Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Devil’s disciples… Eye of the Devil (1966)

Or Tales of the Expected (Part Two)… This film has atmosphere aplenty but not so much tension or indeed mystery; the premise reveals itself quite early on and as you wait for supernatural twists and turns or a resolving hero it still carries on its course.

There is a top notch cast – legends in fact: Niven and Kerr – along with eye-catching new-comers such as David Hemmings and the simply-stunning Sharon Tate and all perform well. J. Lee Thompson directs with assurance and the cinematography from Erwin Hillier makes the most of some lovely locations, most notably the Château de Hautefort. But the whole is slightly less than the sum of these fascinating parts.
Sharon and some friends...
There’s a moment when a frog is seemingly turned into a dove and another when mesmeric powers seem to be deployed but the magic only leads down dead-ends and isn’t really a feature of the resolution. It’s a bit like The Wicker Man… without the suspense: the magic ingredient in fact.

This might be the result of numerous changes in personnel during production: Kim Novak either injured herself in a riding accident or fell out with the producers and was replaced by Deborah Kerr whilst a number of directors came and went and Terry Southern was brought in (uncredited) to add zip to the screenplay. The result is not so much uneven as just a bit flat. But… if you like black and white forebodings, a touch of the pagan, beautiful blondes and Donald Pleasence… then you won’t be wasting your time.

David Niven and Deborah Kerr
All begins in the reassuring sophistication of urban Paris as the demi monde joins millionaire wine producer Philippe de Montfaucon (David Niven) hosts a soiree with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr). The guests listen to a harp player – such a strange instrument for an evening gathering – and the host’s son, Jacques (Robert Duncan) comes down from his bedroom to wander over and stare at the musician as he works the strings… the World moves in mysterious ways and the music we might take for granted is worked in a way the boy was not expecting.

Where Phillipe a Lancastrian cotton merchant there might be trouble at mill but right now he has malady du vin as poor crops have led to a collapse in his yield and the community based around his family seat is struggling. A man arrives asking him to return immediately: he is the only one who can save the situation.

His wife is confused wondering how much he can do – one man balanced against the combined forces of the weather and the soil. But you wonder how well she knows her man as his home isn’t exactly “normal”…

The de Caray's watch and take aim...
The family chateau sits atop a hill overlooking its vineyards and overshadowing the small town below… there are some lovely shots as Philippe’s E-Type Jaguar arrives (always a sucker for sixties sports classics!) and the local flavours are gradually introduced. The weird priest Pere Dominic (Donald Pleasence), the traumatised old aunt, Countess Estel (Flora Robson) and the enigmatic blonde de Caray twins…

David Hemmings swings
Christian de Caray (David Hemmings) carries a bow and arrow and shoots a dove out of the sky as Catherine and the children arrive: youthful high spirits of course but you have to admit it’s a bit odd.

His sister Odile (Sharon Tate) has other, more sinister weapons at her disposal and charms the children with her frog to dove conversion whilst encouraging them to walk on the edge of the roof. Christine sees this and rushes to intervene but is overcome with what can only be seen as Odile appears to freeze her in her tracks and then, through auto-suggestion, move her closer to the edge.

It's a long way down isn't it?
 Before things go too far, Phillipe intervenes but it’s quite clear that Christine isn’t wanted…

At night Christine sees men arriving on horseback and following them encounters her husband who says he’s heard and seen nothing. Later she spies a ritual in the Chateau’s chapel; it’s clearly not Christian…

From now it’s only a question of the mysteries building up and Catherine being frightened into frenzy. Countess Estel knows but isn’t really telling whilst there’s the mystery of her disappeared brother. Researching the family reveals that the male line has always died a violent death – mere bad luck says Phil – whilst there’s a rather specific painting showing one man surrounded by cloaked figures who seem almost to be hunting him…

Watching and waiting
All the while Christina pops up with his bow and arrow whilst Odile turns up and just looks… and, let’s be honest; Sharon Tate is a very good looker indeed. Here she doesn’t have to do much but look beautiful (big tick!) and detached (another tick, not as emphatic as the first. But, to be honest, even Mr Hemmings struggles to make much meat out of his role: there’s simply not enough there to develop.

The people understand...
Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the Wicker Man or just that the ending seems nailed on quite early on especially as the entire village is gradually revealed to be in on the deal. It’s a pre-Christian society with pagan beliefs that pre-date the bible and which yet use it to reinforce their belief in sacrifice. If the crop is failing then it must be that the gods are angry and the balance needs to be redressed in the time-honoured way.

The ritual begins...
The main difference with the later film is that whereas Lord Summerisle knows he is controlling his islanders through ritual – it’s a deliberate act of crowd-pleasing mumbo-jumbo – here it looks like all involved actually believe in the paganism which, when you think about it, adds a different dimension it’s an evil they all accept.

Under pressure
So, who, if anyone will come forward to rescue the family or is the cycle of noble-nobility sacrifice continue?

Dusty verdict: Eye of the Devil is a well-made film and looks superb even in black and white. It’s worth a watch with top-notch performances from Kerr, Niven, Pleasence and Robson but don’t expect to be haunted… except by the stunning Sharon.

The film is available on DVD from Amazons.

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