Writer/director Avery Crounse’s (The Invisible Kid, Sister Island) debut film Eyes of Fire has long been one of the hardest American folk horror films to get a look at. After a small regional release from Seymour Borde & Associates, it turned up in video shops via Vestron Video. Then it vanished, not getting a DVD or Blu-Ray release of any kind. Until recently when Severin announced they’d done a 4K restoration, something I suspected was coming when it was featured in their documentary Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched.
I’d seen Eyes of Fire on VHS and always regretted not having a chance to see it on a big screen where its beautiful cinematography deserved to be seen. When it was announced the restored copy would be screened as part of Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival’s folk horror block I immediately made my plans to see it.
Reverend Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb, War Games, Under Siege) is a fire and brimstone preacher who doesn’t let his morals stop him from taking up with a married woman, Eloise (Rebecca Stanley, Body Double, Underground Aces). After narrowly escaping the noose, he and his followers head downriver to form their own colony.
As they’re seeking their promised land, Eloise’s husband Marion (Guy Boyd, Sister Act, Carnosaur 2) is seeking them, wanting his wife and daughter Fanny (Sally Klein) back. Eventually, they all end up in an abandoned group of cabins in a valley the Shawnee won’t follow them into. And one thing that’s eternally true is if the locals avoid someplace, you probably should avoid it as well.
Crounse sets things up wonderfully in Eyes of Fire’s first act. By the time the group is hunkered down in the abandoned settlement, there are conflicts brewing within the group, apart from the obvious issues between Smythe and Marion. Leah (Karlene Crockett, Dallas, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen) warns them that the valley is cursed. The daughter of a woman Smythe had burned as a witch, Leah may know what she’s talking about. Or seeing her mother die may have driven her mad.
And indeed, something is lurking outside the walls of the settler’s stockade. Something that it soon becomes clear is a lot more dangerous than the Shawnee, despite what the reverend says. The valley is home to evil spirits, trapped there by the Devil Witch who lurks in the swamp. Mixing beautiful shots of the forest and river with more troubling signs of evil such as trees with what looks suspiciously like faces growing out of them, Crounse ramps up the tension.
Even as the spirits begin to appear in daylight and infiltrate the camp in the guise of a small child who targets their own children, the group begins to fall apart over just how to deal with the situation. Stay and fight the evil, or leave and take their chances with the Shawnee. Marion fully intends to leave with his daughter and anyone who will go with them. Smythe is convinced he is powerful enough to defeat whatever evils threaten them. But will the demons that haunt Eyes of Fire’s woodlands let any of them leave? Can Smythe, even if he is as righteous as he claims, fight an evil that doesn’t acknowledge his God?
While the cast of Eyes of Fire was lacking in big names, Rob Paulsen would eventually find fame as the voice of Pinky from Pinky and the Brain (1995) and Yakko from Animaniacs (1993), it was filled with talented character actors who could make some of the script’s more dubious moments believable. Lipscomb in particular shines as the 1700’s version of today’s televangelists, twisting the Bible’s words and manipulating the faithful for his own gain. He’s as big a threat as the Devil witch and her minions. In many ways, the two are actually quite similar.
Conversely Eyes of Fire is sympathetic towards Eloise even if it stops short of holding her blameless. After all, Marion vanished into the woods for months at a time in an age when there was no way to know if he was alive or dead. Was she wrong for wanting security for herself and her daughter? Was he wrong for putting his hunting and trapping ahead of his family? It’s easy to see him as today’s workaholic and her as the workplace widow. Crounse wasn’t afraid to quietly work some interesting commentary on the roles of the characters in society into to the script.
On the downside, Eyes of Fire is narrated and told as a flashback, something I’ve never liked as it tells you the fates of the cast beforehand. And some of the shifts from the serious supernatural elements to the lighter monster movie moments when the witch takes a physical form are a bit jarring.
Eyes of Fire is currently available for pre-order on Blu-Ray from Severin both as a stand-alone title and as part of two of their sets. You can get details on their website. The Blu-Ray has a 2K restoration of the longer original cut titled Cry Blue Sky, which means I need to own it. But if it’s showing near you, Eyes of Fire is worth the effort to see on the big screen.