Hello, I’m AsimovLives. I love to discover film gems and help bring them out of their obscurity and into the spotlight; few movies are as obscure as the 1983 American horror film, Eyes Of Fire.
It’s a peculiar, unusual movie. It’s quite a hell of a viewing experience, so apropos since it deals with hellish things. Something wicked this way comes.
One word before going further into this movie: the image captures featured in the article are of questionable quality. The film has not been released since its original VHS run in the mid-1980s. All pictures are from the old release.
Title: Eyes Of Fire
Writer/Director: Avery Crounse
Producer: Philip J. Spinelli
Cinematography: Wade Hanks
Editor: Michael Barnard
Music: Brad Fiedel
Running time: 90 minutes
Actors: Guy Boyd (Marion Dalton), Dennis Lipscomb (Will Smythe), Karlene Crockett (Leah), Sally Klein (Fanny, narrator), Rebecca Stanley (Eloise), Rob Paulsen (Jewell), Kerry Sherman (Margaret), Caitlin Baldwin (Cathleen, co-narrator), Fran Ryan (Sister), Will Hare (Calvin), Erin Buchanan (Meg), Rose Preston (Indian Girl)
Colonial America, 1750.
In French Louisiana, near the border of the British Colonies and Indian territories, three British children are found in unusual circumstances. When questioned by authorities, the girls say they have escaped from a witch. The interrogator, a disbeliever of witchcraft, dismisses their explanation and demands to be told what happened from the beginning. So Fanny, the eldest, tells their story.
They had been part of a cult led by the charismatic Will Smythe, the minister of the frontier town of Danton’s Ferry. Eloise, Fanny’s mother and wife of trapper Marion Dalton, had grown tired of waiting for her husband’s long absences from home, fell into the arms of Smythe, and had taken Fanny with her. Smythe was already in an amorous relationship with the strange Leah, a young mute woman, who he had rescued as a child from a lynching crowd that executed her mother for witchcraft.
The polyamorous relationship scandalizes the puritanical, god-fearing townspeople, and one morning they arrest Smythe to execute him for adultery, lechery, and polygamy. He is saved by Leah, who exhibits supernatural powers that break the hanging rope. Smythe strong-arms the scared villagers into providing his group with supplies and surrendering the ferry so his party can travel downriver in search of “The Promise Land.” The party consists of Smythe, Leah, Eloise, Fanny, and two other couples and their children.
Downriver, they are attacked by the Indians and mercenaries. One of their members is killed, and the rest are saved by another intervention from Leah, who invokes winds that sail them out of danger. Will devises a trick to send the ferry downriver with the killed pilgrim and scarecrow figures on board in hopes of leading the Indians away in pursuit of the ferry; however, the Indians are not fooled by Will’s condescendingly simple trick and are on their trail.
Eloise’s husband, Marion Danton, who had returned to his hometown after a trapping expedition, is told by the townspeople that his wife and her lover were set to be executed for their scandal but had fled. He canoes downriver to try to find Smythe’s pilgrims in hope of protecting his wife and daughter. His timely arrival interrupts an impending Indian ambush.
Marion speaks the local Indians’ language and manages to defuse the situation enough to trick the attackers to lower their guard. He shoots them into retreat, but it’s just a temporary solution; the Indians will be back in force and with an appetite for revenge.
During this, Leah wanders into a clearing in the woods and returns covered in feathers. Marion demands to know where the feathers came from. He realizes the feathers are, in fact, a warning from one tribe to all others that there is a cursed place ahead that should be avoided. The pilgrims decide to exploit the Indian superstition by heading into that very place, assuming they would not be followed. Their plan works, and the Indians stop their pursuit.
The forbidden place is a lush valley with cabins abandoned by previous occupants. Smythe is delighted by the apparent strike of good luck that gave them an already-developed place to set camp in, taking this as a sign of divine providence. Marion, however, is more apprehensive. Neither a superstitious nor religious man, he reasons that something must not be right with this valley. He believes that if the Indians avoid this place, it has to be for a good reason. Despite this, Smythe’s charisma leads the others to do his bidding, none more than Marion’s own wife who is in Will’s thrall.
That night, in a conversation with his daughters Fanny and Leah, Marion tells them about the local Indians’ definition of the devil. The Indians believe the devil is not a supernatural concept but is as natural as the trees and the ground they walk. Evil is the manifestation of the blood of innocents spilled, such as hunted rabbits killed for food, which runs to a specific point on Earth where it gains form as a devil who hunts the living in revenge. Marion thinks that it is the Indians’ belief that the specific point that manifests the devil is where they have settled. He himself does not sway into believing it or not, but he acknowledges that the Indians take this seriously enough to avoid the place and leave heeded warnings.
