Eye of the Devil, written by Robin Estridge and Dennis Murphy and directed by J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear ), was one of those films that seemed troubled from the start.
Based on a novel written by Estridge under the pen name “Philip Loraine”, the film tells the story of Phillipe de Montfaucon (David Niven), a marquis and vintner, who must return to his family’s estates in Bellenac when their vineyards have failed for the third year in a row.
He leaves his wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) in Paris with their children, Jacques and Antoinette, with instructions that they are not to come to Bellenac for any reason. However, after he has been gone for a few days, young Jacques begins to exhibit strange behavior and Catherine decides they must be with Phillipe.
Little does she know that the denizens of Bellenac follow very old traditions, and that one of those beliefs entails the willing sacrifice of the Marquis in order to save the dying fields.
The film had an amazing cast alongside Kerr and Niven.
Donald Pleasance (Halloween) appears as Pere Dominic the local priest who may or may not be involved in the pagan rituals. Pleasance is at his subtle and most understated best in the role, and his performance is more than worth the price of admission!
The oh-so-handsome David Hemmings (Deep Red) and the bewitching Sharon Tate (The Fearless Vampire Killers) draw focus in almost every scene they appear in as siblings Christian and Odile de Caray.
It was Tate’s feature film debut. Sadly, she would be brutally murdered only three years later at the age of 26 by members of Charles Manson’s cult.
Eyes of the Devil is genuinely spooky with an excellent score by Gary McFarland and it makes beautiful use of black and white photography at a time when monochromatic films were beginning to be the exception rather than the norm.
There is a particularly beautiful scene where Kerr finds herself in the forest near an old family mausoleum. As she decides to go back home a hooded figure in dark robes steps from the shadows of a tree. That figure is joined by another and another and another, the dark black of the robes standing out against the grays around them as they circle her and begin to close in.
The scene was terrifying and all the more so because of those gray and black contrasts.
As I mentioned earlier, however, the film seemed plagued by issues from the very beginning.
Michael Anderson, who would later direct Logan’s Run, was originally tapped to direct the film but due to scheduling constraints and rumored disagreements with the studio, he was replaced with Thompson. Thompson completed the film, but Sidney J. Furie and Arthur Hiller were both brought on to film additional scenes for the final production.
Kim Novak (Bell, Book, and Candle) who was originally cast in the role of Catherine had to leave the production after a few weeks of shooting supposedly because of an injury she sustained when she fell from a horse.
Hemmings would later write in his autobiography, however, that she was fired from the production after she argued with one of the producers when he discovered that she and the younger actor were having an affair.
Whatever the reason, Novak was gone, and while Kerr was brought on quickly to take over the role, all of the previously filmed scenes with Novak had to be thrown out and re-shot.
After its completion, it seemed that MGM was uncertain how to market it, or perhaps they were afraid of how audiences might react to the film’s themes of witchcraft, human sacrifice, and pagan rituals.
The film was completed in early 1966, but it was late 1967 before it saw a release in the U.S. and it was not until the spring of 1968 that it finally made its way onto screens in the UK.
Unfortunately for the studios, the film’s initial release was not a great success, though it did enjoy more popularity in Europe. However, after Tate’s death, demand to see the film grew and it soon found its fan base in the States, as well.
Interestingly enough, after viewing, you can see the film’s influence on other films that followed it.
The Wicker Man, which was released almost seven years after Eye of the Devil was completed, immediately springs to mind after one particular scene involving a strange parade through Bellenac with dancers and oddly costumed citizens.
Eye of the Devil still holds up as a classic chiller with only one really problematic scene by contemporary standards. When it is discovered that Odile has tried to murder Catherine, Phillipe whips her with a horsewhip and she writhes with seemingly simultaneous pain and pleasure at her punishment.
While it is very effective, modern audiences, outside of the 50 Shades community, may find the scene difficult to watch.
Still, overall, this is a film that bears watching. Its rich landscapes, shot on location in France, along with phenomenal performances by its leading and supporting cast make it a film you won’t soon forget.
Eye of the Devil is available for rent on both Amazon and Vudu for only $2.99.
Join us next week for another installment of Horror in Black and White. If you missed last week’s coverage of The Old Dark House, click here to check it out!