Witchcraft and work rivalry form an unlikely union in this low-budget British horror from Sidney Hayers.
With a poster that promisingly warns, 'Don’t see this picture unless you can withstand the emotional shock of a lifetime!' this 1962 British horror from director Sidney Hayers (Circus of Horrors, The Trap) eagerly piles on the paranoia. Also known by the rather more sensationally supernatural (and Bava-esque) US title Burn, Witch, Burn, it’s an elegant, strange and intense tale of academic rivalries fuelled by witchcraft.
Night of the Eagle takes place in and around Hempnell Medical College, an educational institution with a knife-block full of backstabbers. We first encounter Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) as he emphatically scrawls the words "I do not believe" on a blackboard, thus neatly setting out his stall as the sceptic of the piece. For Norman these are the words necessary to destroy the forces of the supernatural; he confidently asserts that such notions represent nothing more than a morbid desire to escape from reality.
Based on the novel 'Conjure Wife' by Fritz Leiber, Night of the Eagle gives us the traditional set-up of the male sceptic and credulous female. Horror has long thrived on the tension between believers and non believers, with the latter invariably being shown to be foolhardy for their stubborn rationalism and inability to truly see.
Norman’s aggressive dismissal of the dark arts points to there almost certainly being something credibly supernatural afoot and, of course, it’s right under his nose. His devoted wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is a practicing witch, having learnt the art during their time in Jamaica. She hides it from her husband but believes her magic is keeping him safe and, furthermore, that it’s key to his success. When he uncovers her secret and forces her to destroy her 'protections' he appears to bring terrible misfortune down upon them both.
A mark of the film’s menace is that it features Black Narcissus' fearsome Kathleen Byron (wonderfully described here as "a middle-aged Medusa") in a mere supporting role. Night of the Eagle is in the mould of The Innocents (released the year before) or The Haunting (released the year after); it’s a serious, sophisticated study of the supernatural.
Whereas TV’s Bewitched made light of not only witchcraft but of the domestic discord it created between a mediocre mortal and a magical minx, Night of the Eagle is oppressively threatening. Very much a creature of its time, it exists in an atmosphere heavy with competition and mistrust; Hayers’ film was released at the height of the Cold War, in the very same year as the Cuban missile crisis.
And so it is that Norman speaks of forces far darker than magic. He tells his students: "Each day science, founded on years of research and truth, emerges with feats which put our old-fashioned magicians to shame. Aladdin rubbed the lamp and the genie appeared, today we can press a button and the whole of mankind is obliterated." Now there’s the real frightener.