Taking place during the early colonization of America, "Eyes of Fire" is a remarkable hybrid of horror and mysticism within a western setting. Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb) is a hypocritical, but charismatic preacher who is relatively new to the small settlement of Dalton's Ferry. Traveling with him is Leah, an odd girl, who seemingly possesses otherworldly powers. Her mother, suspected of being a witch, was burned alive. While residing in the settlement, Smythe beds a bevy of women, among them the wife of Marion Dalton (Guy Boyd), a trapper spending most of his time away from home. The townsfolk disapprove of Smythe's extracurricular activities and attempt to hang him, but he's rescued by both Leah and a small group of the settlers who see something in the man. They flee the township, hoping to find their own personal "promised land" in which to settle down. Eventually forced into a valley by marauding Indians, Smythe promptly declares it to be the sanctuary they've been seeking. As they begin to start a new life, little do they know that this place is already inhabited by a devil witch and her ghastly minions.
Filmed in the wilds of Missouri, Avery Crounse's wondrously offbeat gem is one of the most beautifully photographed horror films of the 80's, American or otherwise. The dense woodlands are naturally pleasing to the eye, but they become something else entirely when seen through the stunning direction of Crounse. His style combines the contemplative visual poetry of a Terrence Malick with truly nightmarish imagery and acidic color fades. He makes sure that, while lovely in appearance, these woods are deeply foreboding. There's an eeriness in the air, one that never quite goes away. Brad Fiedel's score adds to the unease of the situation and gives off an otherworldly vibe to match.
In spite of a low budget, the period setting feels authentic. You never once believe that these people aren't living in the colonial era. What a fascinating period that was, and I feel that more horror films should be set in and around that time. The all-encompassing isolation, the lack of modern weapons or technology and the endless amount of rich history are all elements which are positively ripe for tales of the macabre. Most of all, though, there are the superstitions and folklore which were so rampant back in those days. This continent was still a relatively unknown place then, none of the settlers really having a clue as to what they might encounter. I don't think there is anything more terrifying than the unknown, so what better time than the days of the unknown to tell a story of this nature? Crounse certainly realizes this, as he milks the period setting and the olden days mythology for all that they're worth.
I've seen many reviews deriding the special effects, which is absurd. They are not only perfectly believable, but quite well-done at that. The hideous look of the devil witch herself and the surprisingly numerous explosions were especially impressive. On the acting front, Lipscomb plays slimy as if it were second nature to him. Boyd is strong in the role of foil, while Kathleen Crockett steals the show as Leah, a character that could have fallen into camp if not played correctly.
"Eyes of Fire" is right up there with "Black Rainbow" as one of the unsung genre classics of the 80's. It's a one-of-a-kind experience in desperate need of a proper release, one which preferably restores the original "Cry Blue Sky" cut, an ultimate holy grail for me, and allows the film's brilliant photography to shine through to it's fullest extent. The work of a true visionary, gems like this one shouldn't be forgotten.
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