Looking into the Eye of the Devil


EYE OF THE DEVIL (1966) opens with a minute long montage that reduces the entire film down to a series of disorientating images. It’s an impressive and beautifully edited beginning that you might expect to see at the start of an Ingmar Bergman film or in the middle of an Eisenstein picture and it sets the tone for the entire movie. This leisurely paced occult thriller wants to unsettle you as well as enchant you and it manages to do just that in its first few minutes. Most horror films will take their time building suspense or they’ll bludgeon you over the head with a few shocks to get your heart racing but EYE OF THE DEVIL takes an entirely different approach to terror that I deeply appreciate. It taps into your imagination immediately and before the title sequence even begins you know that it’s going to be a very different kind of horror film. And while it does make use of predictable elements found in classic Gothic literature including a cursed family, a tormented heroine, an old dark house and flamboyant villains, these familiar trappings work to its advantage. They give the viewer something familiar to cling to while the movie works its magic.

The film features an exceptional cast that includes Deborah Kerr as the wife of a wealthy and powerful landowner played by David Niven. Niven is forced to return to his family estate when he learns that the vineyards are failing again, which causes panic and concern in the small isolated French farming community where he was raised. He asks his wife and children to remain in Paris but they ignore his concerns and follow him to the country where they’re confronted by superstitious locals that still practice Pagan rituals and seem to enjoy terrifying outsiders like Kerr. From that point on we’re asked to question Kerr’s sanity in a manner that’s reminiscent of classic Hollywood thrillers such as Rebecca (1940) or Gaslight (1944) as she deals with her husband’s strange behavior as well as the menacing locals. Kerr quickly begins to suspect that witchcraft or powerful occult forces are trying to harm her family and she’s right.

Besides Kerr and Niven, EYE OF THE DEVIL contains a memorable performance from Donald Pleasence as a Pagan priest and the acclaimed actors Flora Robson and Emlyn Williams are very good in small but significant roles. Robert Duncan is also quite effective as Kerr and Niven’s young son but David Hemmings and in particular the beautiful Sharon Tate, manage to almost make off with the entire film. The two actors play fair-haired siblings named Odile and Christian who torment Deborah Kerr and introduce the couple’s young children to the black arts. Throughout the film Tate and Hemmings can be seen lurking in the background and hidden in the shadows of the family’s large country estate. They make a formidable pair and stand apart from the rest of the villagers due to their youthful beauty and perpetually dark clothing. If there were any nightclubs nearby you might think that they’re just two stylish club kids.

EYE OF THE DEVIL was produced by Martin Ransohoff who helped manage Sharon Tate’s career as well as other promising ‘60s starlets such as Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld. Ransohoff hoped that the movie would propel Sharon Tate  into stardom and he surrounded the actress with a great cast and crew in his effort to do that. But the film was plagued with problems right from the beginning. The original cast included Kim Novak in Deborah Kerr’s role but after a bad fall from a horse, Novak left the film and didn’t return. Her unfortunate accident forced producers to ask Deborah Kerr to take her part, but the film was practically finished so the entire thing had to be re-shot. It’s been suggested that Kim Novak wanted to get off the picture because she was uncomfortable playing second fiddle to Sharon Tate and she didn’t appreciate the working relationship between her co-star and Martin Ransohoff. David Niven also expressed his dislike of Novak (calling her a “horrid woman” in a letter to a friend) during filming so he must have been happy to have his old friend and previous costar Deborah Kerr brought in to replace her. But casting difficulties weren’t the film’s only problems. The movie went through various writers and directors before filmmaker J. Lee Thompson was asked to complete the film with help from writer Dennis Murphy.

The British born director J. Lee Thompson became internationally renowned after making the action packed war adventure The Guns of Navarone (1961) and the gritty crime thriller Cape Fear (1962). EYE OF THE DEVIL was Thompson’s 22nd film and I think it’s one of his best. Before making the movie Thompson completed an exceptional black and white thriller called Return from the Ashes (1965) and his previous work on that as well as the classic Cape Fear and other tension-filled films informed a lot of the directing choices he made in EYE OF THE DEVIL. The use of creative photography, edgy camera angles and fast paced editing also seem to reflect the influence of European filmmakers. Cinematographer Erwin Hillier should be credited for his work but I think Thompson as well as his editor Ernest Walter were mostly responsible for the original look of the film. Although Walter’s overzealous editing can be blamed for inconsistencies easily spotted in the final product he also managed to indirectly add a surreal quality to EYE OF THE DEVIL due to the frantic pacing of his cuts. Combined with Thompson’s roving camera shots, the film has a discomforting effect that may not have been totally deliberate but I think it’s effective.

