Tuesday 19 September 2017

We Don't Go Back #64: Eyes of Fire (1983)

While I was running the Kickstarter for the We Don't Go Back book, I got support from several unexpected quarters. Shortly before it funded, Cigarette Burns Cinema (who were responsible for this spring's Into the Woods season at the Barbican, London) caught wind of what I was doing, and said they'd get me a boost, if I said I was going to look at Eyes of Fire, because it was essential to any folk horror survey.

I'd heard of Eyes of Fire, but I'd found it impossible to source legally. I said, sure, I'll write about it, and the nice people at Cigarette Burns with their sizeable twitter reach were basically responsible for the book funding the next hour. Which was nice. And I am still grateful for that. 

That left the problem of sourcing a copy. Now obviously, if I had a 35mm projector, I could have a lend of their copy, but... yeah. A search of various outlets proved fruitless, so... so it was on YouTube. I have a weird relationship with YouTube, but basically it boils down to this: if there isn't any legally obtainable copy of a film, then I am all right with finding it on YouTube. If it's obtainable on some form where it can be purchased, I'll buy it (and that's what my Patreon money goes to: money to buy films to write about, and if you want to stick a quid in, please feel free), but while I suppose the strictly legal stand would be not to watch it, I don't think I'm doing any harm to anyone's pocket as it is. The moment someone does a Blu-Ray or DVD release, I promise I'm on it. Pinkie promise. Anyway, that's why the screenshots aren't of the usual quality.

Think of the children.
Avery Crounse's 1983 film Eyes of Fire is very much in the tradition of Carnival of Souls and Lemora, a film that's small, and unique, and a little creaky round the edges in terms of performances and production values, but nonetheless all the more compelling and weird for it.

Eyes of Fire tells us in a title card that it's 1750, and it's "The American Frontier". It's the frontier with New France, but the very word "frontier" on its own denotes the wilderness. The lost places.

Three Anglo-Irish settler girls have been found in French territory, miles from anywhere, and the soldiers who found them demand to hear their story in full, being sceptical of the hints dropped by the girls about "devil witches" and the like.

The eldest girl, Fanny (Sally Klein) tells how her mother Eloise Dalton (Rebecca Stanley), feeling abandoned by her absentee trapper husband, takes up with Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb), a self-interested and heretical preacher, and is among her followers when he narrowly escapes being lynched (for his adultery and polygamy), and, stealing the town ferry and several bundles of supplies, takes to the wilderness.

They're caught up by Fanny's father Marion Dalton, the trapper (Guy Boyd), who becomes their protector, and narrowly escaping a tangle with the Shawnee people (which puts their original location somewhere in Virginia, I think), eventually they stop in a valley outside of any settled territory, where the Shawnee won't follow. They find some ruined cabins and set to repairing them.
Tangled souls.
Of course, something terrible is living in the woods. On the other hand, something strange is among them too: an apparently mute young woman named Leah (Karlene Crockett). The pastor says that he saved her from being burned as a witch along with her mother. She certainly has mystical powers, and she is the reason Smythe isn't dead. Leah enters into what amounts to a metaphysical battle against the forces that surround the small community. Trees absorb eat human souls and eerie faces appear on the bark. Naked figures frolic just out of reach. A little native girl appears on their doorstep; Leah recognises that this is not really a child at all, but some sort of malevolent spirit. But the pastor is convinced that the child is a gift from the Indians, and must be baptised and brought up by their community. 

The rest of the film is framed as a spiritual battle, but not between the hostile spirits of the land and the settlers. On the one hand, we have Smythe the heretic minister, a hypocrite who tells a town full of people who have just tried to kill him that he thinks they're good people and they deserve God's love, even as he's robbing them blind. If North America's religious history has taught us anything, it's that heretic Christianities flourish in remote places. Going right back to the eighteenth century, we have records of negligibly orthodox communities, in the grip of charismatic leaders whose control over the flock was sometimes self-aggrandising and sometimes even sexual. Smythe is of a uniquely American type.1

On the other side is Dalton, who adopts a sort of pantheism, a sort of recognition of the spirit of the land. It's Dalton, supported by Leah, whose ethos wins, who wins through. He understands in a way that Smythe cannot.
Fanny: Da said it was like cold eyes in a hot fire. The eyes of animals around a campfire at night. Animals would know what a fire was, but they wouldn't know how it was made. And if a smart creature might be satisfied knowing that if he got close he got warm. And if he got too close he got burned. But some can't leave the fire alone. They get to thinking they're bigger than it is, and before long they're dancing in the middle of it, till there's nothing left but those cold eyes melting in the hot flame.
It's not my fault.
But while the pastor is defeated and the man and wife reunited, they lose the children. The adults shut them in a crate and float it down river, because they don't think they'll survive. And the note on which the film ends suggests that while the adults they've left behind are free of the malevolent forces of the valley, the children still have more to suffer. Both the powers of Leah (now ascended to a sort of angelic state, tied to the land, Queen of the Forest) and the evil of the valley have followed them into New France.

And isn't that always the thing? We might think we've won, but what about the children? They're the ones who suffer. They're the ones who face the true consequences that we as adults do not see. To my surprise, I found myself comparing Eyes of Fire thematically with Under the Shadow: here too adult conflicts destroy the lives of children. Children are often present in folk horror, and they are often scarred, and badly.

We might not go back, but they are doomed to. 

1And likewise, while it's easy to say, as I have on several occasions, that your Pat Robertsons and the like have forsaken historical Christian orthodoxy for what amounts to a sort of Manichaean witchcraft, the fact is, they're still the mainstream, and while I've got some empathy for Christians who denounce this frankly messed up religion as no longer Christian, the fact is, it is mainstream. It is part of Christendom whether you like it or not. American evangelicalism comes from the same sort of American tradition that gave us the Church of the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah's Witness but unlike these other groups, which went off on their own, this sect has appropriated the mainstream, and as such is more dangerous and needs to be engaged with, because the way it's going, if it isn't engaged it may by its own design be one day the only kind of protestantism there is. (back)