We tend to look back at horror in the 1980’s with a certain sense of fondness, disgust and incredulity. The state of the genre was in total flux with the slasher film sitting atop its box office throne, The Shining flying the flag for critically acceptable horror whilst Evil Dead and Re-Animator were delighting audiences with their exaggerated blend of terror and comedy. It is of no surprise then that a film like 1983’s Eyes of Fire would drift quietly under the radar of rabid genre audience of the eighties but to see it disappear almost entirely from the canon is a perplexing and disappointing outcome for a film so alive with creativity. Taking into account the fact that rural horror, always obsessed with nature, magik and deathly spirits, seems to be making a contemporary comeback, it seems that Eyes of Fire is more than overdue for a re-examination.
Screening in the UK for the first time as part of London programming collective Cigarette Burns Cinema’s ‘Into the Woods’ series, Eyes of Fire is a compelling, overwrought yet forgotten take on the early colonisation of America. A group of pioneers, including a local preacher, his mistress and a ragtag bunch of family members, are ostracised from their village after the preacher is accused of adultery before narrowly escaping a hanging. Making their way down the river into the unknown bowels of a dark heartland and pursued by his mistresses’ husband, the preacher decides to settle down on a piece of land even the natives will not enter into, blind to the fact that there are ancient and hungry spirits to contend with. Trying to second-guess the twists and turns of this film is a fool’s errand as the woods seem to close in and the mysticism takes over.
Initially though, the film has more in common with the stately, atmospheric British films of the 1970’s (Blood on Satan’s Claw comes to mind) than the outright surreal, visceral horror scene of the eighties. Director Avery Crounse, whose career forked more into the visual arts than it did into cinema, utilises what must have been a minuscule budget in creative ways, managing to portray a world that feels both ancient and accessible. As hard as it is to reconnect with a past so far behind us, Crouse manages to build an environment that feels dangerous, one that cannot be tamed or studied in the way that we do today. If at any point we were to become dislodged from the settler’s locale then the carefully cultivated atmosphere and tone of a community out of their depth would no longer seem convincing enough to scare or disturb in the way it does. The performances walk this tightrope the most, ranging from the scene-chewing silliness of Dennis Lipscomb as the charismatic preacher to the more subdued and thoughtful performance of Karlene Crockett as the disturbed Leah.
Whilst Eyes of Fire may carry the tone of a period drama, there is no mistaking its genre intentions from the offset. The supernatural teasing, most evident from the troubled, mute psychic character who displays her powers fairly early on, lends a sense of dread to proceedings before the film descends into madness and cruelty. What was once a delicate balancing act between reality and ethereal disturbance is turned on its head when the Devil-Witch of the Woods begins to wreak havoc on the pioneers who have encroached into familiar territory. The real-world parallels are pretty plain to see (the trappings and hypocrisy of western faith at the forefront) but there are intense thrills in watching the various bizarre ways in which the natural landscape and old, old evil makes itself known, from the chillingly feral monster-child that is brought into the settlement in the hope it can be tamed by religion to the disturbing final sequence, overloaded with mud-drenched nudity and wonderfully nostalgic 80’s CGI, adding a fresh layer of phantasmagoria to an already head-scratching film.
The motives and rules of the Devil-Witch, kept at arms length, makes for sometimes frustrating viewing, but is no doubt a conscious choice in order to maintain the anxiety inducing mystery of the location. This might have contributed to the apparent apathy of audiences when it was released but nevertheless, it is hard to deny similarities between Crounse’s arguably experimental horror film and the successes of today such as Eggers’ 2015 critically acclaimed film The VVitch (settlers settling in the wrong settlement) or Kill List, Ben Wheatley’s first but not last foray into isolated, horrific landscapes. Eyes of Fire may not be blessed with the same production values or talent that these later films are yet the electric aura and commitment to unrelenting dread make Eyes of Fire an almost-forgotten paragon of folk horror.
Eyes of Fire was shown on 35mm as part of Cigarette Burn Cinema’s ‘Into the Woods’ series at the Barbican. More information about their events can be found here.