MAY 25, 2016
I don't know if it was at the video store I WORKED at or one of the ones I rented from, but I know I saw the Eyes of Fire VHS cover at some point in my life, though I never saw the film itself until tonight. And that's a good thing, because if I saw it as a kid, there would be two possible outcomes - one is that I'd hate it due to it being slowly paced and also borderline incoherent, two things I had no tolerance for in my younger days. The other is that it'd probably give me incredible nightmares, which I guess isn't a BAD thing (isn't that what horror is supposed to do?) but I prefer my scary dreams to stem from things I enjoy, like Jason or Freddy (examples chosen carefully; despite my love of Myers, I can't recall ever having any nightmares about him), and it'd probably just annoy 12 or 13 year old me that "that stupid witch movie" was disrupting my slumber.
Of course, now I'm long past the point where I can expect a horror movie to give me any nightmares (with some exceptions), but at least I have gotten a bit wiser since then, and thus can pinpoint why the movie was so hard to follow - the editing is sinful. I'm sure writer/director Avery Crounse intended some ambiguity and "nightmare logic" in his narrative, but that's not what I'm referring to when I say the movie is nearly impossible to follow in spots. I am speaking specifically to the way shots cut together, the blocking, etc - there were at least three sequences where I literally had no idea what was going on because everything was cutting so fast and/or awkwardly. As an adult I can at least recognize the problem, but as a kid I'd just say "this sucks!" and pay it no further mind.
So like I said, I'm glad I never saw it then, because if you can get past the parts that are only head-scratching from a technical viewpoint, the movie is actually kind of wonderful in its insane little way. Like the recent The Witch, the plot concerns a group of people who are run out of town and forced to live in the outskirts of town, unfortunately setting up a bit too close to a supernatural presence. Accusations and potential possessions wreak havoc among their number, though there's another threat in the form of Native Americans (Shawnee, specifically) who attack our group in an attempt to drive them away from their land. An external, more traditional antagonist is something The Witch didn't really bother with (though it did feature a few menacing looking natives in its early scenes), though that's not the only way in which they differ - this movie is relatively action packed, with shootouts and explosions, plus a plethora of crazy imagery that would have inspired those nightmares for sure. Crounse is a big fan of putting people in trees or under the mud/dirt, where they will reveal/expunge themselves and his jarring cutting will let you wonder if you really saw what you just saw.
And that's where the nightmare logic comes into play, as it mixes a fairly basic "get off our land" story with things that are totally insane, like a bit near the end where there are TWO people embedded in a tree and are seemingly at odds with each other. I admit I dozed off a couple times (a Youtube stream filled in the gaps later), but for once it wasn't really a detriment to the experience - it actually kind of added to the surreal nature of the more supernaturally-driven scenes, as my brain would fill in gaps while adding things that weren't there (during one half-awake sequence I was momentarily convinced the movie was in 3D!), and I suspect Crounse (who came from a background in surreal photography) would actually be kind of OK with a sleepy viewer getting that sort of reaction. I mean, he made a movie that had to be intended as nightmare fuel - what could be wrong with experiencing one while you were actually watching it?
Again, Youtube came to my rescue to make sure I didn't miss anything permanently (more on that later), so that's good - otherwise I'd feel unable to write a review. Which would be a shame, because I'd only have to see about 20 minutes of it to know that even if you hate the movie, there's no denying that of the low budget independent "regional" films of the early 80s, this is among the most visually impressive. The makeup work is terrific from start to finish, and the strange "death" scenes all have some ingenuity and camera trickery that you didn't get in the Friday the 13th knockoffs that were clogging the genre at the time of its production in 1983 (though it wasn't released until 1987, when it would actually fit in with all the Freddy wannabes - it was probably even accused of trying to cash in on that trend even though it was shot before the first Nightmare). It's also a period piece, and while Crounse isn't as meticulous as Robert Eggers, he shares (exceeds?) his skill at getting every single dollar on the screen. He even had enough cash left over to score the acting talents of Will Hare, best known to horror fans as Grampa in Silent Night, Deadly Night. His character even dies sitting on an old chair not unlike the one he terrorizes poor Billy from in that film!
And that's not really a spoiler - it happens early on and the narrator informs us that it's going to happen like five minutes before it does. Unusual for its period (it's far too common now), the movie is presented as a flashback, its story told by the surviving characters in the present, which tells us right off the bat that things won't end well for most of the cast. I'm not sure if the framework does it any favors; not that I was surprised to see this or that person go, but I couldn't help but feel it was something added later in order to justify the narration, which is occasionally used to explain plot points. With the movie's editing blunders and the aforementioned excess of effects work, I can't help but wonder if Crounse bit off more than he could chew and had to skip shooting certain scenes in order to pull off his showier ones, and added the bookends/narration to smooth over the holes this would obviously cause. I mean, the movie still works as is, but the narration can be a bit intrusive and there's no real dramatic payoff for "spoiling" things up front (completely different kind of movie, but Fallen comes to mind as one that really justifies what it seems to be giving away too soon).
Of course, "spoiling" this or that is moot if you can't see the damn thing. The Youtube stream I found is a cropped and typically murky VHS transfer that makes some of the night-set scenes even harder to understand, and I suspect that's the source's fault. The film has never been released on DVD, best as I can tell, and Amazon's page for the VHS tape (out of print, obviously; it was apparently released on laserdisc as well but Amazon doesn't list it) doesn't even have that cover art that I instantly recognized when word of the movie's Cinefamily screening began circling. As I've said in the past, for older movies like this, when there's no way to see it in a way that benefits its creators, I'm not opposed to Youtube or its rivals - but it's a lousy version, which I AM opposed to as the movie deserves a proper presentation. The print was damn near perfect for such an old film (especially one that had such a small release, as it means there were probably not many prints to begin with let alone that would survive so well intact), but obviously not everyone will get the opportunity to see it that way. One of the perks of living in an area with a healthy repertory scene, I guess - but don't move here, please. We have enough traffic. Needless to say, it'd be a nice if a disc version popped up someday - it's the sort of thing places like Scream Factory and Arrow release all the time, so we'll just have to hope and wait.
If the movie's editing wasn't so jarring, this could easily be a classic in the witchcraft genre (which is rather underrepresented, especially on the big screen), but some confusing action scenes aren't enough to dismiss it, either. If you're a fan of such fare, it's worth digging up your old VCR or Laserdisc player to watch it, no doubt. I've seen very few movies like it in all my years of watching this stuff, and even though not everything clicked for me I would much rather see this sort of ambition than another anonymous slasher or haunted house movie that went through the motions without any blunders. Especially in the 80s, when things got a little "safer" than they were in the 70s (at least in America) - I hope there are more minor gems like this out there from that decade, where FX technology could keep up with the nutty, borderline "unfilmable" ideas of guys who opted to stay out of the Hollywood system.
What say you?