After the gaudy grande guignol of Circus of Horrors (1959), director Sidney Hayers' next foray into the horror genre comes as something as a surprise: the saturated riot of Eastman colour associated with previous Anglo Amalgamated productions here gives way to Reginald H. Wyer's stark black-&-white cinematography — signaling Night of the Eagle (1962) has "serious" intent as a darkly ambiguous study in psychological horror. Such fare had recently started to enjoy something of a revival in the early Sixties: the previous year saw the release of Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), an acclaimed adaptation of perhaps the most psychologically ambiguous of all ghost stories: Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw", which featured luminous black-&-white photography from Freddie Francis and Peter Wyngarde in one of its key roles. The year before that, the film's modern-day witchcraft theme was also beautifully rendered in John Moxely's atmospheric City of the Dead (1960).
Perhaps Night of the Eagle most closely resembles Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957) — itself an adaptation of a famous M.R. James short story, "Casting the Runes" — both in subject matter and in style. Inevitably this also connects it to the Val Lewton school of horror from the '40s, and in particular, Mark Robson's phenomenally bleak tale of Satanism and witchcraft in '40s New York, The Seventh Victim (1943); with a sideways nod towards Tourneur's own I Walked with a Zombie (1943) also discernible in the film's reference to Jamaican Voodoo as its choice of flavour of witchcraft. Like ...Demon, the film is set in-and-around the institutions of academia (echoing the settings of most of Edwardian writer M.R. James's ghostly tales) and concerns itself with an arch skeptic in all things Supernatural being forced to re-evaluate his lack of belief in such phenomena when otherworldly forces threaten to destroy his life.
This is, it has to be said, something of an easy and rather lazy device to fall back on, but few films utilise it as effectively or as convincingly as Night of the Eagle does here. Peter Wyngarde makes for a formidable scholar in rationality at the beginning of the film: we first see his character, Norman Taylor, demolishing the entire basis for belief in any kind of religion, or in such hoary 'superstitions' as witchcraft, in one of his blistering University lectures. The normal method in such films is to make the holder of the torch of reason as unsympathetic as possible: arrogant, aggressive and phony. In fact, Taylor's points seem eminently reasonable in this opening salvo (at least to all but the kind of person who automatically sees any doubt in such things as intrinsically arrogant); the difference is, of course, that script writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson (both of whom would between them write the screenplays for all of Roger Corman's "Poe Cycle" of films), are about to turn the world as we know it on its head!
Taylor, it transpires, is a newcomer to the faculty; he and his wife are looked at as outsiders by many of the more established staff at the university, although Taylor himself is largely oblivious to this. Jealousy is soon aroused among the other staff though by Taylor's strangely rapid ascendancy through the ranks of University life. Indeed promotion is not far off once more, and his students continue to get the best results in the school. Taylor's wife, Tanzy (Janet Blair) is completely devoted to her husband, and the man seems to have an utterly charmed life — living a cosy existence in a leafy country cottage and zooming about in a nifty-looking sports car! Wyngarde is the epitome of swath, assured, but nevertheless quite likeable confidence during this first act; but things are rapidly about to go thoroughly pear-shaped for the dear boy!
The first big twist comes when Taylor's ultra-common sense views have to take onboard the fact that his dear wife Tanzy has been secretly practising witchcraft behind his back for years! Ever-since, in fact, a holiday in Jamaica where the couple apparently witnessed a witch doctor bring a woman back from the dead (although Taylor has a natural explanation for it, of course). Norman discovers that not only does their house contain totems representing voodoo spells hidden all about it, but that these spells have been cast with the intention of aiding Norman's career! According to Tanzy, Norman's wonderful life is entirely down to her dabblings in voodoo. Not unsurprisingly, this revelation goes down particularly badly with her bemused husband. It's a clever wrinkle in this kind of plot to make the two protagonists completely in love with each-other; Tanzy intends nothing but the best for her husband by her actions, and has only hidden her beliefs from him because of her knowledge of just how unpalatable they are to his mode of thinking. Norman meanwhile, cannot help thinking that his poor wife is suffering from some-kind of malign hysteria and the first stage of her recovery must come by having her burn every one of her voodoo spells on the fire!
But things immediately start going horribly wrong for poor Norman. His wife's conviction that somebody else in the university has also been using witchcraft — but this time, against him! — soon starts to look quite feasible. First of all, one of his students makes an allegation of sexual misconduct against him; then the boyfriend of the pupil in question makes an attempt on his life. Even worse, his wife, still completely convinced that there is a malign force being used against her beloved husband, determines to sacrifice herself in order to save him!
This is where the film now piles on its clammy form of suspense with great aplomb, as the now completely confused and distraught Norman makes a mad dash to find and save his wife. Norman's transformation from staunch unbeliever into a desperate husband — prepared to countenance almost anything if it there is just the slightest chance that it might save his wife — is utterly believable and compelling; and this is what puts this film above most others in the genre that deal with similar subject matter, providing some food for thought rather than just the usual sneering dismissal of reasonableness and rationality. When Norman finally confronts his wife's (and his own) tormentor — whose identity I won't reveal here — it is not so much the supernatural entity this person conjures to attack him that unnerves us, but his (and our) conflicted response to the spell cast in front of him with the intention of destroying his wife, an act that forces him to admit to himself that the world is not as he believed it to be — if he is to stand any chance of rescuing her from a fiery death!
Performances are top notch from all concerned and although this story has been filmed three times now, this is surely still the best handling of the material on celluloid; although it bears only superficial similarities to the novel that provides the basis for the story. The film moves at a rollicking pace and even though the one big special effect sequence at the climax may look slightly hooky to modern eyes, Hayers whips up sufficient vortices of dread and hysteria to carry it through the potential for unintended mirth. The film has had a slight taint of misogyny accrued to it in the past, since rationality is exclusively associated with masculinity while, as is the case in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1976), the forces of the supernatural are exclusively under the yoke of the female mind which often turns out to be an uncontainable force of irrational hatred and malice! Against this interpretation one can mention that Tanzy is at least a sympathetic character.
Optimum Releasing give the film a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer on an otherwise featureless low priced disc in their Classic Horror Collection.