Note: This article was first published on the now defunct Talkbacker.
Time packs forgotten films tightly into a bottomless chambered box, one you have to pilfer around in, only finding by accident such black and white treasures like Eye of the Devil.
Looking around the net to see what others had said about it, it seems almost universally hated. It was considered overly long even for only ninety-two minutes, boring, slow-paced, and probably lacking in T&A. It succeeded in Europe and bombed in the United States. It was the screen debut for actress Sharon Tate. If you’ve never heard of her, you’ve probably heard of her husband Roman Polanski, and the leader of the death cult that killed her, Charles Manson. She would be stabbed multiple times and still beg for her unborn baby’s life, to no avail.
While entertaining guests at a cocktail party, the Marquis de Montfaucon – Philippe (David Niven) has his thoroughly modern life interrupted, getting a call that his family’s vineyard is failing. He demands his wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) and their two children stay behind as he has business to attend to. But she suspects something is seriously wrong, arriving a day behind at Bellenac castle (Château de Hautefort). This is all taking place in France not Britain if the names didn’t already give it away.
There we meet Odile (Sharon Tate) and her brother Christian (David Hemmings). Both of the faces of these blond beasts lack any expression and are worn as masks. They float about the grounds like ghosts spying on everyone as if they’re waiting for a kill. They don’t just live there, they haunt it. Odile appears to have hypnotic powers as well which she uses to try and hypno-suicide launch Catherine off a rooftop, after catching Odile sitting among her playing children. The Marquis promptly massages Odile with a whip because of it. But who’s to say that isn’t just ritual pleasure for her. She denounces their hypocrisy because they kill cloaked in ritual while she and her brother for pleasure?
Christian is on the same totem pole of crazy as his sister. He practices shooting doves all day and everyday for one act which he has spent his life training for. He seemingly has no other purpose. Tate and Hemmings are perfectly suited for these roles as they both resemble nymphs. Tate, unfortunately, becomes a moving celluloid statue like so many other youth dead in real life, but still alive on screen. She had six other roles besides this one that was preceded by a number of TV roles. Her last film was released after her death.
The entire economy of the town happens to be the vineyard, that is protected by a pagan earth cult reaching back probably a thousand years, that demand a sacrifice. Three unsuccessful seasons and oh well it’s back to using someone as a blood gift. There’s a scene where the Marquis is examining the grape vines, and the townsfolk stand silently around eerily hovering in other rows watching him, their stare demanding what’s expected of him.
There is no victim since he (the Marquis) has elected to die as his duty, well, other than his wife and two children which are unable to dissuade him at all from this endeavor. He doesn’t look for any avenues of escape either and accepts his lot as a necessity for the good of the masses.
There is no unseen demon here waiting in the background or manifestation ready to be conjured up. The entire town is in on it and have been making these ‘dedications’ for centuries. They believe in God as strongly as they believe in the devil. But the devil tends to the crops and requires something in return. Christian’s killing of the doves not only foreshadows what’s required for tranquility, but might be a small offering each time of appeasement. He points his arrow at Catherine when her back is turned to him as she threatens to call the police if he ever kills another dove. Maybe he thinks he can get the best grape crop ever out of her kill? That or the monster executioner is pissed?
Twenty-two male members of his family have died in bizarre circumstances. All have been sacrificed by the dark robed council of 13 for centuries. But why not anyone else in town? Why not Christian, as his skin is so much smoother? Do you either volunteer to be executioner or a sacrifice as a career option in this place?
When it’s all over don’t try to make a fuss. No one will believe you. No one will come forward to support what you say. No one ever has.
The score has horns poking through always seemingly in perpetual announcement. This builds brilliantly to a sustained ride through the executioners corridor and into the forest where he’s executed.
J. Lee Thompson, who directed two Planet of the Apes films among his other works, wasn’t the only director to have worked on Eye of the Devil. Rather he stepped in as a finisher after two others had to leave for whatever reason. Who can be sure of his contribution in this mix in any case, not that the film looks incoherent because of it.
This is one film I definitely would not like to see in color. It would be like colorizing The Hill or Dr. Strangelove. Seven Days In May and The Manchurian Candidate would be severely diminished by seeing them in color as well. All the secrecy and mystery invested in washed away. Imagine seeing The Twilight Zone…ahhh, nevermind.