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Eye of the Devil is a prestige horror film made at a time when the genre was dominated by cheap drive-in efforts -- Robert Wise's high-quality The Haunting was not a typical MGM show. Prolific producer Martin Ransohoff made his first fortune with the 'vast wasteland' success The Beverly Hillbillies. 1966 found him in swingin' London, rocking out with the latest In Crowd and still producing for MGM.
Eye of the Devil has an impressive pedigree. Deborah Kerr brings with her memories of the high-class horror gem The Innocents, while the brooding plotline turns a potentially interesting variation on the idea of a family curse. Best of all is cinematographer Erwin Hillier's moody B&W images of rural France, a setting dominated by an impressively regal castle atop a high hill. The lords of the land arrive in Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes, but their actions seem controlled by pagan traditions going back a thousand years.
Martin Ransohoff's connections with the hot young talent bopping around London in those days are reflected in the presence of actors David Hemmings and Sharon Tate. It was at this time that Roman Polanski was also big news in filmdom, right after his 'smashing' English language success Repulsion. Roman and Sharon Tate would become a couple and continue their romance in Ransohoff's next MGM opus The Fearless Vampire Killers.
American-borne Catherine de Montfaucon (Deborah Kerr) is concerned when her husband Philippe, the Marquis de Montfaucon, receives news from the ancestral castle that the vineyards are failing. Philippe's demeanor changes radically and he departs the next morning. Catherine packs their two children and follows, only to find herself an unwelcome visitor in what should be her own home. The locals are suspicious, the servants avoid Catherine's questions and Philippe's mother Estell (Flora Robson) stays away from her completely. Catherine is advised not to be curious when she observes men in black hoods holding ritual meetings in the castle tower. A strange local pair, brother and sister Christian and Odile de Caray (David Hemmings and Sharon Tate) creep around the estate in dark clothing, shooting pigeons with a longbow and enchanting the Montfaucon children with magic tricks. Catherine is shocked to find Odile playing with the children on the perilous castle ramparts but both Philippe and the churchman Pere Dominic (Donald Pleasance) downplay the incident and suggest that Catherine should stay away from things she doesn't understand. As Philippe becomes more distant, Pere Dominic and the local doctor (John Le Mesurier) take steps to see that Catherine doesn't interfere, giving her sleeping pills and locking her in her room.
Taken on its own merit and judged by the state of genre filmmaking in 1966, Eye of the Devil is a good but not great horror-suspense item. It tries to be subtle and psychologically based, and it mimics continental film trends with some showy montages and mannered compositions. It has some superficial similarities with The Innocents but hs neither the depth or power of that acknowledged classic.
In Eye of the Devil a modern woman of position and title allows herself to be cowed and patronized by relatives and servants. Her protests are dismissed and she's told to forget about the sinister things going on around her. The insolent Christian de Caray threatens her with steel-tipped hunting arrows. Odile watches unconcerned as Catherine's boy plays on a fatal precipice, tottering on one foot. When Catherine complains to her husband, he tells her she's overreacting and treats her like a child. Catherine isn't insecure or neurotic but a caring and experienced mother. She'd have to be a complete dimwit not to remove her children to safety. Does she have no friends back in Paris that she can call? The police aren't going to ignore a plea from a Marquise, if she approaches them in the right way. Catherine's morbidly obsessed hubby is clearly a part of a malevolent local "mindset", even if it isn't the diabolical conspiracy it appears to be.
Eye of the Devil compensates with some attractive and unusual aspects. Castles also figure strongly in Polanski's Cul-de-Sac and Fearless Vampire Killers, all made around the same time. This film's castle is an imposing stronghold with a functioning drawbridge. It seems rather barren in contrast to the healthy-looking Montfaucon vineyards.