The same night, a group of naked people covered in mud takes some of the pilgrims’ possessions and drink their cow’s milk. At first, Will and Marion take them for local Indians, but Leah sees them as something else; from her visions, she knows they are the previous occupants, French colonists who had met a horrible death by madness at the hands of a strange entity with skin of tree bark and eyes of fire.
Smythe finds a young Indian girl, sees her as a gift from the Indians, and rejoices at the chance to baptize her into the fold of Christianity. Leah sees the girl in a vision as something evil and demonic.
Smythe has all his attention on the colony as Marion explores the surroundings. He finds a broken stone tablet with French writing describing events that confirm Leah’s visions, but Smythe still dismisses the tale as mere lunacy; however, more strange and ghastly things keep happening to the pilgrims as time goes by, straining their sanity.
Things take a turn for the worst when Fanny disappears. Leah previously had visions of the forest witch kidnapping Fanny and leads Marion to her late at night in a clearing surrounded by the naked people. When he confronts them, they disappear into the night air, leaving Fanny alone to be rescued.
She is in a coma, and while the others think it is merely over-exposure to the elements, Marion knows that stranger things are afoot. With his knowledge of Indian mythology, he discovers a tree with his daughters face on it. He cuts the tree down, and Fanny is immediately awoken out of her trance, with a tale of strange dreams of people imprisoned in the forest’s trees, controlled by a demonic witch.
Things become even weirder and much more dangerous for the pilgrims, leading to a desperate final confrontation filled with dark magic and madness.
The synopsis above does not do justice to the unique, strange appeal and originality of the film. It’s quite unlike most movies.
The setting of the story marks its first difference. Unlike most stories set in the American past, this one goes further back to the frontier America colonial past, when the North American continent was shared by different European powers and the buffer Indian Nations in between.
To address the more obvious aspect of this film first, it’s quite low budget; however, I find it to be one of its best qualities.
To explain, I have come to notice that very often the best way to depict a certain aspect of the past, namely the stories involving people who were the salt of the earth, is through low-budget movies, which often provide an authenticity that would look fake on a film with a larger budget.
This is especially true in the past when bigger-budget movies often felt a need to show off the budget and their constant reliance on indoor studios. This type of filming was always too obvious, often ruining the illusion.
A lower-budget movie concerning lower classes filmed in natural environments can become a strength. Freed of the concern to look epic or show the lives of nobles, the very low-cost props utilized in the film reflects the very things that were affordable to those people.
These films were helped by a new style of cinematography that emerged from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a game changer in period movie film-making. Kubrick decided to forgo a modern look and instead go for the closest approximation to what it might have looked like in the 18th century. His inspirations were the paintings of the time, and he treated them as photographic documents. The result was one of the most beautiful-looking and influential films in the history of cinema and period filmmaking.
This film depicts a historical story shot from the ground level, complete with the mud and dirt. This period style of cinematography is not afraid of shadows or images obscured by beams of light and fog but embraces and depends on them to enhance the believability of the depicted world.
The film score was composed by Brad Fiedel, who very shortly thereafter composed the score for The Terminator. Eyes of Fire‘s score is a classic Irish theme and could not be more different from the metallic drones of the James Cameron movie. Fiedel is a very talented composer, and I think he is one of the most underused talents that has ever worked in Hollywood.
Fiedel’s work in this movie, however, is not just the Irish theme, as the score changes to electronic moody music to depict horror. It might be jarring to hear electronic music in a period film, but such artistic choices is not without precedent, such as in Vangeli’s Oscar-winning score for Chariots Of Fire (1981), giving it a veneer of legitimization. Later films continued the anachronistic trend, such as Jean-Jacques Arnaud’s The Name Of The Rose, Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, and the TV show The Knick.
The film makes heavy use of electronic sound effects, especially for scary moments or depictions of magic. They are the most obviously-dated element of the film – typical library sound effects from the 1980s. They are quite archaic for today, but some might find them to have a certain throwback charm.
The editing style changes from the slower-paced naturalistic scenes to jump cuts for supernatural depictions, such as Leah’s visions or moments of witchcraft. Aided by subtle changes of camera angles and other subtle stylizations, the editing gives the movie a style of its own. I also commend the movie for mostly using a realistic style. I think the best way to tell a supernatural story is to first build a realistic world; the juxtaposition of the two disparate elements adds to the horror.
The cast of Eyes of Fire is composed by both known character actors of the time and others who I suspect had limited involvement in the film business outside of this project. I think that they all do their parts quite well and convincingly. The acting can sometimes look over-stylized, but I think this is a deliberate artistic choice to make the depiction of people from a different time more believable.
Of all the characters, the most memorable are the smarmy Will Smythe, the badass Marion Dalton, and the strange yet caring Leah.
