08 October 2019

Movie Review: Eyes of Fire (1983)

A few days ago I posted a list of Colonial Horror Movies. Among the dozen or so movies I reviewed, there were three I had not yet watched. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of them, Eyes of Fire, could be watched on YouTube. In my original blog post, I wrote that watching the trailer, the movie looked hilariously bad. And boy was I not disappointed! Be warned, the following review contains spoilers, but these will probably end up whetting your appetite for more...

The movie begins in New France in 1750 (or as the subtitle puts it: "The American Frontier"...) when a woman and a child are interrogated by a surly looking officer with an outrrrrraaaaageeeous French accent straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The two claim they are the only survivors of "where the Devil-Witch lives". Cue the flash back as the two recall the events having led them there (that said, the narration gets jarring whenever it jumps from the young woman to the little girl).

The actual story begins then in a British colonial village where the local reverend, Will Smythe, is caught playing hanky panky with the village women. Smythe, or father McHorny-Pants as I nicknamed him throughout the movie, is immediately strung up for execution. But just as he drops, the rope  mysteriously breaks. However, the audience is immediately made aware that Smythe's protégée, the mute Leah, is responsible. Indeed, the young red-head is the second main character: it is explained that after her mother was executed and burned for witchcraft, the reverend took her in out of pity. But as is constantly hinted at in no subtle manner in the first act, she has clearly inherited her mother's powers.

Rob Paulson is in this movie, sadly
not talking like Pinky...
Believing the reverend's life was spared through providence, the townsfolk are not quite sure what to make of him. No matter, since Smythe, realizing his predicament, decides to skip town with his closest followers (including a young Rob Paulson of Pinky and the Brain fame!). Among the group is Eloise Dalton, the latest mistress he was caught with, and her daughter, Fanny. The band steals the local ferryboat laden with supplies ("The Lord taketh away" as Smythe justifies away).

As the band travel along the river, they are attacked by Shawnee warriors. In an attempt to escape, the group makes its way into the woods. While doing so, they are joined by Eloise's first husband, Marion Dalton, a mountain-man type who had been chasing after the group to get his daughter back. Fearing being attacked again, they press on into the forest when they come across a tree covered in feathers. It is explained to be a warning by the local Indigenous people to stay away. Dismissing this as petty superstition, they continue on. Finding a handful of abandoned cabins, the reverend sees these as a sign they should settle there and start their new lives. Sure enough, the movie forebodes otherwise when the camera pans to a face in a tree, oddly resembling Cody Iron Eyes, creepily shedding a tear like a freaky Grandmother Willow.

While fixing up the cabins and tending to chores, members of the group find a broken stone tablet with French inscriptions warning about the evil in the woods. Indeed, strange goings-on are afoot as the band keeps seing strange figures constantly running around. Who are they, they wonder. Smythe, convinced they are Indigenous, revels in the thought of converting them. 

But these are clearly not Indigenous people as Leah discovers. Thanks to her powers, she perceives them as the captive ghosts of French settlers. But then again... one morning the group wakes up to find a Indigenous child left on their doorstep, so to speak. The reverend rejoices, believing it is his duty to care for the child, despite Leah getting increasingly agitated with her presence, sensing the child isn't what she appears to be...

The rest of the story is a cumulation of creepy events that lead the characters to realize they are in mortal danger as a strange "Devil-Witch" is stealing souls. As the characters are gradually getting picked off or killed, the band must make a final stand against the ghouls in the woods. Through Leah's guidance, they must defeat the Devil-Witch and escape. Or will they?

There is little surprise Eyes of Fire is a forgotten movie. The story is hard to follow at times and the effects are often worse than many movies decades older. Most of the ghouls/ghosts are nothing more than random naked people partly covered in goopy mud. The creepy atmosphere is mostly reliant on cross-fades and negative colours. 

In the end, the movie tends to feel like a weird acid trip with some pacing issues (to quote one of the French ghosts staring right at the camera upon her release from the Devil-Witch, once you're done watching, you'll be "enfin libre".)

My main qualm thematically with this movie is how Indigenous people are merely treated like plot conveniences. Horror has always been used as a mirror for societal issues. This movie could have done so much more with its Indigenous characters and themes had they taken them seriously (by the way, I'm no linguist, but I'm willing to bet any Shawnee spoken in the movie was pure gibberish). Take this line from the reverend, for example: "Yes yes, it's true, they're savage, but they're also a noble people. And with a little help, they can become Christians." This line was the perfect occasion to foreshadow a gruesome death and have a missionary have his comeuppance in a twisted, ironic way tied to his arrogant belief that Indigenous people need "civilizing". Though Smythe is constantly portrayed as a slimy, misogynist character, I do wish the movie would have had done more than simply making him commit an off-screen suicide by gunshot. Something a little more historically cathartic would have been appreciated.

The other element that is off-putting as we are grappling today with the history of residential schools is having the figure of an Indigenous child be one of the main ghouls. Mind you, this character had the potential of being a substantive social criticism of this history. Considering how many missionaries terrorized indigenous children out of their native cultures and languages, having the child terrorize the missionary would have been a brilliant cathartic turning of the table. Instead, the character ends up being nothing more than a scary prop with no agency other than to be a throwaway "creepy" element that does little more more than harass the white children. That said, I have a very, very slight inclination to be a bit more lenient considering this movie came out in 1983 before Indigenous issues were on the forefront of political news. This is also the decade, after all, that created the cliché of Indigenous supernatural malevolence in horror movies. And finally, this character gave us the best accidentally hilarious scene in the movie: as the child reveals herself to be a ghoul, she runs away and Marion takes aim to shoot her. As he finally pulls the trigger, she friggin' explodes to everyone's surprise, even the French ghosts'!


The other true horror of this movie is the wardrobe: once again, the costumes, mainly the women's, are very much reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie. Surprisingly for a movie like this, at least none of the men are wearing the cliché, anachronistic fringed buckskin, however.

Is this movie redeemable? Absolutely. This is a B-Movie that is solidly in the "so-bad-it's-good" category. There are so many accidentally funny scenes and random nude scenes, this movie can be more easily labeled a comedy than horror. I strongly suggest watching with friends who love riffing movies, accompanied by a copious amount of booze. And if you're alone watching the movie off of YouTube, watching it at one-and-a-half-speed is also an enjoyable experience to tickle your funny bone. 

I'll also give it to this movie that every once in a while, the ghouls can be creepy despite the reliance on simple cross-fade transitions. Also, not gonna lie, as bad as this movie is, I'll give it props for one seriously creepy moment: at one point the characters are defending their rickety fort against the ghosts when random things are being thrown at them over the palissade. For a moment, you think they're just rocks. But then the camera shifts to the inside the fort, when you realize the ghosts are chucking the skulls and bones of their last victims...  

All in all, bring your friends, bring your favourite drinks, and enjoy.

Both Eyes of Fire and Michael Jackson's Thriller video
come out in 1983. Both end with creepy ghoul eyes.
Coincidence?...


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