Eyes of Fire, Back On the Map!

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.

Update 8/22/16 - 2/31/22: It's so great to strip the M.I.A. tag off of a post.  For a while, hopes we're up that Lions Gate might release this through their Vestron line, right up until Severin surprised us all with their announcement.  Not only is it restored, in widescreen and HD with some nice special features, but it turns out there's even an alternate version that's over 20 minutes longer!
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 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 takes 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 their own madness.  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.  It has some pretty great production values for the most part, with terrific locations beautifully shot.  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 a 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 let's talk alternate versions.  The original cut is titled Crying Blue Sky.  It's over 22 minutes longer than the released as Eyes of Fire, and Eyes has some exclusive footage in it, meaning there's even more stuff you've never seen before in Crying.  And I have to say, this long-lost Crying version is pretty much better in every way.  It's at once subtler and more coherent, maintaining some mystery that Eyes spoils early on (including some clumsy flash forwards), yet eventually finishing more coherently without losing any of its utterly bizarre curiosity value.  It has a different, less cheesy ending.  And on a purely exploitational scale, Crying has a higher body count and more nudity.  Fans should be thrilled to finally get their hands on this.

And we have, thanks to Severin's brand new blu-ray, released as part of their massive 15-disc (well, 12 BDs and 3 CDs) boxed set, All the Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror, released last month.  Or, if that was a little rich for your blood, the single disc edition was released just this week.  Prior to this, Eyes had never been released on blu or DVD, 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 were seeing out there were homemade bootlegs.  The best we had was this here laserdisc, which like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, is so old it predates chapter marks.
1) 1984 Vestron LD; 2) 2022 Severin Crying BD; 3) 2022 Severin Eyes BD.
Let's get the laser out of the way.  It's way too boxy at 1.30:1, though it's at least open matte.  The colors are overwrought with video noise, though the image is sharper than VHS.  But that's about all I can say for it.  It's clearly taken from a print, complete with cigarette burns and occasional flecks and damage.

Looking at the blu now, both versions of the film are 1.85:1 and in proper 1080p, but otherwise they're clearly quite different from each other.  The shorter, Eyes of Fire cut is presented as the main version of the film, the one that starts if you just hit "Play" on the menu, and easily looks the best, sporting a fancy, new 4k scan of the original negative.  Crying is tucked away in the extras, and is taken from an answer print.  But even that, though a little rougher for wear, is a stunning improvement on all that came before.  It's over contrasty, crushing some detail in the shadows.  But otherwise, quite excellent.  Still, the Eyes cut is even nicer, with much more true-to-life color timing.  And while both are framed at 1.85, the Eyes cut does draw further back to reveal a little extra picture along all four sides, including more on the left and right than even the open matter laserdisc.
Vestron's disc just gives you a slightly fuzzy mono track with no subtitle options.  Severin bumps the mono up to lossless DTS-HD on both cuts of the film, though there is a little distortion and noise on Crying.  Severin also provides optional English subtitles for Eyes, though not Crying.

And finally, this film has some much needed extras!  The signature piece is an interview with the director, by Stephen Thrower, who goes over his beginnings as a still photographer, the making of this film, and his efforts to distribute it.  The visual layout is an odd choice, though.  Anyway, after that is an expert commentary by Colin Dickey, which does a pretty good job exploring some of the film's themes, though he doesn't seem to have been made aware of the Crying Blue Sky, which is a shame, because it probably would've furthered his analysis.  Still, it's definitely worth a listen for fans yearning to dig deeper into this enigmatic chiller.
Those two special features, the trailer and reversible artwork are the only Eyes of Fire-specific extras, but because this disc is also a part of the All the Haunts Be Ours box, we also get three unrelated short films, that are only joined by the fact that they're folk horror.  Except I don't think one qualifies as horror.  Transformations [above] is a 1972 16mm documentary of a small circle of feminists who get together to enact an uplifting ritual of witchcraft.  It's an interesting artifact that's been well restored.  Then there's an animated version of The Legend of Sleepy Horror, also from '72, narrated by John Carradine, which is a little flat, but tells the story.  And finally there's the much more contemporary Backwoods from 2018, which rather unambitiously adapts a short Lovecraft story.  It plays somewhat like a student film and doesn't attempt the story's original ending, but it's shot well enough and they stick to the period.  None of these shorts are anything I'd run out and buy the disc for, but as free bonuses - hey, I'll take 'em.
I'm really happy that this film is finally getting discovered - it's much more than the prototypical VVitch.  And even more than that, I'm just selfishly thrilled to get my hands on an HD special edition after all these years.  It's a pretty great 80s horror film by any standard, and who knew there was this even longer, better cut hiding away from us?  What a treasure.

5 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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  3. I'm sure you're aware, but https://www.amazon.com/Eyes-Special-Blu-ray-Dennis-Lipscomb/dp/B09L8KZJL7/ref=mp_s_a_1_74?keywords=severin+films+blu+ray&qid=1640388888&sr=8-74

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