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I do not believe
A UK Region 2 DVD review of NIGHT OF THE EAGLE by Slarek
 

Fans of the ghost stories of M.R. James – and what serious reader of horror fiction isn't? – will be well aware of his favourite plot, which introduces us to a sceptic who is later prompted to reconsider his unbelief when directly exposed to some terrifying supernatural event or apparition. It's at the core of many of his stories and the two most celebrated film adaptations of his work, Night of the Demon (1957) and Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968).

Night of the Eagle is certainly in the M.R. James mould but was actually based on the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber Jr., a book I confess to not having read and whose adaptation here I am thus unable to testify the accuracy of. Whether Leiber himself was influenced by James I've been unable to confirm, but various sources note the influence of both H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Graves on his earlier work and Carl Jung on the later, and a recurring theme in his stories involves paranormal activity in modern urban settings rather than the gothic isolation of more classic horror fiction. Conjure Wife has in fact seen three film adaptations, with Night of the Eagle preceded by the 1944 Weird Woman and followed in 1980 by a more light-hearted take on the story, Witches Brew.*

Night of the Eagle takes its subject seriously from the start and wastes no time establishing its credentials – the very first words of dialogue are "I...do...not...believe!" emphatically stated by professor Norman Taylor of the Hempnell Medical College as he writes them large across the blackboard. These four simple words, he informs his students, are the best defence against all of the superstitious nonsense out there that gets in the way of hard science. He's right, of course, but this is not real life but a horror film, and we thus know he's setting himself up for a dramatic about-turn later on.

At this point things are going swimmingly for Norman. His students get the best grades in the school and it looks like he's up for promotion. He has a nice house, a sporty car, and his wife Tansy adores him. Not everything is picture-book perfect, however. One of his students, Margaret Abbott, has a serious crush on him, making her underachieving boyfriend Fred Jennings seriously jealous. But none of this bothers Norman, who responds by putting Margaret in her place and ordering Fred to pull his socks up. There's also some jealousy amongst the wives of the other professors – after all, Norman is the new kid on the block and their husbands are surely more deserving of the promotion than him. But they all get together every Friday evening and play bridge nonetheless, a cosy and pleasant little academic community.

Following the latest bridge evening, however, Tansy seems unusually agitated. She's searching the living room for something, a shopping list with a phone number on she claims, but her urgency and determination suggest it's something more valuable. The only thing is, she's looking for it in places that it couldn't possibly be. When she later finds what she is seeking she immediately burns it. What is it? Ah, you'll have to see for yourself.

Norman, meanwhile, is upstairs looking for his pyjamas, but the drawer in which the clean ones are stored is jammed. Further investigation reveals a small jar containing a dead spider. A BIG dead spider. As you might imagine, he has a few questions for his wife. He has a lot more the next day when he discovers that this is not the only strange artifact in her possession. When pressed she reveals that it all stems back to a trip they took to Jamaica and a witch doctor they met there, who brought a young girl back from the dead before their very eyes, or at least that's how she remembers it. She's been practicing witchcraft for years, she tells him – why else did he think he was leading such a charmed life? Outraged by his wife's devotion to such superstitious nonsense, Norman destroys every last magical object, despite his wife's pleas. "I will not be responsible for what happens to us if you make me give up my protection!" she cries. There's clearly more than career enhancement going on here.

Now if any or all of this sounds a little hokey then let me assure you that it never plays that way. Right from the start, director Sidney Hayers treats the story as seriously as he would any straight drama and has clearly instructed the cast to do likewise. In a compelling central performance, Peter Wyngarde completely sells Norman as a no-nonsense, self-assured sceptic who is determined to confront and combat superstition wherever he finds it, and his battle of wills with his wife (the equally convincing Janet Blair) is both tense and believable. In that reverse belief approach horror movie fans have to apply to their beloved genre, you know that he's talking perfect sense, but also that he's wrong. Watching it with my girlfriend I was amused when she yelled at the screen, "Why do men never listen?" No comment.

From this point on, Norman's good luck all but evaporates in a nicely judged mix of earthly problems and possibly supernatural forces. It's in the latter that the film really flexes its cinematic muscle, especially in an excellent sequence where the house comes under assualt from unseen forces, their power and malevolence suggested entirely through the use of lighting, camerawork and sound effects. It's a scene that scared me witless when I first saw it years ago, and even all these years later, with umpteen horror films under my belt, it still sent chills up my spine. There are plenty of shots suggesting the form that this force takes – the real surprise is how convincing it proves to be when we actually get to see it.

But that's Night of the Eagle's trump card, that it sells its witchcraft as real and its consequences as genuinely threatening. It's a rare trick managed only by a select few – that two others are Night of the Demon and The Devil Rides Out (1968) is only appropriate, given that Night of the Eagle bears a structural and visual resemblance to the former (the similarity in title is surely no coincidence) and has the latter's breathless, incident-packed pace. A tight, intelligent script (co-written by genre maestro Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay for The Devil Rides Out), Wyngarde's performance and Hayers' assured handling are all crucial here, with Norman's transformation from hardened sceptic to desperate believer an object lesson in how to make such a switch of belief convincing. Technically the film outshines its doubtless limited budget via Reginald Wyer's fine monochrome cinematography, Ralph Sheldon's fat-free editing, and some startlingly good special effects – there's a road crash here that's as alarming as any I've seen, despite being created largely through what I presume is back-projection.

I have fond memories of my late night discovery of Night of the Eagle many years ago, and though initially excited by the news of the DVD release, I was worried that it would not measure up to my recollection. I'm happy to report that it did. It's a worthy first release (along with the 1960 Circus of Horrors, also directed by Sidney Hayers) for Optimum's new Horror Classics collection, and will hopefully reach a wider audience of horror fans who didn't realise that, once upon a time, we British could also make classy, intelligent genre films that would stand the test of time.

sound and vision

The picture is framed 1.78:1 and although the IMDb carries 1.85:1 as the correct aspect ratio, which seems more likely, although 1.66:1 was aslso a popular aspect ratio of the time. Certainly the framing here looks correct and never feels cropped in any direction. Although not of Criterion-style sharpness, the anamorphic transfer is nonetheless a very respectable job, with good detail and a very nice contrast range. Blacks appear solid throughout and dust spots are very rare things.

The Dolby 2.0 mono track is clear and free of distortion, although the dynamic range is obviously a little restricted due to the film's age.

extra features

None. This is a film-only disc, but that's reflected in the budget price.

summary

This is a good month for classy 1960s British horror, with Redemption's recent release of City of the Dead now joined by two more fine but little seen works, the first releases of a promising-looking new label from Optimum. All three films are strong examples of their craft and deserve a place in any self-respecting horror fan's collection. But you don't have to be a genre devotee to appreciate an intelligent, well made chiller, and if that appeals, then Night of the Eagle certainly fits the bill.

 


* My sincere thanks to Pearce Duncan for pointing out this glaring ommission in my original review.

Night of the Eagle

UK 1962
84 mins
director
Sidney Hayers
starring
Peter Wyngarde
Janet Blair
Margaret Johnston
Anthony Nichols
Colin Gordon

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
none
distributor
Optimum
release date
30 April 2007
review posted
22 April 2007
review updated
5 May 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews