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Friday, October 30, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020 -Day 30: NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962)

When you REALLY have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.

Psychology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) lectures a class on superstition and occult lore, firmly establishing him as a man firmly rooted in the empirically quantifiable and the rational. He's relatively young and happily married and his future at the British university where he teaches looks bright, what with a pretty young student clearly making eyes at him, along with him being under serious consideration for advancement of his academic career. As far as he's concerned, everything is coming up roses, but his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), knows better. She understands the subtleties of communication between women, specifically her interactions with the other university wives, and she has takes steps to ensure her husband's safety and that of his career against the perceived hostility of the other professors' spouses. You see, Tansy is into the mystic arts, specifically those she encountered during a trip to Jamaica and that she continues to foster on her solo weekends at her cabin getaway. Her position in the all-female power play is made clear early on, during a bridge game with the professors and their wives, and we see the vicious hatred and jealousy fairly radiating from the hateful university secretary, Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston), whose husband's career stalled when Norman arrived. Tansy, being unable to sleep after the bridge game, goes downstairs and discovers a crude voodoo doll made in her image and affixed inside a lampshade, where it was unlikely to be found. Tansy remove the fetish item, cracks it open, spilling its powdery contents into an ashtray and setting them alight.


A hidden item of voodoo.

One night while searching for a fresh pair of pajamas, Norman rummages through one of the bedroom dresser's drawers and finds a dessicated spider in a carved box hidden at the bottom of the drawer. When he confronts Tansy on this, she nervously laughs it off off, stating it was a souvenir from her last trip to Jamaica, a gift and "good luck charm" from a warlock whose acquaintance she had made while there. Upon returning home from work the next day, Norman notices a bell that Tansy has hung in the rafter above their house's front door. Puzzled and thinking back to the spider he'd discovered, Norman's knowledge of occult lore and superstition is activated and he searches the entire house, unearthing a plethora of items that are clearly for the use in spells and ritual, including some sort of juju pouch pinned inside the collar of his jacket.

A wife's charms exposed.

Disturbed by the trinkets and by his wife's actions, Norman demands the truth from Tansy, and he does not like what he gets: Two years prior, during their trip to Jamaica, Norman almost died and was so close to death that conventional practitioner of medicine had given up on him. The desperate Tansy voiced her desire to trade her life for her husbands, inspired by her witnessing of a local warlock bringing very dead girl back to life. Without having to forfeit her life, Tansy, inspired by what she has seen and now believes is unarguably real, begins practicing the arts of obeah, practices that "seem" to work. Since their arrival at the university, Tansy has been using her magic to improve things for her husband while warding off the other women. She declares that she is a full-on practicing witch, much to Norman's disgust and annoyance, so he demands that she burn all of her charms while declaring his disappointment at how someone as smart and rational as his wife would ever do something so "stupid." Tansy is distraught over this, stating that they cannot survive with her protections, but she nonetheless complies and watches in fear as Norman sets her wards alight. Funny how one's words can come right back to bite one on the ass, no? From the instant the last of Tansy's items goes up in flames, Norman's life and career turn into an ever-widening gyre of doom as the other witches are now free to utterly destroy him. A false rape accusation from his obsessed student, nearly getting run down by a lorry driver, a near-deadly confrontation with his most belligerent and now gun-wielding male student (who was interested in the rape accuser but was jilted in favor of her infatuation with Norman), strange noises in and around the house, a cursed audio tape and madness-inducing sounds from the telephone all add up to Norman beginning to believe, all while a stone eagle watches and waits. But Tansy is not down for the count. Not by a long shot...


It's merely a statue...

This British adaptation of legendary fantasy writer Fritz Leiber's classic story CONJURE WIFE (1943, but later published in extended novel form a decade later), does considerable justice to its source material, though it shifts the location from New England to the U.K. The book has long been one of my favorites, as I read it as if it were a dark version of the classic TV sitcom BEWITCHED (1964-1972). While BEWITCHED mined the concept of a with married to a mundane/mortal husband who tried (and failed) to get her not to use her powers for often-hilarious comedy, Leiber aimed for more serious and darker results, and came up with gold. The story was earlier filmed as WEIRD WOMAN (1944), but its narrative was reportedly re-jiggered as more of a mystery than a straight-up supernatural thriller. I have never seen it, so I cannot speak for its qualities, but I know if I had read CONJURE WOMAN and gone in expecting something close to the source and got a fucking mystery, I would have been pissed. Speaking as a fan of the novel, NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, which was re-titled BURN, WITCH, BURN for the American release, I very much enjoyed this adaptation of it definitely recommend it to those who, like me, love a good witchy yarn. If I had to sum it up in a nutshell, this is kind of THE CRAFT for grownups.

Poster from the original U.K. theatrical release.
Poster from the American theatrical release.

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