries when they did distribute such material. David Pirie’s so called ‘Sadean Trilogy’ comprising Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Circus of Horrors (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) were unleashed on an unsuspecting British public by the distributor. All three films were in colour, concerned with voyeurism and spectatorship, and rigorously contemporary. The latter title was a sobering and unexpected lesson in the power of the critics, and from that point onwards Anglo-Amalgamated beat a more sedate path through the horror genre. The remainder of the 1960’s saw harmless flotsam such as Konga (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and Circus of Fear (1966) released onto a very suspecting public. All of these films were lurid, colourful, camp and very comical, which makes their handling of Night of the Eagle all the more surprising. The film was shot in crisp monochrome tones by Reginald Wyer, it was based on a novel of some repute; Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943), and possessed a less is more stylistic attitude which evoked the subtle scares of Val Lewton. However it was Jacques Tourneur’s marvellously creepy Night of the Demon (1957) that wielded the greatest influence, especially in its depiction of a man of science and rationality coming to terms with the very real incursion of the supernatural into his calm and ordered life.

In Night of the Eagle the role of sceptic goes to Norman Taylor (Patrick Wyngarde), a psychology professor with a special interest in the supernatural and the occult. In the capable hands of Wyngarde though Taylor never becomes the aloof and irritatingly stubborn cynic we see in Night of the Demon. The character is allowed a life outside the strict confines of his profession and much of the sympathy we feel for Taylor is due to the glimpses we are afforded into his married life. His wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is a flaky sort, struggling too adapt to the etiquette of an academic clique, and having difficulties fitting in to the role of a Professor’s wife. To compensate for this Tansy has been practising magic, after gaining inspiration from a recent trip to Jamaica. Tansy becomes convinced that her numerous good luck charms hold the key to Norman’s recent promotions, and is equally convinced that her efforts have kept an opposing force at bay. Naturally this creates a bit of marital strife, although Norman burns most of the charms, there is a sense that his own guilt about his recent self absorption and neglect of his wife is as much to do with her turn to the esoteric. For this reason the scenes play out with delicate dialogue as both parties come to terms with their positions in opposing world views. A large proportion of the film plays out within the domestic realm, and it becomes clear that bland domesticity is as much to blame for their current predicament as it is a shadowy external force.

One must give the lions share of the credit for this literate and touching portrayal of the travails of married life to the screenplay writers. In this case Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt. These are three horror/sci-fi heavyweights and would go on to have long and successful careers in the 1960’s and beyond. The screenplay is marked by a restraint and minimalism matched by an over-arching concern in the lead characters. It has to be said though that the other characters who populate the film are more thinly sketched. The villain is simply villainous and motivated by petty jealousies, but academic rivalry is the centrepiece of the film, and the screenplay doesn’t hold back in its depiction of a self satisfied middle class academic elite hell bent on maintaining the status quo. The supernatural elements of the plot encroach slowly but surely; the first indicator for Norman that the worm has turned is a false rape accusation - a somewhat unsavoury episode that isn’t really in keeping with the rest of the film. But the true index of change is the total collapse in communication with his wife. This affords the film a nice moment of visual expansion when Tansy travels to the Cornish coast in order to sacrifice herself for her husband. This coastal location is fraught with danger and is nicely symbolic of the internal difficulties the couple are enduring.

Even so, up to this point the supernatural has only been hinted at and has never totally reared its head. This all changes when Norman returns to the school and is confronted with a true physical manifestation. The stone eagle that rests atop the entrance to the school is invested with life, and in an impressive sequence terrorises the hapless and uncomprehending teacher. The best moment sees the Eagle burst through a pair of stout oak doors, its constant shrieking never abating. Other moments with the Eagle are less successful, but overall the supernatural materialisation in this film works a lot better than in Night of the Demon. For me this is a superior film, because it is concerned more with human frailties than it is the supernatural, and has a rational sceptic who is warm and charismatic and not boorish and odious.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Definitely one of the best horror flicks of its era, and with a surprisingly subtle performance by Peter Wyngarde. Wyngarde in most roles is usually delightfully and entertainingly over-the-top but in this one shows he could do some real acting.

  2. Thanks for dropping by Doom - I couldn't agree more about Mr. Wyngarde in this brilliant film. I actually think his performance is the difference maker...he's one of the few rational sceptics in horror cinema that doesn't irritate, and this is probably why I prefer NOE to NIGHT OF THE DEMON.

  3. Ugh still no R1 release for us in the US Shaun, I have been wanting to view this one for years! Thanks for another stellar review promoting the film!

  4. NIGHT OF THE DEMON and NIGHT OF THE EAGLE certainly make a good pair, both showing skeptics forced to confront and ultimately accept the supernatural, and both shot in a largely understated manner reminiscent of Lewton (and, of course, Tourneur's earlier work with him). Although the degree of Baxt's contribution to the finished film is a matter of some debate, it certainly stands as one of the finest entries in the filmographies of both Beaumont and Matheson, and was sadly their only big-screen teaming, although they did collaborate on several teleplays outside of their solo work on THE TWILIGHT ZONE during the same period. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (

  5. @ Carl - It seems to be one of the rare cases of a great British horror film not having a superior US Region 1 release. The UK disc by Optimum isn't anything to write home about when it comes to supplementary material, but it is presented well, and has a very cool cover - its worth importing Carl.

    @ Matthew - Thanks for the comment and the additional information. I thought I'd mention Baxt, because he is credited on the IMDB, but like you say the extent of his contribution is shrouded in mystery. If one compares the writing of all three, then Baxt is almost certainly the lesser scribe. Thank you for the link to your book, I shall certainly be taking a look.

  6. Here in the States we just got this one on Netflix Instant Watch!

  7. This was announced as coming from MGM shortly before their troubles. I assume it was going to be a part of their excellent 'Midnite Movies' line.

  8. Finally watched this last night... wonderful. So richly photographed, and the eagle at the end was terrifying, even with the miniatures FX. Good dialogue and adult characterizations really were impressive. Somehow I'd forgotten Beaumont and Matheson had written the screenplay, so I was pretty excited when their names popped up on-screen. I hope more people discover this one!

  9. I'm very glad you got the opportunity to see NIGHT OF THE EAGLE Will, I had a feeling you'd like it very much. I agree about the Eagle - it gets a lot of stick off critics and fans, but for me it is a very convincing manifestation of the supernatural...and given extra meaning of course by its symbolic value to the school.


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