British Horror/Suspense

Night of the Eagle

Fritz Leiber Jr. was a talented fantasy, science fiction and horror writer who is mainly remembered for the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, which surprisingly have never been adapted for the cinema. In contrast, Leiber’s Conjure Wife has served as the basis of multiple movies, including the fine 1962 film Night of the Eagle (later re-titled Burn Witch Burn).

Peter Wyngarde stars as a hard-headed college professor who thinks that the supernatural is bunk. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that his wife (Janet Blair) has been a practicing witch for years, and claims that her magic has been advancing his career and protecting the couple’s well-being! He makes her promise to abandon her childish hobby, and almost immediately regrets it when a series of horrifying happenings befall the two of them. Could witchcraft be real, and is another witch in the college community out to get them?

The script is by two masters of economical, intelligent, unpretentious horror: Richard Matheson (who also wrote my recommended film Amelia) and Charles Beaumont (who also penned my recommendations The Intruder and Masque of the Red Death). They pace the plot and the scares professionally, and slyly weave a feminist subtext into the proceedings.

I have to admit that I can’t name another movie of director Sidney Hayers, but his low profile wasn’t due to lack of talent. He keeps things suspenseful and crisp, gets solid performances from all the actors and brings in the good-for-the-time special effects at just the right moments. The pleasing result recalls Roger Corman’s many solid low budget horror films, such as those he adapted from Edgar Allen Poe stories (including my recommended film Tales of Terror). Not surprisingly, Night of the Eagle was released by Anglo-Amalgamated, the British partner of Corman’s company AIP.

This suspenseful sleeper is available to watch for free at the Internet Archive, just click here. As a taster, I embed the trailer below.

p.s. This film would make a fine double feature with an ever better film based on the same themes: Curse of the Demon. My recommendation of that film is here.

British Horror/Suspense

Masque of the Red Death

Low budget film genius Roger Corman once said the two films he was proudest of were The Intruder (a searing film about racism and civil rights which I recommended here) and the superb horror movie Masque of the Red Death.

Corman had been enchanted by Edgar Allen Poe stories since reading The Fall of the House of Usher at age 11. After directing a number of schlock black-and-white films made in 10 day shoots, he persuaded James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkhoff to let him do a Poe adaptation and to make it a “big budget” movie: Not only would it be in color, but he would have 15 whole days to shoot it! With his usual brilliance at spotting affordable talent, Corman cast as the lead Vincent Price, an actor who otherwise might have faded into obscurity along with his youthful good looks. The Fall of the House of Usher proved a big money maker, and an enduring cinematic collaboration was born (Corman, Price and Poe, often joined by other terrific horror actors and writers).

I have recommended the Corman-Price-Poe film Tales of Terror, which while a lot of fun is not as impressive cinematically as Masque of the Red Death. The latter was filmed in the United Kingdom because the government at the time had a film production subsidy policy, giving Corman more to work with financially than usual. The film also benefited from the cinematographer being the gifted Nicholas Roeg, one of the many soon to be famous film artists who was nurtured in the university of Roger Corman. Couple those virtues with Corman’s scrounging ability — he recycled much of the opulent set of Becket here — and you have the best looking of any of the Corman-Price-Poe films.

The plot of this 1964 release comes from the Poe story of the same name, with a subplot drawn from Poe’s Hop-Frog. The story opens in a foggy forest in Medieval Italy, where a mysterious figure cloaked in red foretells of a coming plague (His face is never seen, and I assumed his wonderfully sonorous voice was provided by the late Christopher Lee, but it turns out to be John Westbrook). Meanwhile, the rich, cruel, Satan-worshiping Prince Prospero terrorizes the peasants, and casts a lustful eye in particular on a lovely, impoverished lass named Francesca (played by Paul McCartney’s one-time beau Jane Asher). As the plague spreads through the land, Prospero’s castle fills up with both his greedy courtiers and his unwilling prisoners. Debauchery and nastiness ensue, coupled with ample surrealism and existential dread for good measure.

