Saturday 12 November 2011

Eye of the Devil (1966)

EYE OF THE DEVIL is a British horror film that was directed by J. Lee Thompson and released by MGM in August 1966.  It stars Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Donald Pleasence, Edward Mulhare, Flora Robson, Sharon Tate, David Hemmings, Emlyn Williams and John Le Mesurier.  It tells the story of an Anglo-French aristocrat who is summoned back to his family estate in France because a drought has affected the vineyards.  When his wife and children join him there, they find he has become obsessed with the pagan belief that a sacrifice must be made to save the crops.

This is very much a prestige production: it was made by a major studio, has major stars, expensive location shooting and what you might describe as a 'literary' feel to it.  It's a bit like what you'd expect if Merchant-Ivory ever made a horror film; in other words it's stately, refined and sadly rather dull.  That's not to say literary horror films, for want of a better expression, can't work; THE INNOCENTS (1961) is a good example of one that does; THE HAUNTING (1963) another.  But EYE OF THE DEVIL doesn't work, in my opinion, and I'll try to explain why.

I think the main reason the film fails is because of the nature of the production.  MGM were clearly trying to attract an audience that wouldn't normally choose to see a horror film.  As I said earlier, the talent attached to this project indicates high quality, refined entertainment and I think the film was actually made with that goal in mind.  That is to say, the focus was not so much on producing a frightening or disturbing film as it was on producing a glossy, 'quality' piece of work.  I don't get the impression from watching the film that at any time anyone actually sat down and said 'Right, how are we going to frighten the punters?'  In fact, it's almost as if the producers specifically wanted to reject anything that might associate the film with low budget, low status genre pictures, e.g. Hammer productions.  And I think that's it in a nutshell: this is a genre film that doesn't want to be a genre film; this is a horror film that wishes it wasn't; this is a film that wishes it could jettison the plot and just be an elegant film about elegant people in an elegant setting.

David Niven, urbane as ever
The upshot is that what remains looks elegant but completely fails to engage as a story.  The photography (by Erwin Hillier) is exemplary throughout but the film is restrained when it should be insane, it's bloodless when it should be graphic and it's dull when it should be thrilling.  The casting doesn't help: David Niven is urbane enough to look like a French aristocrat but isn't able to convince as a man driven to the point of insanity by the weight of tradition.  David Hemmings and Sharon Tate are modishly cast and given nothing to do.  Moreover, Tate is dubbed throughout which suggests she was cast for her looks and media profile rather than acting ability.

Deborah Kerr (L), Sharon Tate (C) and David Hemmings (R)
That said, a couple of moments stand out and they both feature Tate.  One sequence sees her bewitch Kerr and lead her to the edge of the battlements on the chateau's vertiginous roof.  Another sees her masochistically revelling in a whipping meted out to her by Niven.  The latter in particular shows a glimpse of the abandon that is required to bring these pagan stories to life; think of THE WICKER MAN (1973) and how that is handled.

Sharon Tate
One final word about the setting.  EYE OF THE DEVIL was shot on location at the Chateau de Hautefort in the Dordogne and it's absolutely stunning, a natural film location if ever there was one.  You can read about it and see images here.

Film anorak notes:

  • Director J. Lee Thompson was your quintessential director for hire and just about the last person you would ever consider applying auteur theory to.  He seemingly took on just any job that was offered to him and did a professional but totally anonymous job on them all.  Credit where it's due though, he was capable of turning out efficient movies: ICE COLD IN ALEX (1958), THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) and CAPE FEAR (1962) are all his.  After the hits dried up he took to working in genre pictures, often with Charles Bronson.  He also made a couple of sequels in the PLANET OF THE APES series, and the long-winded slasher HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981).
  • Sharon Tate was just making her way in movies when she was murdered by the members of the Charles Manson gang, a crime still shocking today for its brutality and senselessness.  Roman Polanski, who was Tate's husband and father of the baby she was carrying when she died, was naturally profoundly affected by her murder; his first film to be released after her death was the bleak, disturbing and blood-soaked adaptation of MACBETH (1971).
  • Edward Mulhare, who plays Deborah Kerr's best friend, was best known as Devon Miles - The Hoff's boss in the TV series KNIGHT RIDER.

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