Night of the Eagle aka Burn Witch, Burn – UK | USA, 1962 – overview and reviews

 
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‘Do the undead demons of Hell still arise to terrorize the world?’

Night of the Eagle is a 1962 British-American horror film directed by Sidney Hayers (Circus of Horrors; Assault; Revenge; Deadly Strangers). The script by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt was based upon the 1943 Fritz Leiber novel Conjure Wife (also the basis for Weird Woman, 1944). The movie stars Peter Wyngarde (The Innocents), Janet Blair and Margaret Johnston. It was produced by Albert Fennell.

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The film was re-titled Burn Witch, Burn by James Nicholson of American International Pictures (AIP) for its US release.

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Plot:

Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a psychology professor lecturing about belief systems and superstition. He discovers that his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), is practising witchcraft. She insists that her charms have been responsible for his rapid advancement in his academic career and for his general well-being.

A firm rationalist, Norman is angered by her acceptance of superstition. He forces her to burn all of her magical paraphernalia.

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Almost immediately, things start to go wrong: a female student (Judith Stott) accuses Norman of rape, her boyfriend (Bill Mitchell) threatens him with violence, and someone tries to break into the Taylors home during a thunderstorm. Tansy, willing to sacrifice her life for her husband’s safety, almost drowns herself and is only saved at the last minute by Norman giving in to the practices he despises…

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  • Interview with star Peter Wyngarde
  • Audio commentary with writer Richard Matheson
  • Original Trailer

Night of the Eagle depicts the use of charms or supernatural powers in an ‘everyday’ environment and juxtaposes it with a rationalist view which is questioned during the progress of events. Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) works in a similar way.

Film prints for the US release were preceded by a narrated prologue in which the voice of Paul Frees was heard to intone a spell to protect the audience members from evil. For protection, American movie audiences were given a special pack of salt and words to an ancient incantation.

Reviews [click links to read more]:

“Granted, Janet Blair’s performance is a bit on the shrill and hysterical side and doesn’t develop as much as one might like, but it works in context. Also, William Alwyn’s score could have taken a more indirect approach in a few instances, could have created a greater effect by underplaying. Otherwise, there’s nothing to complain about — certainly not the spot-on direction from Sidney Hayers…” AllMovie

“The movie’s three scenarists provide a flawed but effectively constructed plot allowing Hayers to concentrate on visual effects achieved through judicious framing and camera movement. The gradual accumulation of harbingers of doom – from the aftermath of a bridge party when Blair discovers a witch doll strapped to a chair, to the eerie churchyard sequence and the attack of a possessed Blair on her husband – is particularly impressive.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

“Tolerable late-night horror with some effective sequences.” Howard Maxford, The A-Z of Horror Films

” …aside from the scenes featuring the giant eagle, Night of the Eagle is a shining example of the Lewton-esque ‘less is more’ approach to horror. Wyngarde is mesmerising as Norman, whose icily cool and calm exterior gradually melting away into abject terror, is compelling to watch. A subtle chiller that creeps icily under the skin.” Behind the Couch

“The sound design is skilful, in particular the use of a reel-to-reel tape containing Norman’s speech on neurosis to conjure up evil – modern technology employed for ancient ends. Black and white cinematography is the purest way to portray the battle against dark forces, and much of the action takes place in Norman and Tansy’s house, amplifying their isolation and vulnerability.” British Film Institute

“Night of the Eagle is British horror cinema at its finest – for much of its running time it’s all about shadows and unanswered questions. But when it veers into out-and-out horror, it’s terrifying – despite the occasional dodgy effect.” British Horror Films

“An old school, slow-boil, British suspenser, Burn, Witch, Burn is an effectively creepy film that mixes psychological horror with a tale of the supernatural. While the film contains a fair share of full-on shocks, it mainly relies on the kind of subtle, suggestive horror of a Val Lewton production.” DVD Verdict

“The film’s two leads have a genius for expressing fear. Janet Blair’s panic as she searches for a hidden voodoo doll is almost palpable, while Peter Wyngarde’s perspiring terror as he is pursued by the college’s stone Eagle come to homicidal life is quite simply a tour de force.” Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema

“A basically chilling occult movie is spoiled by a too-verbose and over-melodramatic script: Sidney Hayers’ direction is excellent, creating terror by what he fails to show.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

