If Alfred Hitchcock were to have made an occult horror film, it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy to believe that it would look something like Sidney Hayers’ 1962 film Night of the Eagle. Mixing up all sorts of clean cut imagery and marvellously juicy language, the film is one of the more Freudian in the horror canon and a far more subtle affair than later occult horror films such as Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (1968) or The Witches (1966). The film opens with a typically Hitchcockian title sequence that shows a woman’s eye watching over as the credits role past the screen. This hints at the under currents to come and shows the wonderfully voyeuristic nature of the women in the film who watch over their husbands and each other with the keen precision of an eagle.
We are introduced to the wonderfully middle to upper class couple, Norman (Peter Wyngarde) and Tansy Taylor (Janet Blair), who live the most idyllic of lives out in the country. Norman is a lecturer (possibly of some form of philosophy) and the couple are a success both financially and socially. When Norman finds a dead spider hidden in a jar though, he begins to suspect that his wife is up to something strange in their cottage while he’s out at work. This is a complex and intelligent film, questioning both the roles of belief and of gender identity but all shot through the lens of an atmospheric, RKO style of cinematography. Norman is first introduced during one of his lectures in which he is demystifying the supernatural as only existing through forms of belief. The whole film works its way around this proposition, though not through any heavy analysis or obvious dropping of ideals, instead dealing with it by placing the character in increasingly desperate scenarios.
When Norman finds out that Tansy is in fact performing witchcraft, he doesn’t just see it as an attack on his whole ethos and belief system. His own role as a dominant man and his masculinity is called into question as it appears that the couple’s success is perhaps more due to her esoteric endeavours at the cottage than his at the school. This is an extremely interesting element for horror, especially before the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. Though on the surface of the film the relationships between the husbands and wives seem the typical, patriarchal relationship displayed in any number of dramas from the era, here the lives of the men are in fact governed by the women albeit in secret. They sit and cast spells in the hope to gain more financial and social success and than their friend’s husbands making it a refreshing yet darkly humorous take on the genre.
This attack on the masculinity of Norman begins the breakdown of the couple’s cosy lives and even their relationship (superbly surmised it with the silhouette of Norman fighting off the possessed Tansy, cast over a lovable, framed picture of the couple). This first comes in the form of a bad day at work, in which a student clearly infatuated with him, accuses him of violating her. This leads to further drama with the girl’s boyfriend who even threatens his life with a gun. This apparent series of unfortunate events is only the start of the unravelling of the couple’s lives with the attack on Norman’s masculinity further solidified by a Hitchcockian dream sequence, turning into a nightmare where a vision of Tansy speaks to him repeatedly stating “everything of yours is mine”.
Further adding to the haunted feel of the film is a wonderful sequence involving a cursed tape recording of one of Norman’s lectures. Sent by one of the rival witches to finish the pair off, the recording sequence begins an exercise in how to use diegetic sound effectively in a horror film. The sounds in the background begin to ebb and drown out Norman’s voice as it drives Tansy mad. It somehow summons a creature (sounding remarkably like an eagle clawing at the door) and is only stopped when the sound, which transfers to an ominous telephone call, is hung up. The tape itself recalls that wonderful effect that the literature of M.R James conjures through the use of an inorganic demon; an object possessed with the ability to summon up a demon or ghost or perhaps an object that even houses the creature itself.
As Tansy disappears after secretly offering herself in her husband’s place, Norman is forced to confront his own belief system. While straying into a shadowy church, after some quick research he is forced to use witchcraft techniques in order to get his wife back. This element is again extremely Jamesian with a sceptic having to confront the physical effects of something they can’t explain. Occult horror films are often more effective when concerning characters who are sceptics and, like Night of the Demon (1957), this film presents a character whose job it is to dispel any theory or belief in superstition. This is what makes Norman’s fear such a terrifying proposition. Some form of a demon is eventually summoned in the form of an eagle thanks to the rival witch playing the tape through loudspeakers as Norman tries to escape their property. The demon is perhaps the only aspect of the film that allows it to be underrated in the pantheon of horror films though a more typical style of ornithological demon would have missed the point of the film entirely.
Night of the Eagle ends with a climactic action though one that works well metaphorically also. The rival witch has cast a spell to burn the Taylor’s house down but luckily Tansy escapes. However, as Norman watches his past life burn to a cinder thanks to all of his meddling, there’s no doubt that he’s also watching the burning of his masculinity, the burning of his status in his marriage and the burning of his beliefs which, until then, he’d strictly lived his life by.