In scene after scene the film evokes a dreamlike atmosphere that I find mesmerizing. Much of the movie was shot at a large French estate called the Château de Hautefort and the structure’s long dark hallways and ominous stairways form a maze that seems to entrap Deborah Kerr and her children. Director J. Lee Thompson wasn’t all that interested in startling his audience with heart-stopping shocks or cringe inducing gore so the deliberate pacing will undoubtedly disappoint anyone who is expecting lots of scares but the film manages to create its own kind of terror. The deep distrust shown between family members as well as strangers takes shape in the faceless hooded figures that populate the French countryside. These silent figures seem to represent the troubled psyche of Deborah Kerr’s character and the manifestation of her fears. When they chase her down in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes the audience is left wondering what they’ve just seen. Was she actually attacked or were those flickering images just a nightmare?

The camera loves Sharon Tate and she’s a mesmerizing presence in EYE OF THE DEVIL. She seems to be practicing some kind of magic onscreen because it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off of her. When she attempts to bewitch Deborah Kerr’s character it’s easy to feel as if you’re being bewitched as well and this is partially due to the flattering way that Thompson and Hillier photographed her. With the use of filters and soft focus lighting they gave Tate an ethereal quality that’s unforgettable.

The complications surrounding the making of EYE OF THE DEVIL undoubtedly hampered the film and you can sense the uneasiness of the cast and spot the continuity problems when you watch it but I don’t think it deserved the critical assault that it received once it was finally released. Critics laughed out loud during screenings and called the film “ludicrous,” “over-directed” and “hilariously bad.” Like most horror and fantasy films you’re asked to dispend disbelief when watching EYE OF THE DEVIL but it isn’t any more ludicrous than the countless films that came before it and I appreciate Thompson’s “over-directing.” The film’s overabundant style is what helps make it so interesting. And finally, I can only assume that anyone who thought EYE OF THE DEVIL was “hilariously bad” didn’t see the same movie I did.

In a sad and truly horrific turn of events, members of the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate on August 9, 1969 just three years after shooting on EYE OF THE DEVIL ended. Due to Sharon and her husband Roman Polanski’s involvement in multiple horror films and thrillers like EYE OF THE DEVIL, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Repulsion, The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby, Sharon Tate’s murder was immediately linked to witchcraft and Satanism. Over the years the idea that Sharon and her unborn child may have been part of some kind of ritual sacrifice has subsided but the idea can be traced back to the making of EYE OF THE DEVIL. During filming the Wiccan High Priest Alex Sanders (also known as the “King of the Witches) and his wife Maxine were hired as consultants on the movie because “The director wanted to experience the atmosphere of ritual magic in order to convey it on film.” According to Maxine Sanders’ biography Fire Child her husband Alex also introduced Sharon to Wiccian magic, which the actress continued to practice after making EYE OF THE DEVIL. Some have even suggested that Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski studied witchcraft together and this ultimately led to Sharon’s murder. I don’t know how much of these stories are true or just myths conjured up from the vast resources of an overactive imagination but it seems rather ridiculous to blame the horrible events surrounding Sharon Tate’s death on her original involvement with a movie. I think Sharon Tate was probably inspired by the “witch Queen” Maxine Saunders while working on her character Odile for EYE OF THE DEVIL and she may have dabbled in magic herself, but her death was a tragic event that should have never happened and in an effort to make sense of unimaginable tragedy people often resort to fallacy. But truth is often stranger than fiction and Sharon Tate’s life and death have become the stuff of Hollywood legend.

EYE OF THE DEVIL is one of the highlights in Sharon Tate’s brief but impressive career. The promise she shows in the movie is undeniable and it makes me wish that the entire film had focused on the mysterious siblings Odile and Christian. Unfortunately they’re not given enough screen time but when EYE OF THE DEVIL ends it’s Sharon Tate’s lingering gaze and hypnotic voice that you remember as well as David Hemmings’ devilish grin and threatening stance. In a film boasting a cast that includes the incredible Deborah Kerr and David Niven that is no small achievement.

At the beginning of the month the Morlocks decided to plan a horror film blogathon during the week leading up to Halloween. We were encouraged to write about an obscure or offbeat horror movie that we enjoyed so I decided to write about EYE OF THE DEVIL. I was somewhat reluctant to discuss the film because the movie wasn’t easily attainable but that isn’t the case anymore. In a strange coincidence (or was it magic?) Warner decided to release EYE OF THE DEVIL on DVD this week so you can now find the movie for sale at the Warner Archive site. I don’t believe EYE OF THE DEVIL is available for rent at the moment or for sale at any other retailers so if you want to see the film you’ll have to purchase it directly from Warner. Or keep an eye on TCM because it occasionally airs here. The film would make a great triple feature with The Wicker Man (1973) and The Witches (1966), which I discussed earlier this month. All three films explore similar occult themes involving witchcraft, sacrifice and superstition.

