Daily Archives: October 28, 2020

Eye of the Devil (1966)

*. No, it wasn’t a Hammer production. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. It certainly has the feel of the Hammer “modern” horrors of the 1960s: overwritten, gothic psychothrillers usually featuring a woman either going crazy on her own or being driven crazy. Titles like Paranoiac and Nightmare (both delivered courtesy of director Freddie Francis and writer Jimmy Sangster).
*. The name of Freddie Francis also recalls The Innocents, and that’s another movie that’s definitely in play here. Deborah Kerr returns to another stately pile (the Ch√Ęteau de Hautefort), with a pair of young charges (a little boy and girl), and a pair of sinister presences (with David Hemmings as Christian/Peter Quint and Sharon Tate as Odile/Miss Jessel).

*. If it’s a movie of its time (the ’60s vogue for retro-horror) it also looks ahead, most obviously to The Wicker Man. The same folk cult demanding a blood sacrifice to get the crops to grow. The same shots of silent, sinister villagers who don’t seem to have much to do but stare at strangers. The Wicker Man was based on a novel, Ritual, that was published in 1967 so it’s possible there was some influence there.
*. Introducing Sharon Tate, a discovery of producer Martin Ransohoff. A life cut tragically short. A career? Not so much. Tate really couldn’t act and it’s just as well that the witch Odile is practically a zombie.
*. Kim Novak was originally cast as Catherine and indeed I believe they shot a lot of the movie with her. Then she either got injured falling off a horse (believable) or, according to David Hemmings, got into an argument with Ransohoff and was fired (also believable). Too bad. The thought of a stone-faced stare-down between Novak and Tate is intriguing.
*. Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Who went from directing inventive stuff like this, The Guns of Navarone, and Cape Fear in the ’60s, to Happy Birthday to Me and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown in the ’80s. Now there’s a depressing career trajectory for you. But, as I like to say, he did keep working!
*. Thompson really ripped open his bag of tricks for this one. Just get a load of that montage that plays over the opening credits! There’s even a wipe of the credits when the fellow we’re following walks from the train. Then in the film itself there’s no end to the crazy angles, zooms, tilts and other stunts. Which normally I like, but I’m not sure they really fit with the story here.

*. David Niven is someone else who seems out of place. How many horror movies was he in? I can’t think of any off the top of my head. A fine actor but I can’t get on board with the casting. Some people just don’t belong in horror movies. Even though he’s playing the lord of the manor he has too much class. As I started out by saying, this is really a bit of Hammer horror. It didn’t want class.
*. Donald Pleasence, on the other hand, fits right in as a mad priest. That was a safe bit of casting.
*. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about this movie before coming to it now. From the opening credits I anticipated a treat. And in some ways it delivers on that promise of “lunacy” (David Thomson’s judgment). It’s inventive visually and makes terrific use of its location throughout. I’m still amazed at how they did those shots of the boy playing on the ledge. The story is also bleak and transgressive in a way that movies in 1966 hadn’t embraced or even turned to yet. But still . . .
*. But still Eye of the Devil doesn’t quite click. It doesn’t have any of the creepiness or sense of looming threat that infuses every frame of classics like The Innocents or The Wicker Man. Instead it sort of plods along, with Niven giving its ritual horror an air of nobility that mixes any message the film might have. Is it a far, far better thing he does at the end than he has ever done? Or is he going straight to hell? And for what? Killing him isn’t going to bring back the apples, or vineyards. And what are we to think of Odile? Is she a real witch? Can she turn frogs into doves?
*. Recommended more as a curiosity than for being good. Still a title worth tracking down, and a movie that grows a bit when looked at in hindsight, and from a proper distance.