In 1750, along “The American Frontier,” Mike Genovese plays a French soldier who steps into a room to interrogate three people (two children, one young adult). The trio appeared mysteriously in French Territory, and there were no adults accompanying them. Smelling something rotten in French Territory, the Interrogator (that’s how Genovese is credited) pushes the youths to tell their story. A yarn is spun concerning Eloise Dalton (Rebecca Stanley), who, in the absence of her trapper husband Marion (Guy Boyd), took up with local preacher Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb) and his resident Nell-esque girlfriend Leah (Karlene Crockett). Kicked out of their village, more or less, this collection of outcasts heads off into the wild where the danger of being picked off by Shawnee Indians is dwarfed by the threat of the malevolent Devil Witch (Russell James Young, Jr.).
Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (aka Cry Blue Sky) is a film about witchcraft that has more ambition than a great many horror films of the time. This was when Slashers were big and getting bigger, and gore and tits (male and female) were more popular than story and atmosphere (I’m against none of these things; I’m just setting the stage here). To release a period film with some ideas behind it, no titillation to speak of, and no real bloodletting for gorehounds is daring, even if it doesn’t completely succeed. I saw this film on VHS way back when, and back then I greatly enjoyed it, because it mixes monster elements (the Devil Witch is a crusty, baleful creation) with some quasi-literate ones. I have to admit, however, that viewing it again thirty-odd years later, its impact has diminished, and its flaws stand out much more to me now. The curse of the well-traveled cinephile. Nonetheless, there are still things going on in the film that provoke some thought.
As almost any film set at the dawn of America which deals explicitly with witchcraft does (and a whole lot set in contemporary times, too), Eyes of Fire concerns itself with ideas of religion, faith, and the conflict between spirituality and human nature. Will Smythe, from his introduction (he rises out of his slumber, his hair and shirt disheveled, a look of mischievous amusement on his face), is portrayed as a bit of a dick and a hypocrite. First of all, he took up with a married woman (disregarding what they say about no one knowing Marion’s whereabouts or status as either living or dead, this is still pretty shitty), concerned more with his libido than his flock. His keeping of Leah also points to a perversity, as the woman is both free-spirited (in more ways than just sexually, but at first is displayed that way) and perhaps not all there mentally. This pays off down the road in a way that really digs the ditch far deeper for our preacher. After being saved from a lynching for his adultery, Smythe tells all the townsfolk that he’s leaving for The Promised Land, and none of them can come with him, but he makes it sound not only like retaliation but also like pitying condescension. Smythe, of all the characters, is the most resistant to the idea that there are spirits out in the woods, believing the mud-encrusted beings to be merely Native American “savages.” His books are stolen and torn apart, and during a fit of rage, Smythe stomps around shouting “Goddamn it!” From all of this evidence, we understand that Smythe is no man of faith but a man of opportunity. He’s a manipulator of the spiritually/emotionally wounded. In this sense, his God is as false as his façade, particularly in the presence of the Devil Witch.
By contrast, Leah and the Devil Witch represent the might of Nature, and they are the true spiritual power of the film. As explained to us, the valley that the settlers move to is theorized as being a mystical hot spot where the blood of people slain converges and produces vengeful spirits. The woods themselves are alive, with many a tree sporting at least one human face. The Devil Witch imprisons and controls the spirits here, as she is an exploiter akin to Smythe, the difference being that she has actual superhuman powers. Likewise, nature contains the duality of man, having both good and evil in it (though I would suggest it’s more good and indifference, but that’s neither here nor there), and Leah is the positive side of it. She communes with nature, talking to the trees (possibly the odd language she speaks when we first meet her, making her reputed mental illness more a case of spiritual visions and speaking in tongues?). Through this communion, Leah comes into her own, finding her voice (by film’s end, she speaks perfect English) and her purpose. The true religion of the film, then, is Nature. Leah lives in peace and harmony with Nature, a force for good. The Devil Witch corrupts and bends Nature to her will, a force for evil. God and the Devil in eternal conflict.
The primary problem that I have with Crounse’s film now is that it mishandles its tones. For every creepy, evocative moment or image, there is one that is blunt and overblown. For example, the idea of having the spirits of the valley appear within the fog is good. The idea of doing so with solarization effects on the image and sound effects that you would expect from an appearance by Mr. Mxyzptlk or The Impossible Man deprives the moment of any deeper impact. It changes from understated to cartoonish in these moments. I love the Devil Witch makeup, and some of its appearances are effective. Others, unfortunately, are pedestrian, just another rubber monster appearance. This film wants to have it both ways. It wants to be ominous at the same time it wants to be a straight up creature feature, and the two don’t mesh very well. This isn’t helped any by its lack of focus and its rather poor, often confused, pacing. Robert Eggers’ The Witch took very similar ideas and got it mostly right (aside from that final twenty minutes or so). I’m sure Crounse and company were so proud of their effects work that they wanted to show it off as much as possible. I can’t really blame them for that, but I can blame them for giving up on the subtleties that would have made Eyes of Fire a better film.
MVT: The visual effects work is nice when they’re not being overly futzed with.
Make or Break: The first appearance of the Devil Witch. You can decide for yourself if it’s going overboard or keeping in line with the rest of the film.