Smythe is a character the audience immediately knows is not on the level, but in the story most are oblivious to it. He’s a picture-perfect pseudo intellectual: proud of his culture learned from numerous books he owns but can barely understand. His self-serving righteousness is his most obnoxious trait, and his absolute convictions in his own faith blind him to everything except his desire to see the world as he wants it to be. It is fun to see him succumb to hysterical madness when things escape his control.
Marion is the character most audiences will love. He’s quiet, pragmatic, intelligent – a true intellectual who uses his smarts and curiosity to learn the lessons of the world. He’s like Gabriel Oak from Far From The Madding Crowd, described as owning only four books but was able to take from them more teachings than most scholars with a thousand books. As the story progresses, it’s Marion who keeps saving the day thanks to his alertness to the surrounding events and his ability to read things as they are. Marion is the perfect antithesis to Smythe.
Leah is the second character audiences will love. She starts as Smythe’s protective lover, but her allegiance shifts to Marion as they defend the pilgrims. She later acts as protector of the children when the adults are doing a poor job in dealing with the evil witch. Karlene Crockett’s acting is quite impressive.
As Marion’s child, Fanny is an interesting case that avoids the usual annoying teen character so often found in horror films. She is a period character who had to grow up quickly due to her mother’s emotional co-dependency on Smythe; in her own words, “my mother became the child and I become the mother.” She inherits her father’s curiosity and acceptance of things as they are.
Fanny is the narrator of the film, true to the narrative device of the film. It helps the film’s distinctive style and harks back to a storytelling form of old when narration and epistolary were the most common.
Speaking of narration, when Fanny is abducted and her fate uncertain, narration duties are taken by another child from the beginning of the film. With Fanny unconscious, it makes sense that it would be another person who would relate what was happening among the pilgrims. Clever!
True to the period of the time, most actors speak with an accent, sometimes obviously Old World and other times with a more subdued accent. I believe the intention was to depict the different origins of the population of Colonial America of the time, where they had recently arrived from the motherlands mingled with second and third generation locals.
Being Portuguese, I sometimes fail to notice the nuances of the different dialects of the British Isles, so I’m not sure if some of the characters are supposed to be Scottish or Irish. Historically, it would make more sense that they would be Scottish since they arrived first to the New World in numbers, most escaping from the devastating occupation and pacification of Scotland by the British following Bonnie Prince Charles’s failed rebellion.
Having the French interrogator speak in English is an obvious compromise for an American audience. The truth is that the English-speaking people would learn French, not the other way around. During this time, French was the international lingua franca, so any British people who had dealings with foreigners would have had to learn French. Native English speaking people and local Indians living near the frontier of the French and British territories of the time learned French to communicate with their foreign neighbors, and speaking French would be something even children as young as the ones in the story would know.
The historical period of this film stirs the history geek in me. I find the time fascinating – when North America was not yet united under two nations but was shared between many different European and Indian nations. The romanticism is contrasted by the reality that this was contested territory and often resulted in armed conflict such as the French-Indian Wars. Given the setting of Eyes Of Fire, this movie could be called the horror counterpart of The Last Of The Mohicans, with witchcraft magic thrown in for good measure. This unusual, yet interesting, historical setting has unfortunately rarely been explored by modern American filmmakers.
Now, if only this movie could be easily seen! Alas, that’s not so. It’s quite obscure, even among the horror crowd. The reason this review is written by me of all people is because it is unknown even by this site’s major horror fans. Make no mistake; the heads of The Supernaughts are hardcore knowledgeable horror fans, but it seems that accidental circumstances lead me to know of this obscure movie instead of them. It happened thanks to a rental from a friend back in the mid-1980s and struck a chord with me. I fortunately had the opportunity to watch it again recently, which was great, as I have wanted to for quite some time.
But today, outside of YouTube, you will be quite hard-pressed to find it. This film only got one official release in VHS format back in the mid-1980s. From my research on the matter, I learned that there were two more releases: one VHS and Laserdisc release in the early 90s and a DVD release from the mid-2000s from a country with looser copyright laws. But they were all unofficial and worse, they were mere burnings of the original VHS release with the correspondent image and sound quality, which had already suffered degradation.
And this is where I have to lament the fact that with so many cult films being restored by such labels as Blue Underground or Anchor Bay, nothing has been done for this film. I think Eyes Of Fire also deserves a modern film restoration and re-release.
This film is cult classic material and already has a small following. Some found this film thanks to YouTube, from bargain bin VHS tape relics, or from garage sales rummages. There are reviews from film geeks around the Internet and YouTube, and there is even a Wikipedia page about it. I advise anybody who wants to know more to check them out.
With its unusual setting, stylistic quirks, and strange story, Eyes of Fire makes for quite a unique film-watching experience. It should be better known and deserves a new release so all horror and film enthusiasts can discover it.
This is AsimovLives, signing off. Have a better one.