Eye of the Devil
Jane Nightshade revisits Eye of the Devil: an early, often overlooked example of folk horror cinema…
J. Lee Thompson’s Eye of the Devil (1966) is a black-and-white British folklore horror film that’s fairly (and undeservedly) obscure. It’s mostly known for being the debut film of Sharon Tate, the unfortunate Hollywood actress who became one of the most famous murder victims in American crime history three years later. Predating both The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Eye of the Devil is notable as an early example of the folklore horror genre that continues to grow in popularity today. It’s also an early example of a then-newish film category, the mainstream horror – that is, a horror film helmed by a mainstream director, with mainstream producers, stars, and crews. This type of horror film would cement its status in the public eye two years later with the smash hit, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), ironically directed by Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski.
Like The Wicker Man, Eye of the Devil features a titled nobleman presiding over an agrarian fiefdom that clings to ancient rituals and traditions. The outside world has barely touched the residents of Bellenac, a fictional town and castle estate in the French wine-growing region of Bordeaux. And again, like The Wicker Man, the audience gradually discovers that the continued prosperity of the agrarian society depends on a mysterious ritual of blood and pagan worship.
Shot in France and England, Eye of the Devil has a fantastic cast of high-octane, mid-century British actors, including David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Emlyn Williams, Donald Pleasence, David Hemmings, and Edward Mulhare. The film starts with a handsome, late 60s-style photomontage of startling images from the Bellenac estate. These are intercut with scenes of a bearded man making his way by train to a large city, which turns out to be Paris.
There, the bearded man calls on the Marquis de Montfaucon, played by Niven, looking – as always – as if he were born wearing a tiny tuxedo. The current lord of Bellenac and his wife, Catherine (Kerr), spend most of their time in the city, where they entertain the cream of Paris society. All seems well, until the bearded man arrives and informs the Marquis that his wine crops are failing for the third year in a row, and he is needed immediately at his family seat. The Marquis departs hastily, telling Catherine that he has urgent business that he must undertake alone. There’s quite an effective scene when the Marquis arrives in his ancient domain, as the vineyard workers all stand and doff their hats while he drives by with the top down on his snazzy convertible. We know full well from the scene that it may as well be 1066 in Bellenac as it is 1966.
After the Marquis is gone for a few days, however, the children, Jacques and Antoinette, begin to cry for their father, and Kerr as the Marquise decides to make a surprise visit to Bellenac. She isn’t welcome there, and is made painfully aware of the fact by the young de Carray siblings, Odile (Tate) and Christian (played by Hemmings – his character is ironically named, as it turns out). Somehow, the de Carrays have the run of the castle, although it’s not spelled out why. Christian shoots a dove with an arrow in front of Catherine, upsetting her. Then Odile hypnotizes Catherine and almost succeeds in convincing her to throw herself off the castle parapet. Clearly a practitioner of the black arts, she also shows the children how to change a frog into a white dove. A sinister priest, Father Dominic also lurks about the castle’s chapel, played by Pleasence with the full force of his typical oily menace. Also resident in the castle is the Marquis’ sister, Estelle (Robson), who has secrets to tell that are not easily uprooted by Catherine. Eventually, Catherine does squeeze the truth out of Estelle, and finds, to her horror, that a human sacrifice must be made to return the estate to fertility. An old boyfriend, played by Mulhare, shows up with some research into Bellenac’s past, and confirms that the estate has a long history of strange violent deaths associated with it.
The identity of the intended sacrificial lamb is one of the more effective surprises of the film. Let’s just say that it’s a 180-degree turn from Lord Summerisle’s concept of a proper human sacrifice. Once Catherine learns the truth, she tries to stop it, but is thwarted by sinister men in hooded robes and her own husband, who falls increasingly under the spell of the mysterious pseudo-Christian cult practised by the people of Bellenac.
Kerr’s performance here, as she runs around the castle in a panicky state, is reminiscent of her tour-de-force as the terrified governess of Bly House in The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton), albeit not as deeply layered. Niven ably plays an upper-class gentleman, a role he essayed numerous times in his long career, although there’s a hint of phoning-in his performance here. None of the British actors (plus Tate as the lone American actor) attempt to essay a French accent or French mannerisms; the audience is expected to suspend disbelief and accept these very British performers as French, and indeed it all works out, somehow. Meanwhile, the gorgeous Tate makes a definite splash as the sinister Odile, although Hemmings is a bit wasted in the part of her brother. Robson and Williams (playing Niven’s disgraced father) are top-notch, as ever.
The moody cinematography by the prolific Anglo-German cameraman Erwin Hillier (Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968, Michael Anderson) is a high point of the film. Thompson, whose most famous film is the 1961 World War II adventure yarn The Guns of Navarone (also starring Niven), directs competently, although he misses quite a few chances to draw out the suspense of the final sacrifice. There’s never any real doubt toward the end that the dread deed will take place, which is one of the major flaws of Eye of the Devil. Nevertheless, Eye of the Devil is worth a watch, for its place in folklore horror history and if nothing else, a glimpse of the tragic and beautiful Miss Tate.