Reverend Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb), driven from the Calvinist settlement of New Dalton on account of his adultery, leads a small band of his followers down the Allegheny River into Shawnee territory. Fearing for their lives, Smythe and company make for a valley, ignoring the warning signs that the Shawnee have left. Soon this small band faces an ancient evil.
Avery Crounse’s Eyes Of Fire (1983) is a truly imaginative kaleidoscope of optical video effects and make-up. Crounse’s strategies for evoking atmosphere and terror owe much to Val Lewton and the British horror films of the late sixties and early seventies. The spectacles of violence and gore come second in Eyes Of Fire to those of wonder and fantasy.
This long sought after cult classic is one of the films included in Severin’s essential All The Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror. And though Eyes Of Fire is very much steeped in American frontier lore, its images of witches and child hunting devils are equally indebted to the fairytale. Folk horror and fairytales are just two branches of the same tree after all. The fundamental difference is that children (as audience, narrators and participants) are of greater importance to the fairytale.
Eyes Of Fire opens and ends with a framing device in which the children who have survived Smythe’s campaign into the haunted valley relay their story to the commander of a French fort. This grounds the whole of the narrative in the perspective of the children, accounting for discontinuities and contradictions within the narrative. Similarly the witch as guardian angel trope that Leah (Karlene Crockett) fills is not dissimilar to that of the Baba Yaga or the fairy godmother.
The fairytale elements of Eyes Of Fire add a flavor to the film that makes it more distinct. But Eyes Of Fire is still first and foremost an exercise in horror. The design of the devil spirit and the avant-garde strategies of the photographic effects are highly affective. Yet, it’s Avery Crounse’s sense of pacing that keeps the tension building and the jump-scares coming. After seeing this little gem I can’t believe it’s taken so long for it to get a proper home video release.