Monday, 10 October 2011

Review: Night of the Eagle

Night of the Eagle (1962)

Witchcraft, magic, spells, curses, hexes; these are the stuff of the Dark Ages.  Holdovers from a time of ignorance and superstition.  Science has banished all of these from the world and there is nothing in heaven and earth that is not dreamt of in our philosophy.  Or so thinks Mr Norman Taylor, lecturer in psychology at a provincial English University.  To him, the world is as rational as a slide rule and ordered as a computer programme.  "I do NOT believe"  is his motto.  It comes as a shock, therefore, to discover that his wife Tansy not only believes in magic, but practices it; leaving all manner of talismans and amulets that supposedly protect she and her husband from harm.  In a fit of pique and wounded pride, Norman forces Tansy to destroy all her fetishes in the fireplace.  All very healthy and rational–until the next day when out of the blue a student accuses Norman of rape, another threatens him with a gun, and something comes scratching at the door.

Based on Fritz Leiber's 1943 novel Conjure Wife, The Night of the Eagle is one of those low budget horror films that Britain was so apt at in the 1960s. Taking a page from 1957's Night of the Demon, Twilight Zone veteran writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont played up the psychological elements of Leiber's novel to produce a sense of mounting dread and paranoia that is far more effective than any CGI effect because it plays on the audience's imagination for the heavy lifting.  Using only dialogue, character, camera work and sound, director Sidney Hayers soon has us believing that not only is Tansy a witch, but that the campus is rotten with witches and one in particular who wants Norman dead.  Hayers keeps the pressure up and maintains the dramatic pace enough to keep the audeince's disbelief firmly suspended in mid air and the whole plot moving forward until the climax when Norman's scepticism is shattered beyond all hope of restoration.

Though the story was originally set in America, moving the location to England makes sense because it not only produces the proper atmosphere, but it also allowed Hayers to recruit a B-list cast that was still capable of treating the story with the absolute seriousness that such a tale requires if it is to succeed.  Night of the Eagle may not have the polish nor the production values of its more profitable Hammer cousins, but it is an overlooked gem that bears tracking down.

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