1962, UK, Directed by Sidney Hayers
Black & White, Running Time: 84 minutes
DVD, Region 2, Optimum, Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
A couple of years after returning from an academic expedition to Jamaica Norman and Tansy Taylor seem to be doing fairly well in life, with a nice village home and a well regarded teaching position at the school for Norman with promises of promotion. He’s a little surprised when, after an evening playing cards with a posse of local (pseudo-)friends, he finds that his wife has kept back a memento from their trip - a large spider in some sort of containing device. She brushes the discovery off but with his curiosity piqued he goes searching around the house the following day and uncovers all manner of strange paraphernalia, from skulls to small charms. Upon confronting Tansy when she returns home she admits to him that she’s been practising witchcraft, something which he initially finds difficult to digest, firstly because Tansy has always seemed too rational and ‘intelligent’ from his point of view to become involved in anything remotely superstitious, and secondly because he himself cannot accept that there’s anything truthful or worthwhile in pursuing the so-called black arts. He consequently burns everything in her presence to put an end to her obsession and move on, but from the minute he does things begin going wrong in his life - a female student at school accuses him of sexual interference, he’s nearly knocked down by a truck, another student threatens him with a gun, he’s involved in a car crash, etc. The contrast between what life was like during his wife’s illicit practice of black magic and how things turn out after the burning of her tools is perhaps too staggering to be coincidental, but Norman will take some convincing such is his narrow-minded attitude and limited understanding of unconventional possibilities.
Night of the Eagle (or Burn, Witch, Burn to quote its US title, actually a line from the film) makes the most of apparently limited resources, being a primarily dialogue driven assessment of one couple’s deteriorating social and mental status after they have become almost irreversibly embroiled in witchcraft. In fact Tansy seems at first to have established a comfortable control over their lives until Norman becomes aware of her tampering with what he considers to be meaningless spells, and it’s only after he has interfered with her activities by burning whatever she’s been using that control is lost. Of course she never had a long-term grasp over the supernatural anyway as there are other people in the plot who have less savoury intentions that involve similar means. What unfolds is a story coherently believable due to consistently well written and executed dialogue, unveiling situations of mounting drama between the marital couple or between Norman and the other characters that mill around the school. Supernatural manifestations are kept to a relative minimum and when they do occur it’s suggested that the mind has played a part in most of the incidences, i.e. affirming to Norman in particular that what’s happening is not the result of witchcraft but rather the superficially convenient interpretation of naturally occurring events as something under the control of humans. Of course it’s the perfect plot device to turn around the comfortably formulated scientific comprehensions of a non-believer and the film wouldn’t have worked so well had it been any other way, and lead man Peter Wyngarde does a fine job of portraying the stubborn professor. Whilst much of the film is firmly rooted in the social situations brought about by the mystical premise it still finds room for a touch of the gothic too with a pretty nifty graveyard sequence, plus there are a couple of genuinely chilling moments along the story’s route, for example when Norman realises that his wife may be possessed and the clue that brings about this realisation. On a technical level Night of the Eagle is close to remarkable in a number of ways, not least as far as the beautiful black and white photography is concerned. The ‘eagle’ effect that gives the title its justification is also competently achieved for the period, and edited acutely too (shots are limited to brief glimpses, perhaps a tool to limit the possibility of spotting flaws with the special effect or possibly to enhance its nervous impact on the audience). A sombre, well regarded, and professionally constructed entry in 60s British horror.
Optimum’s disc is worth picking up for the movie and transfer only, considering there’s nothing else in way of bonus material to recommend it, perhaps aside from the possibility that it‘s not at the time of writing available anywhere else on DVD I believe. Aspect ratio is marginally off at 1.78:1 but what’s inside the frame is extremely attractive; well balanced contrast, high level of detail, pretty solid blacks, etc. If you’re not concerned about extras though (and the absence is a shame) the disc is well priced and still worthy of a position on your shelf right in between Night of the Demon and Night of the Living Dead.