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“It is structured with an incredible symmetry and tightness which reflects the precision of Matheson’s work on The Devil Rides Out. Hayers too shoots the whole thing with an uncharacteristic yet almost Wellesian flourish, extracting the maximum effect from every scene; indeed, his style is so flamboyantly successful that many have fruitlessly ransacked the rest of his work in search of the slightest similarities.” David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror

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“Simply as a suspense yarn, blending lurid conjecture and brisk reality, growing chillier by the minute, and finally whipping up an ice-cold crescendo of fright, the result is admirable. Excellently photographed (not a single “frame” is wasted), and cunningly directed by Sidney Hayers, the incidents gather a pounding, graphic drive that is diabolically teasing. The climax is a nightmarish hair-curler but, we maintain, entirely logical within the context.” The New York Times

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“It’s flawed, of course. The director can’t seem to go five minutes without a close-up of the stone eagle, as if, you know, it could be significant and important, so the climax is less of a surprise. Bill Mitchell’s character is a pain in the arse: while you could argue that he’s meant to be annoying, the fact that his accent lies somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic (is he British or American, I can never quite tell) is out of place in a cast filled with top-notch British character actors.” The Shrieking Sixties: British Horror Films 1960 – 1969

“Everything about this is first-class, from script to photography, and it’s really suspenseful and exciting.” Clive Davies, Spinegrinder

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“There’s a sly humour to be found in the way that the educated folks’ genteel life of bookcases, wood panelling and bridge parties is merely the facade for rampant jealousy, petty hatred and devious manipulation. The villain is easy to spot, but nevertheless a convincing threat […] Night of the Eagle offers enjoyable low budget thrills; only the over-earnest leads take some of the shine off a polished production.” The Spinning Image

“The film is beautifully shot in black and white by Reginald Wyer with some incredibly atmospheric use of lighting and composition, the photography of Margaret Johnston’s face under-lit by the lamp on her desk, for example, is quite stunningly eerie. The musical score by William Alwyn perfectly complements Wyler’s photography, adding another layer to the creeping suspense and dread.” The Spooky Isles

“Not much of a movie but it does go to show what can happen in a community that fails to pay its teachers a living wage.” Time magazine, 1962

“Beaumont and Matheson cleverly set up the premise, and director Sidney (Circus of Horrors) Hayers executes the scares nicely. The flick only loses its way and resorts to cheap shocks in the final reel when a giant eagle statue comes to life to attack our hero. But other than that, it’s a top-shelf horror film on just about every level.” The Video Vacuum

“The few weaknesses of Hayers’ direction are more than offset by the positives and among the highlights is the chase sequence, which climaxes in a car-crash followed by a midnight pursuit to the graveyard. This genuinely chilling passage is underpinned by stunning photography and subjective camera angles.” John Hamilton, X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film: 1951 – 1970

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Choice dialogue:

“One day I shall burn your stuffy old books, they invade every corner of our lives.”

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Censorship:

While the film was accessible to an under-aged audience in the US, in the UK it was rated “X” (adults only) on its initial release. It was later re-rated ’15’, then ’12’ for UK home video releases.

 

Production:

Filming began on 25th September 1961.

Director Sidney Hayers told Shiver magazine in 1999: “Using a real eagle was the only way to go, really. I felt sorry for the poor thing… But I was very pleased with the results. Especially the moment when it comes crashing through the front door. I remember going to see the film with an audience at the Odeon in Leicester Square, and afterwards, in the toilets, I eavesdropped on these two guys saying how scared they had been.”

Cast and characters:

  • Peter Wyngarde … Norman Taylor
  • Janet Blair … Tansy Taylor
  • Margaret Johnston … Flora Carr
  • Anthony Nicholls … Harvey Sawtelle
  • Colin Gordon … Lindsay Carr
  • Kathleen Byron … Evelyn Sawtelle
  • Reginald Beckwith … Harold Gunnison
  • Jessica Dunning … Hilda Gunnison
  • Norman Bird … Doctor
  • Judith Stott … Margaret Abbott
  • Bill Mitchell … Fred Jennings
  • Paul Frees … Prologue Narrator (voice) (uncredited)
  • George Roubicek … Cleaner (uncredited)
  • Frank Singuineau … Truck Driver (uncredited)
  • Gary Woolf … Relief Driver (uncredited)

Filming locations:

  • Cape Cornwall, St. Just, Cornwall
  • Porthcurno Beach, Porthcurno, Cornwall
  • Taplow Court, Berkshire

Technical details:

  • 87 minutes
  • Black and white
  • Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1
  • Audio: Mono (RCA Sound Recording)

Image credits: Scenes from the Morgue

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