85 min., 1983
Written and directed by Avery Crounse
My rating: ★★★
It’s How the West Was Won . . . from Hell.
* * *
Once upon a time, back when the Wild West meant Ohio, there was a family, the Daltons. The head of the family was absent, hunting off in the wilds of the New World, so they moved in with the new village preacher, Will Smythe, even though the townsfolk frowned upon such behavior. It all came to a head when everyone discovered that Mrs. Dalton had indeed been sleeping with Smythe. They tried to hang the adulterer, but with the aid of Smythe’s witch companion Leah and some friends and family, his life was saved, and they fled from town on a stolen ferry (which is pretty funny, considering how the town was called Dalton’s Ferry). This group of pioneers struggled with many troubles, including death at the hands of the Shawnee, but before long they found a new home. Marion Dalton, head of the Dalton family, tracked them down, and while he had a lot of problems with Smythe, everyone worked together to survive and rebuild an abandoned village where they intended to spend the rest of their lives in peace and harmony.
Until they discovered that this place was abandoned for a reason, and kiddies. Oh, kiddies. Don’t look for this story to end with happily-ever-after.
Period horror pieces are usually pretty ambitious, and writer/director Avery Crounse is definitely up to the challenge. One of the most powerful tools in his toolbox is setting. The pastoral imagery is astonishing, the kind of thing you would see in How the West Was Won. Yet at the same time, the beauty of nature he shows us can turn all too quickly to menacing. That’s his second most powerful tool: tone. This film seeps into you. You will feel exactly what Crounse wants you to feel.
As an added bonus, Crounse possesses an ability that has been all but forgotten in this era of jump scares and CGI extravaganzas: he can be incredibly subtle. It takes the viewer a moment to realize what’s going on, especially when they get to the cursed land and we start to see faces in the trees. He doesn’t draw any attention to the faces, though. They’re in the background. You might even miss them. But if you catch them? Fucking chilling.
Even the ghostly people are a bit on the subtle side. While they are capable of violence, most times they are very still. They appear and disappear and turn into birds and do many other things, and it’s usually just denoted by a slight movement and a splash of negative color. Even when we note that Leah has telekinesis, it’s not some grand reveal. It’s done quietly, almost in the background.
It’s a shame that the actors aren’t all that great. Most of them can’t figure out their characters’ accents, especially in a time when the common American most likely spoke with a British accent. Guy Boyd, who plays Marion Dalton, is probably the worst offender of this. He’s supposed to be a Natty Bumppo sort, but he’s played rather blandly. There are scenes in which he ups his game, like when he goes into the odd spirit world of the ghostly people to do battle with the monster that has been harrowing his people. He’s even a little creepy when he dressed up as the trickster to scare the Shawnee off, but unfortunately, the guys who played the Shawnee came off as extras on a coffee break. The scene didn’t have much power because of this.
But there are two stand-outs. Dennis Lipscomb plays Will Smythe perfectly. He knows when to be slimy, but he also knows when to pull back, just to give us the impression that maybe—just MAYBE—he’s sincere in his intentions. When the others are horrified by the child the ghost people leave behind, Smythe is affectionate toward her and wants to make a good Christian out of her, even though the others see her as a demon. But the best part is when, after he’s bent over backward to be nice to the ghost people (mostly due to his ulterior motive of converting them), he discovers that not only have they stolen his books, but they’ve torn them to pieces. Suddenly, they go from noble savages to just being savages. Lipscomb does an excellent job of portraying this guy.
And then there’s Karlene Crockett, who plays Leah. She was in a pretty rough spot, mostly because if she overdid the role in the slightest, the entire movie would spiral down into comedy. Leah is insane and magical, a forest sprite who doesn’t talk but engages in all sorts of mischievous behavior. She’s delighted with her abilities, but she’s also the only one of the group who understands what’s going on, and that horrifies her. Even when she tries to help the family, the others don’t trust her and drive her out. Crockett pulls it off and makes it look easy.
The only big problem this movie suffers from is the frame. It’s told by two survivors of this lunacy, but they weren’t around for a lot of the events of this film. There are scenes with only one character in them, and in such instances, they’re not one of the two survivors. And then there’s the last image in the movie. Must Carrie White’s hand always shoot out of her grave? Must the killer always surprise everyone when they think they’ve beaten and killed him? Must Freddy’s severed head wink at us?!
All right, Freddy winking was pretty funny, but still. If you absolutely have to throw in something cheap like this . . . at least have the demon be one of the two girls. Or both of them. Come on.
On the surface, EYES OF FIRE looks like just another Native American the-land-went-sour kind of stories that were so popular in the ‘Eighties and ‘Nineties. Sure enough, that’s the structure, but it’s so much more than that. Don’t dismiss it because of this. It’s like a microcosm of a new society. Practicality versus faith, all with the wilds of nature as a backdrop. Chances are, you’ll never see anything quite like EYES OF FIRE.Have You Read...?