#467: Eyes of Fire

Obscure indie folk horror from the depths of the VHS graveyard

Initial release: 1983
Director: Avery Crounse

Robert Eggers’ 2015 cult hit The VVitch was a social phenomenon, a tale of a dark time in American history, during a dark time in American history. Its deep woods, extreme isolation, and the ever-present sense of a lurking threat resonated with people, much in the same way, for some of the same reasons, as 1999’s multimedia franchise launcher The Blair Witch Project.

While these films depend heavily on American folklore, and a sort of buried national memory of the terror and isolation of the colonial period (how strange this new continent must have seemed, how sinister its forests!) it’s worth going back and looking at a film that, in spite of its almost total obscurity, has a lot of its DNA in these later works: Eyes of Fire.

Told entirely in narrated flashback, the story begins in the year 1750, with a charismatic preacher in rural colonial America being run out of town for adultery, along with several of his followers. With nowhere else to go, they travel deep into French territory, eventually coming across an isolated little valley. The local Shawnee have marked it off and avoid the area; the preacher’s little band, of course, are white, and so they decide to settle there, not even thinking it’s weird that there’s already a bunch of abandoned cabins.

It’s not long before strange things start happening, and this little slice of the Promised Land turns out to be more of a threat, as whatever ate the previous inhabitants of these cabins wants to do the same thing to the new occupants. To that end we have mud ghosts, souls trapped inside trees, and something lurking in the forest, drawing people away.

Avery Crounse’s little indie flick is perhaps more interesting than good; what it has in visual style, shot composition and utilizing unique cellophane effects to create a psychedelic fever dream, it sorely lacks in characterization. (But that’s really a common ailment of horror films, as the genre is, almost as a rule, focused on atmosphere.)

Credit must go to the tree demon, or witch, or whatever it is, a monstrous, inhuman thing that seems to exist largely as trees, with only a humanoid face spewing green bile to give it any sort of personality. The way the forest seems to absorb people, and use them to take more victims, makes for a compelling threat, especially as the group is frequently threatened by “mud ghosts,” nude, mud-covered spectres that pop in and out of existence, moving as a group, as if controlled by some other force. (The bonfire scene from The Empty Man certainly seems to borrow from this.)

What makes Eyes of Fire so interesting (aside from being the only live action film role of Rob Paulsen who would later go on to voice Pinky and Yakko on Animaniacs) is that it’s one of those extremely rare cult hits that languished on VHS for years; while there have been a few bootleg DVD releases, it wasn’t until 2021 when Severin Films, a distributor with a specialty in cult film, picked up the movie, dusted it off, and put it out on Blu-Ray. One of the features on this Blu-Ray is an alternate, longer cut, titled Cry Blue Sky. I have not seen this version (as it lacks subtitles — shame, Severin!) but I’ve heard it’s a better, more complete version of the film.

(As a side note: there’s a certain vibe to older, crappier transfers of films like this, like those bootleg DVDs I mentioned. While a cynic might point out that such poor quality transfers are good at hiding a film’s flaws, I would rather argue that muddy transfers have a sort of nostalgic value that is perhaps only important to someone like me who grew up watching random horror flicks late on Friday nights and whatever I could scrounge up at the video store that my parents would let me watch. I’ve said as much regarding Roger Corman’s 1963 The Terror as well; later remasters of films like this mostly only take away a bit from their mystery.)

Eyes of Fire’s long history of being a largely inaccessible cult film has given it perhaps a bit more hype than it deserves, but it’s by no means unwatchable; it’s unsettling and disturbing in that early 80s kind of way, featuring a who’s-who of TV character actors of the period and creepy synth music that really adds to the film’s minimalist character.

-june❤

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