If you’re interested in taking a behind-the-scenes look at the making of EYE OF THE DEVIL I highly recommend watching this fascinating short film focusing on Sharon Tate’s performance and participation in the movie called All Eyes On Sharon Tate. It’s a great piece of ’60s nostalgia that features footage of Sharon Tate and David Hemmings’ dancing the night away at a London club and fun shots of the actress goofing around with co-star David Niven.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDpKBP2m-00]

SOURCES:
British Horror Cinema Edited by Steve Chibnall & Julian Petley
A Heritage of Horror by David Pirie
The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies edited by Phil Hardy
J. Lee Thompson (British Film Makers) by Steve Chibnall
Fire Child by Maxine Sanders
Niv: The Authorized Biography of David Niven by Graham Lord

16 Responses Looking into the Eye of the Devil
Posted By goodvibe61 : October 28, 2010 6:19 pm

Great article Kimberly.

This should be put on the TCM Underground schedule for a viewing in the very near future!

Posted By goodvibe61 : October 28, 2010 6:19 pm

Great article Kimberly.

This should be put on the TCM Underground schedule for a viewing in the very near future!

Posted By AL : October 28, 2010 6:31 pm

I remember hearing that Sharon Tate was not originally cast;
who was?

Posted By AL : October 28, 2010 6:31 pm

I remember hearing that Sharon Tate was not originally cast;
who was?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 28, 2010 10:28 pm

goodvibes – Thank you. Hopefully TCM will air it again soon. I know they have a copy of it in their vault somewhere but it would be great if they could show Warner’s new restored print.

AL – I’m not aware of that. As I mentioned in my piece, it was produced as sort of a star vehicle for Sharon Tate but Deborah Kerr did replace Kim Novak during filming. Maybe that’s what you’re thinking of?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 28, 2010 10:28 pm

goodvibes – Thank you. Hopefully TCM will air it again soon. I know they have a copy of it in their vault somewhere but it would be great if they could show Warner’s new restored print.

AL – I’m not aware of that. As I mentioned in my piece, it was produced as sort of a star vehicle for Sharon Tate but Deborah Kerr did replace Kim Novak during filming. Maybe that’s what you’re thinking of?

Posted By suzidoll : October 29, 2010 5:46 pm

What an odd cast of old-style Golden Age stars and hip new actors. I am definitely interested; hope TCM airs it soon.

Posted By suzidoll : October 29, 2010 5:46 pm

What an odd cast of old-style Golden Age stars and hip new actors. I am definitely interested; hope TCM airs it soon.

Posted By rhsmith : October 30, 2010 2:58 am

When I saw the film for the first time many years ago, I wondered if in some way the scene in which Kerr’s character meets the hooded horsemen in the forest might have inspired Amando de Osorio’ “Blind Dead” films. I still wonder! Thanks for sticking up for Eye of the Devil, Kimberly; I’ve long suspected a lot of negative reviews for it from movie guides of the 80s and 90s were borrowing attitudes from existing reviews and that the film guide assemblers hadn’t actually seen it.

Posted By rhsmith : October 30, 2010 2:58 am

When I saw the film for the first time many years ago, I wondered if in some way the scene in which Kerr’s character meets the hooded horsemen in the forest might have inspired Amando de Osorio’ “Blind Dead” films. I still wonder! Thanks for sticking up for Eye of the Devil, Kimberly; I’ve long suspected a lot of negative reviews for it from movie guides of the 80s and 90s were borrowing attitudes from existing reviews and that the film guide assemblers hadn’t actually seen it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 30, 2010 3:01 pm

I hadn’t thought of Amando de Osorio but you’re absolutely right, Richard. That scene could have easily helped inspire the Blind Dead movies. And I think you’re right about critics just regurgitating old reviews when talking about this film but there was a small backlash against movies that appeared too “arty” or “European” in the late ’60s and horror films in general have always been something that a lot of critics scorn or don’t take seriously. Throw all that in a blender and it’s not too surprising that EYE OF THE DEVIL received so much negative press when it was released but it seems really shortsighted now.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 30, 2010 3:01 pm

I hadn’t thought of Amando de Osorio but you’re absolutely right, Richard. That scene could have easily helped inspire the Blind Dead movies. And I think you’re right about critics just regurgitating old reviews when talking about this film but there was a small backlash against movies that appeared too “arty” or “European” in the late ’60s and horror films in general have always been something that a lot of critics scorn or don’t take seriously. Throw all that in a blender and it’s not too surprising that EYE OF THE DEVIL received so much negative press when it was released but it seems really shortsighted now.

Posted By Mike Elliott : November 5, 2010 11:09 pm

Classic Movie lovers may be interested to learn that this movie has just been released from the Warner Brothers archive and is now available for purchase on DVD for the first time.

Posted By Mike Elliott : November 5, 2010 11:09 pm

Classic Movie lovers may be interested to learn that this movie has just been released from the Warner Brothers archive and is now available for purchase on DVD for the first time.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 6, 2010 5:05 pm

If you read my post you’ll find that I mention the Warner DVD release, Mike.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 6, 2010 5:05 pm

If you read my post you’ll find that I mention the Warner DVD release, Mike.

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