Corman was utterly in command of his material by this penultimate entry of his Poe cycle, and benefited from a strong script by R. Wright Campbell and the legendary Charles Beaumont (co-creator of the Twilight Zone). The almost hallucinatory ambiance of the film makes it both uniquely unnerving and a foreshadowing of the more experimental film style that would flower as the 1960s went along (including the moments when Corman strains for artiness a bit too much). As for the actors, this may be Vincent Price’s most impressive horror performance: he dominates every one of his scenes. Of the many good supporting performances, particular praise is in order for the little-known Skip Martin. As Hop-Toad, a wronged dwarf who seeks revenge, Martin conveys impressive emotional power. He had the bad luck to work in the pre-Peter Dinklage era where good parts for little people were virtually never written into films, but at least he made the most of his opportunity to shine here.

Masque of the Red Death succeeds as a horror film and also as an art house drama. Congratulations to Corman and his crew, as well of course to the magnificent Edgar Allen Poe.


The Intruder

It is pretty hard to imagine a Hollywood Producer sitting in a meeting in 1962 and saying “I want a daring and powerful film about racism in the civil rights era…get Roger Corman and Bill Shatner on the phone pronto!”. Yet the B-Movie king and television’s most beloved overactor did indeed make such a movie, and The Intruder still packs a punch today. .

The story opens with an angelic-looking charmer (Shatner) named Adam Cramer arriving at a small Southern town for the purpose of “social work”. He is boyish and innocent-seeming at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is a member of a John Birch-type society and intends to stir up racial animosity concurrent with the arrival of school integration. He preys on weakness in all its forms and foments hatred and violence which spins out of control. Disgusted by Cramer, a fence-sitting newspaper editor (Frank Maxwell) has an attack of conscience and moves to side decisively with integration, at horrible cost to himself and his family.

Maybe because it was his first movie leading role or because Corman kept him under control, Shatner is unusually restrained here and it really works well for him. Then young and handsome, he is particularly effective at portraying seductive yet smarmy sexuality. Most of the extras and small roles were people of the town in which the crew filmed and were eventually chased out of because of the dirty laundry the movie was airing. Charles Barnes as the high school senior leading the first Black students into the previously segregated school movingly conveys strength, dignity and sadness all at once. This was a role from the heart for him as the prior year he had actually done the same thing in real life.

Although The Intruder can be experienced as a film about racism, it can be even better appreciated as a mesmerizing character study. Adam Cramer is a blend of the calm salesman and someone desperate to obtain, a bully and a weakling, an Adonis who is deeply ugly. The development of this strange yet realistic character is the best thing about Charles Beaumont’s script. For someone with a tragically short life, Beaumont had significant artistic impact, including co-creating The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling and going on with Corman and much of the cast here to make the first adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s work for the big screen (The above-average horror film, The Haunted Palace).

Corman was known for making cheap, unpretentious grindhouse films about motorcycles, monsters and mayhem (Including Edgar Allen Poe adaptations I recommend here and here). He also, famously, never lost money on a movie. Until The Intruder that is, which was denied bookings in much of The South and in other parts of the country where the film was considered too controversial. It was re-titled multiple times to try to get it into theaters (as “Shame” and later with the cringe worthy exploitation title “I Hate Your Guts!”), but with minimal success. As the film’s reputation grew and it was the subject of some documentaries and festivals, it finally broke even four decades after its release.

The only thing I didn’t love about The Intruder was the climax, which though still downbeat comes out a bit happier than I expect it would have in real life. But if Corman had gone for complete realism his film would never have been released at all. This was daring stuff for its time, and both for its themes and character development The Intruder remains an impressive piece of cinema over 50 years later.

The Intruder is in the public domain and you will be able to find it online pretty easily. It took only the first six minutes for me to be completely hooked.  After you have watched it, you might enjoy this short film about the making of the movie (spoilers).