The 13th Floor

Gregory Burkart Stares Into the EYES OF FIRE: The Witch Before THE VVITCH?

Since I came to live in Los Angeles, I’ve had amazing opportunities to check off quite a few items on my list of lifetime movie-going ambitions (I despise the term “bucket list,” because it creates unrealistic expectations). Some items on that list had once been relegated to the dusty storage locker of my memories… including the chance to view a theatrical screening of the obscure independent horror-fantasy film EYES OF FIRE — which had first haunted me by way of a creepy local TV spot.

The film went mostly unnoticed when it screened for a single week at a tiny theater in my home town, and while I managed to attend most of the major horror movies of the ‘80s theatrically, this one slipped by me before I could catch it.

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I would eventually rediscover EYES OF FIRE in the late ’80s by way of Vestron Video’s dark, murky full-frame VHS transfer (from which these screenshots were taken). I knew even then that I was watching something special, but it was frustrating to be limited to a format for which it was never intended.

Helmed by experimental photographer & filmmaker Avery Crounse, EYES OF FIRE is not a traditional horror film by any stretch; instead, it’s more of a surreal rumination on humanity’s uneasy relationship with the unknown — in this case, the vast and threatening North American wilderness — and employs a full toolbox of cinematic techniques to convey this concept in a mystical, dreamlike way.

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Despite my fuzzy recollections of the film, EYES OF FIRE was nevertheless the first thing that sprang to mind when I first heard about Robert Eggers’ THE WITCH in the wake of its Sundance premiere last year.

While the stories themselves bear little resemblance, the two films have far more similarities than differences. Both involve small, isolated groups of settlers exiled from their colonial communities in the early days of the North American frontier (though THE WITCH is set roughly a century earlier than EYES OF FIRE, which takes place in 1750); both involve people whose fear of the unknown gives rise to wild and paranoid superstitions born out of religious beliefs; and both depict the vast, uncharted American wilderness as a kind of godlike beast, which can either nurture human life or totally destroy it, according to the winds of fate.

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But while the title witch of Eggers’ film is primarily a metaphor for the fear of dark, primal forces (which the Puritan characters fight to repress), Crounse throws subtlety out the window, staging a very literal battle between good and evil spirits, with the souls of his characters hanging in the balance.

It’s an ambitious undertaking for a first-time director working on a limited budget, but much like Eggers did three decades later, Crounse wraps the simple story in layers of dreamlike imagery and haunting, otherworldly mood, and in the process creates an internal movie logic that probably baffled audiences just as much then as now.

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But while THE WITCH found some degree of mainstream success as both a genre entry and an art-house project — thanks to positive word-of-mouth and a chilling promotional campaign — EYES OF FIRE was improperly marketed as a gruesome monster movie, and it quickly slipped into oblivion.

But as luck would have it, programmers at The Cinefamily — a nonprofit film society based in L.A.’s historic Silent Film Theatre — were just as fascinated by EYES OF FIRE, and managed to purchase a good-quality 35mm print from a collector (apparently for just a few hundred dollars), which they screened Wednesday night as part of their ongoing “All of Them Witches” film series — inspired in part by the popularity of THE WITCH.

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[Their massive roster of genre films for this multi-week series includes screenings of the legendary silent film HAXAN with a live musical score, as documented by our very own Rob Galluzzo.]

Needless to say, once the lights came down, even this slightly-worn print instantly blew that murky VHS copy out of the water. While the outdoor settings are captured in natural shades of deep green and brown, the magical realms are depicted through the use of film processing, resulting in shocking psychedelic displays of unearthly colors. This not only creates an otherworldly feeling, but helps to put you in the mind of the film’s most enigmatic and fascinating character, the “Irish fairy” Leah.

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Played with eccentric enthusiasm by Karlene Crockett, Leah is the prime mover of the plot, and Crounse’s script makes no bones about depicting her magical powers as real: rescued as a child by preacher Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb) after her mother was burned as a witch, the grown but half-mad Leah (who speaks mostly in gibberish) returns the favor by saving Smythe from the gallows, when his un-Puritan sexual shenanigans are discovered by the colony.

Smythe gathers a small band of friends and followers — including Leah — and sets out to start a new settlement of his own, despite knowing very little about surviving in the harsh wilderness. When the group is almost immediately attacked by Shawnee scouts and French mercenaries, it’s mostly Leah’s magic which saves them from being massacred, and not Smythe’s pleas for God’s protection as he believes.

Also coming to the band’s rescue is Marion Dalton (Guy Boyd), a rugged hunter and trapper well-versed in Shawnee customs and language, who comes to warn the group that they are about to enter a cursed valley which the Shawnee fear as the home of the “Devil Witch.”

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Unlike the European concept of witches, this creature is revealed to be a powerful nature spirit, who derives energy from stealing the souls of living humans and imprisoning them in trees — from which she can then summon them to do her bidding.

This creature is actually quite scary for a film of this age and limited resources, and provides some genuinely shocking moments whenever she appears (day or night) with her naked, mud-covered tree spirits in tow. I was reminded a bit of the nightmarish “Dumpster Bum” from David Lynch’s MULLHOLLAND DRIVE — a shambling, yellow-eyed mass of mud, twigs, leaves and rotting debris.

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While Crouse achieves a lot with a little, EYES OF FIRE is far from perfect: the already non-linear editing style makes the story so disjointed and full of holes that it’s practically impossible to sort out what’s going on during the final act; the pacing is often painfully slow; and despite some stellar performances (Crockett and Boyd are particularly strong), some of the acting is a little sketchy.

Also, the film may invite the same criticism leveled against THE WITCH, in that it’s not a button-pushing horror film focused on shocks and spook-house thrills, but is all about generating a particular mood, i.e. the sensation of being trapped in a beautiful nightmare. If that doesn’t appeal to your taste, then EYES OF FIRE probably isn’t the film for you either.

In the end, both films inhabit a distinctive, fully-populated universe, the product of distinctive visions, and instead of ramming the horror down audiences’ throats, their creators gently invite you to be transported to a beautiful and magical world for 90 minutes. That world may ultimately come across as hostile and dangerous… but that combination lies at the heart of a horror classic.

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