EYE OF THE DEVIL (1966 aka 13) opens with an imaginative 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 quick 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 unsettling 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 property 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 countryside where they’re confronted by superstitious locals that still practice Pagan rituals and seem to enjoy terrifying weary outsiders. When Kerr’s character begins to suspect that witchcraft or powerful occult forces are trying to harm her family we’re asked to question her sanity in a manner that’s reminiscent of classic Hollywood thrillers such as Rebecca (1940) or Gaslight(1944) but her fears soon prove to be well-founded.
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 charismatic actors play fair-haired siblings named Odile and Christian who torment the family 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 swinging club kids who wandered off the dance floor of a nearby beatnik inspired hotspot.
EYE OF THE DEVIL was produced by Martin Ransohoff who helped manage Sharon Tate’s career as well as other promising 1960s starlets such as Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld. Ransohoff hoped that the movie would help propel Tate’s career and he surrounded the actress with a great cast and crew in his effort to do just 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. Novak’s unfortunate accident forced producers to ask Deborah Kerr to replace her but the film was practically finished at the time so the entire picture had to be re-shot. It’s been suggested by some that Novak wanted to leave the film because she was uncomfortable playing second fiddle to Sharon Tate and 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 was probably happy to have his old friend 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 finish it with help from writer Dennis Murphy.
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 Cape Fear and other tension-filled films informed many of the directing choices he made.
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 believe that 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 it’s very effective.
In scene after scene EYE OF THE DEVIL 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 complex structure’s long dark hallways and ominous stairways form a dense maze that seems to entrap Deborah Kerr and her children.
Director J. Lee Thompson wasn’t all that interested in startling his audience with shocks or cringe-inducing gore so the deliberate pacing will disappoint anyone expecting lots heart-stopping scares but it manages to create its own kind of unique 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 a shadow strewn forest glen during 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 merely a nightmare?
The camera loves Sharon Tate and she’s an absolutely 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 and unworldly 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 but it isn’t any more ludicrous than countless films that came before it and I appreciate Thompson’s “over-directing.” The film’s overabundant style is what makes 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 Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski’s involvement in multiple horror films and thrillers including EYE OF THE DEVIL, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Repulsion, 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 a ritual- like 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 Wiccan magic which the actress continued to practice after making EYE OF THE DEVIL. Some have even suggested that Tate and 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 Tate was probably inspired by the “witch Queen” Maxine Saunders while working on the character of Odile for the film and she may have also dabbled in magic herself. But her murder was a horrible event that was no fault of her own and in an effort to make sense of unimaginable tragedy people often resort to fantasy and fallacy. The sad fact is that 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 Deborah Kerr and David Niven that is no small achievement.
At the beginning of the month, the TCM’s Movie 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 website.
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.
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
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for TCM.com and published October 28, 2010