M.I.A.: Eyes of Fire, 18th Century Witchcraft From the Early 80s

Hey, did any of you guys watch this year's critically acclaimed horror The VVitch this summer and think: eh, pretty cool, but it would've been just that little bit more enjoyable if it had been an even weirder, obscure 80s film?  Well, then have I got news for you - it was!  It's call Eyes of Fire from 1983, and it's really pretty cool, even though it's somehow managed to never have been released on DVD or blu-ray to this day.
To be fair, The VVitch isn't really Eyes of Fire 2016, either in the sense of being an obscure remake or a rip-off.  But the former seems to owe enough to the latter to at least raise an eyebrow or two.  A strict, pious, but ruggedly individualistic early American settler is driven out of his settlement for religious reasons and forced to take his family to try and live out on their own.  They set up a tiny farm out away from anybody else, but things start to go wrong for them, and we see that it's due to subtle the influence of an evil witch living in the surrounding woods.  And what starts as a tragic, corrupting miasma of omens and bad fortune slowly builds into an ultimately fatal conflict, testing the family's faith and pitting them against each other.  That is the plot to... both films.
But of course, once you dig into the particulars, strong distinctions start to appear all over the place, and each can be safely said to be their own movie.  So let's talk about what sets Eyes of Fire apart.  The patriarch in Eyes is exiled specifically for objecting to the burning women as witches, and it's believed by many that at least one of the women in his company is a witch... and so when the family is cast off down the river on a rickety old raft and take up shelter in some burned down cabins they stumble upon in a valley (the lord provides, or huge "get out of there" red flag?), it's unclear whether the malevolence set upon them is coming internally or externally.  This film also has the extra twist that the family has been pushed into Shawnee Indian territory, and after an initial attack, it's never really clear whether any trouble happening upon them is the work of local Indians, a witch, or the two in league.  And I won't get too spoilery here, but I will say that when all is revealed, it's not a disappointment.
This is a pretty smart, original horror film.  It's not perfect - its budget shows at times.  It has some pretty great production values for the most part, with terrific locations beautifully shot.  But the cast,  which consists almost entirely of vaguely recognizable television character actors, one of whom had just recently won an Emmy, sometimes feel a bit modern despite their period.  And the special effects range from awesome to dodgy and dated... but always inventive. A wide variety of techniques are used, so it's always fascinating: disappearing, slightly inhuman figures in the woods, faces in trees, black skies.  Thankfully, the movie is played completely earnestly - there's nothing campy or tongue-in-cheek within a mile of this film.  Except for a cheesy French accent in the very beginning, the cast do a good job of maintaining period-style language, though it isn't quite as distant as what we got in The VVitch. There's some surprisingly good dialogue.  And despite all the television actors, this is not a made for TV movie, so while this isn't a terribly graphic, gory film, it's also not that predictable kind of exercise in PG-safe nobody will die affairs.  Overall, this film has the feeling of a first-time filmmaker's devout attempt at a masterpiece that was going to blow the world away; and although it never really succeeded, it's still pretty damn interesting in an off-the-beaten-track kind of way.
So yeah, like I said, this has never been released on DVD or blu-ray, in the USA or outside of it.  Well, apparently there is a rather poor DVD from Thailand that's sourced from a VHS; but apart from that, anything you're seeing out there are homemade bootlegs.  The best we've got is this here laserdisc, which like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, is so old it predates chapter marks.  It's fullscreen, and I've never seen this film in its original widescreen AR (though I'd love to!), but my guess this is a case of "chopped off the sides," not open matte.  Just a guess though.  Either way, I can only imagine how an HD transfer would look taken from the original film elements.  What we're looking at here, though, is alright by early laserdisc standards.  It's clearly taken from a print, complete with cigarette burns and occasional flecks and damage (that's a single frame only scratch on the last picture above, not a white light int he distance).  Predictably, there are no extras, no fancy 5.1 mix, no subtitles... I prefer it to a VHS, but that's about all I can say for it.
It's really a shame this film is still so obscure.  It's no masterpiece, but it's more compelling than a lot of horror films that've gotten the red carpet treatment from our favorite cult labels lately.  And if you were impressed with The VVitch, it's great to know there's similar material to seek out, albeit with no legit commercial option at the moment.  But maybe there's fresh hope, as the company that issued this old laserdisc back in 1984?  Vestron Video😎

2 comments:

  1. Great post man. Just saw it and It blew my mundo.

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  2. EYES OF FIRE is a radically wonderful, uneasy and psychedelic little dark fantasy, the precise likes of which, even that ponderous 2016 similar film you had mentioned wouldn't have ever anticipated, nor couldn't dare hold a candle to in terms of all-out originality and thinking outside the box (though, technically, the later film was better made and did dramatically adhere to an accurate portraying of a `period piece'.) What I think is so remarkably great and entertainingly off-kilter and unusual about EYES OF FIRE is that you never once assume with any certainty what the hell is going to happen next.. or to whom... or even when?? Let alone, exactly what in tarnation is actually going on on the screen before you. Karlene Krokett as Leah the mute witch is a flabbergastingly good, refreshing and interesting character... Wonderful to see Fran Ryan (who ya'll might remember from SIGMUND & THE SEA MONSTERS, THE BRADY BUNCH, DAYS OF OUR LIVES or THE NEW ZOO REVUE) in a movie and Guy Boyd (so wonderful in Altman's claustrophobic Vietnam nightmare STREAMERS)gives a terribly interesting, borderline socio-anthropologistic turn as a wilderness, native peoples and folklore-wise wandering man of the land who just wants his philandering wife back in his arms... but, it is undoubtedly the tall, creepy and utterly imposing mute Earthen devil-witch creature who truly steals the show, attempting to claim each of the small band of settlers one by one and feed (return?) their souls back to the mud and the grass and trees... Okay, maybe the ending is one continuous WTF-fest that narratively dwindles down to less than nothing of any focus, logic or validity, and maybe there's just a tad bit of mundane repetition as we are treated to yet another round of entombed mud and tree spirits vomiting up the elements whilst the devil witch and it's human (?!?) entourage of naked avant-garde interpretive dance-mimes wreak havoc upon the settlers doomed fortress... but, as far as any other horror fantasy titles from the same era go, EYES OF FIRE was an unexpected and welcome change of content, pacing and scenery as well as a much-appreciated breath of fresh air in comparison to the droll mediocrity and flood of predictable slasher fare which otherwise permeated box offices of the same era.

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