Saturday, May 16, 2009

Eyes of Fire (1983)

It's the early days of the colonization of Northern America. Two girls - a teenager and a younger child - are found by soldiers in the French territories under rather strange circumstances. The girls tell a rather strange story of how they ended up in a crate drifting down the Algonquin River.

Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb), a British preacher freshly arrived in the small wilderness settlement the girls lived in, has to flee from the wrath of the townspeople. It seems shacking up with the half-mad "witch" Leah (Karlene Crockett), whom he had brought with him from England and Eloise (Rebecca Stanley), the wife of trapper Marion Dalton (Guy Boyd), while breaking certain biblical laws is not a good way to endear yourself to the people of a town, even when you are the sort of charismatic bullshitter with a strong belief in your own lies that Smythe is.

In fact, Smythe would be quite dead if not for the very real magical power of Leah. Still, he and a very small group of followers take some of the settlement's resources and try to make their way down the river, into the Promised Land the preacher rambles of.

They are soon followed by Marion, who was not in town when the trouble (or the adultery) happened, and who loves his wife too much to just let her disappear into the wilderness.

It's the group's good luck that he does. The "Promised Land" turns out to lie on Shawnee territory, and the tribe is not very keen on the small group of religious settlers suddenly appearing on their land, as harmless as the group may look. Marion can't do much else to protect the group than to lead them into a valley that is taboo to the tribe.

The valley contains some derelict huts, obviously the dwelling place of an earlier group of settlers trying to live there that has disappeared without a trace.

There is in fact a very good reason for the Shawnee avoiding the valley - it is the dwelling place of an evil spirit who captures the soul of anyone who tries to settle in the valley.

Marion doesn't completely believe in tales like this, but he very much believes that the valley must hide some rather unpleasant things, pressing the preacher to risk a trek through Shawnee territory and move on. Smythe, in the grip of his very own religious rapture, doesn't listen, of course.

The only one who can protect the settlers from the things which very soon start stalking them is Leah. The young woman will have to wrestle with the evil spirit, but her magic alone won't be able to protect her friends from their own weaknesses.

Eyes of Fire, directed by Avery Crounse, is quite a special little film. Obviously made for very little money, with some rather ropey performances (especially by the child actors), it has a whiff of being made by someone who has seen quite a few of the films of Werner Herzog, yet who also has a certain affinity for special effects and genre storytelling trying to make a horror movie about the concept of the genius loci, and succeeding against the odds.

One could criticize the loose plotting of the film, or its slow pace, but both are very much part of its allure. The film is a mood piece, relying completely on the willingness of its audience to accept the film's rhythm, to let the spirit of the place and the time it tries to convey work on it. If this does not work on you, you probably won't find much to like about the film.

I am of course predisposed to get insanely enthusiastic about things like this, even more so when the film in question embraces (its own interpretation of) Native American mythology as thoroughly as The Exorcist embraces Catholicism. It is rather fitting that Christian religion is not of much import for the defense against evil here, but rather a useful tool for keeping the settlers in place. The actual fighting is done by two Spirits of Nature and the Spirit of Man.

Somehow Crounse avoids to make the film as hokey as this might sound. The metaphors are very obvious and very blunt here, much more so than I usually prefer, yet the film has enough of a feeling of physical reality, of taking place in a concrete time and place, to it to keeps its metaphors grounded.

To mention the inherent oppressiveness of the woods in Missouri Eyes of Fire was filmed in or the creepy (if somewhat rubbery) design of its evil spirit, seems almost beside the point for something as heavily invested in Big Questions as this but Crounse's film (all metaphorical work aside) is still quite an effective piece of horror film making and it is still a film which very much wants to be a horror film. And it's an effective one at that.


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