Monday, 19 July 2021

Eye of the Devil (1966)

Eye of the Devil (originally titled 13) is a very neglected 1966 British horror film that can be seen as a kind of dry run for The Wicker Man. The resemblances really are quite marked.

It was actually quite a big-budget production, with some big names in the cast.

It’s also notable for being a David Niven horror movie and you don’t see many of those.

Philippe de Montfaucon (Niven) is a French aristocrat who has been forced to return to the family’s estate, Bellinac, in a very traditional rural part of France. Philippe’s family have owned their estate for a thousand years. He has to return because the vineyards are failing. But how on earth will his return help the vineyards? We shall see.

He tries to discourage his wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) from returning with him, and from bringing their two children.

The chateau at Bellinac is magnificent and everything is bathed in brilliant sunshine. There’s an atmosphere of cultured wealth. And yet people seem to be behaving rather oddly. The locals are glad that Philippe has returned but there’s an air of melancholy to their reception.

Despite Philippe’s efforts to dissuade her Catherine arrives with their two small children in tow. Like Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) in The Wicker Man she finds the atmosphere at Bellinac slightly disturbing without being able to put her finger on what’s wrong.

She definitely finds young Christian de Caray (David Hemmings) and his sister Odile (Sharon Tate) very worrying and rather frightening.

She is even more uneasy at the scene she witnesses on her first night at the chateau. It seemed to be some kind of ritual but probably not a wholesome one. And Philippe has become rather secretive and evasive. Their son has also started sleep-walking.

It gradually becomes apparent that while the locals are pious in their own way, they are not pious Christians. They have clung tenaciously to their old pagan beliefs (unlike the locals in The Wicker Man who have converted from Christianity to paganism). As in The Wicker Man, these are beliefs that are uncompromising and could lead to terrible consequences.

One thing that is a little off-putting is the extreme Englishness of the cast, given that all of the characters are supposed to be French.

You’re certainly not going to buy David Niven as a Frenchman but he gives one of those effectively subtle haunted performances that he was quite capable of when given the opportunity. Deborah Kerr’s rôle was originally intended for Kim Novak (in fact shooting began with Novak). Novak would have been a better choice given that Kerr is perhaps a little too old for the part but Kerr was a fine actress and she’s very good. Donald Pleasence is, of course, deliciously sinister as the local priest.

The real standouts in the cast are David Hemmings and Sharon Tate (in her feature film debut). Their job was to make Christian and Odile de Caray mysterious, unsettling, vaguely other-worldly and disturbingly sexually ambiguous. Both Hemmings and Tate achieve this objective admirably. There’s a definite hint of incest, or at the very least of repressed incestuous eroticism to their relationship. And they have the right look - they look like they could be angels or demons. They’re both quite superb in their rôles. It’s certainly Sharon Tate’s finest moment as an actress.

The film was shot in black-and-white and looks superb. The locations are terrific.

J. Lee Thompson is in my view a very underrated director. He was not the first choice of the producers, in fact he was the third choice, but he does a fine job. Erwin Hillier’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous.

Eye of the Devil
’s problem is that it inevitably gets compared to The Wicker Man. They’re both very subtle low-key horror films dealing with paganism in modern Europe and the central premise is pretty much identical. There’s no question that The Wicker Man is the better film but Eye of the Devil has its own strengths. It is in its own way every bit as atmospheric. While The Wicker Man deals with a kind of revived synthetic paganism everything in Eye of the Devil is very very old. The beliefs of the people have not altered, probably for millennia. The eroticism is much more subdued in Eye of the Devil, but more disturbing.

The paganism in Eye of the Devil is also more troubling. It’s more organic, but more deeply threatening because it isn’t a fad. There’s also a disturbing ambiguity. Could there be any actual supernatural influence at work? Could Christian and Odile actually be sorcerers, or perhaps more pertinent, do they believe that they are?

The Warner Archive MOD DVD presents us with a really lovely anamorphic transfer.

Maybe Eye of the Devil isn’t quite as good as The Wicker Man but it’s more effectively weird. A very very good low-key chiller. Very highly recommended.


Randall Landers said...

Honestly, I think Eye of the Devil is the better film, but most of that is because of the Hemmings-Tate scenes (ambiguosly incestuous and seemingly teetering between good and evil). They're absolutely perfect, and both the decision of Niven's character to go along with the pagan traditions, and his son's adoption of those traditions (knowing full well what the implications are for him if the crops fail in the future) add to the horror. Sgt. Howie was forced to be a part of his sacrifice, and Phillippe chooses to be a willing participant in his sacrifice. Therein to me lies the difference and the reason I think Eye of the Devil is slightly superior. Your blood mileage may vary, of course. :) Nevertheless, great review!

dfordoom said...

Randall Landers said...
Honestly, I think Eye of the Devil is the better film

It's interesting that the two movies are so close thematically, but (as you point out) they deal with that theme in crucially different ways.

I agree entirely about the Hemmings-Tate scenes. They're superb. I like the fact that the suggestion of incest is so very subtle. Hemmings and Tate give strange detached performances, which of course is exactly what was required.