The big draw for horror fans are Odile and Christian, who appear to function as witch and wizard. The faintly incestuous duo behave in a spooky-hooky manner like figures escaped from Tarot cards, or a mod, sinister update of the spirits in Marcel Carné's Les visiteurs du soir. They spend the day shift hanging around the castle looking mysterious. Odile hypnotizes Catherine for potentially murderous purposes, and Christian transforms a toad into a pigeon to entertain the kiddies. Whatever is going on is a meld of Christian and pagan elements, guided by a priest. Perhaps it's all meant to be satanic black magic: the title is unhelpful unless the cloudy crystal symbol used by the cult is the literal eye of the Devil. Get yer Montfaucon chablis! Each bottle personally cursed by Beezelbub! 1
Director J. Lee Thompson still had an impressive reputation in 1966, what with Ice-Cold in Alex, Tiger Bay, The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear to his credit. The film's jeopardy set pieces are pretty effective. The kids really look at risk high up on the castle, and the big scene with the twelve hooded cultists terrorizing Catherine in the forest has a lot of energy. But Thompson does little with the dialogue scenes, which mainly amount to poor Deborah Kerr looking foolish when everybody she talks to stares back at her as if they were in a trance. The understated finish just shows her giving up. Thompson previously had plenty of success with actors, but Kerr seems left to her own devices to make her character work while his direction concentrates on purely mechanical effects. David Niven looks uncomfortable, as if he were in stomach distress. Unable to access his considerable charm as a smiling bon vivant, Niven's Philippe stares and mopes and otherwise resigns himself to his unhappy fate. This must be the unpublicized downside to noblesse oblige.
Flora Robson is barely in the film, and her actions are a complete muddle. Third-billed Donald Pleasance has a one-note role as the conspiratorial priest. His Pere Dominic deflects Catherine's rational concerns by telling her the same thing everybody else says, that she needs to mind her business and get plenty of sleep. Catherine isn't some peasant who should be so easily intimidated. When she meekly obeys we just feel frustrated.
Eye of the Devil is Sharon Tate's first showcase role. Her deep voice is apparently her own and not an overdub. Ransohoff arranged for the film's publicity featurette to be All Eyes on Sharon Tate. The actress is seen frugging away on a London dance floor with various celebrities, Roman Polanski among them if I remember correctly. Sharon's serenely sinister Odile is given the best and most artful close-ups in the movie, while poor Deborah Kerr wrestles with her much more difficult part. At only 45 years, the lively Ms. Kerr's career was drawing to a close due to a dearth of desirable parts -- one critic was unkind enough to say that she looked too old to be the mother of Catherine's children.
Viewers new to Eye of the Devil may compare it unfavorably with the later The Wicker Man, a much more elaborate chiller about a resurgence of paganism into the modern world. Eye may have been an inspiration for the later film's source novel. For many people Eye of the Devil is an engaging thriller with an impressive cast of favorites.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Eye of the Devil is one of their eye-pleasing Remastered Editions. Viewers will note some dirt on the opening optical but the rest of the show is sharp and clean, with the enhanced widescreen transfer bringing out all of the soft overcast tones in Erwin Hillier's fine B&W cinematography. The creepy chorale effects in Gary McFarland's music score are somewhat reminiscent of Krystof Komeda's wonderful compositions for Ransohoff's later The Fearless Vampire Killers; perhaps Komeda was given Eye of the Devil as a study example. The arrangements on some of the underscore seem similar as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Eye of the Devil rates:
1. The toad-into-bird miracle is really confusing, Is the movie about the faith of a cult, or is the supernatural involved?... Forget it Jake, it's pagan idolatry.
2. From Canadian correspondent M. Usher, 3.12.11:
Dear Glenn, I thought you might like to know that the production of Eye of the Devil was much troubled. Not only did it lose its original female star Kim Novak to a horse riding accident a couple of weeks into production, but it was also butchered from a much longer and apparently more coherent version that went under the title 13. It's too bad that Warners couldn't have restored this cult item for posterity. Sincerely, M. Usher
3. From correspondent Bill Shaffer, 3.12.11:
Hi Glenn, In the featurette All Eyes on Sharon Tate Sharon is seen doin' the frug with David Hemmings. I don't think Polanski can be seen in that footage. Nice review on Eye of the Devil. I've always felt that film was terribly disjointed, like they cut it as one movie and then changed it all before release. Bill
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