Cult Movie: 1960s British horror Night Of The Eagle is 'a seriously spooky treat'

Peter Wyngarde and Janet Blair in Night of The Eagle
Ralph McLean

Night Of The Eagle

WHEN it comes to delivering shocks on the silver screen, I've always been a fan of the old 'less is more' maxim. Give me the sound of a clock chiming in a moody night-time scene or a gnarly finger nailed hand emerging from a dusty old coffin over a gruesome, no holds barred modern gore fest any day.

In terms of what makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, it'll always be the carefully created mood of unease rather than the needless blood bath that does it for me.

The king of such understated mood movies was director Jacques Tourneur. The films the Frenchman made for RKO Pictures in the 1940s with producer Val Lewton embody that world of dreamlike wooziness and creeping dread and are rightly revered as cult classics today. Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man are low budget films that are high on mood and atmosphere.

Outside of Night Of The Demon, Tourneur's own masterful slice of macabre mood magic which he directed in 1957, very few films of that type were ever made in England. Night Of The Eagle is a rare exception.

Released in 1962, it was directed by Sydney Hayers and starred the great Peter Wyngarde, in his first starring role, and Janet Blair in a tale of everyday witchcraft in an English university. TV's future Jason King Wyngarde is Norman Taylor, a young psychology professor who is rising through the academic ranks at an alarming speed. Blair played his loyal wife, Tansy, who has been making that rise to success happen by indulging in a little black magic in the home.

Shot in crisp black and white and made for a minuscule budget, the effects are small but the mood is mighty. Tansy learnt her skills while the couple lived out in Africa and there's something believable about the small items of magic like dead spiders, graveyard earth and little dolls she secretes about the home.

The trouble is, other members of the academic community are also practicing witches and, when Norman is set up in sex scandal with a young student, the battle for power commences.

Hayers, a jobbing director with mostly TV credits to his name, shoots all this intrigue with a bold, almost dreamlike style, and watching the arrogant Norman start to reassess his attitude to the dark arts as the film progresses is fascinating. He starts out a true non-believer and winds up quite the opposite as the forces of darkness – and an ominous stone eagle that sits over the university – start to take over.

Wyngarde is, as always, stylish and brilliantly aloof throughout and Blair is terrific as the devoted wife who's dabbling in the dark arts.

The slow-burning script from Twilight Zone regulars Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont is low on action but it's worth sticking with as the mood it creates is truly unique. It may not be up there with Tourneur's finest work but it's still a seriously spooky treat all the same.

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