Eyes of Fire (1983) aka Cry Blue Sky
Dir. and written by Avery Crouse
Starring Dennis Lipscomb, Guy Boyd, Karlene Crockett
Somewhere in the undeveloped wilderness of pre-revolutionary America, a small group of pioneers is experiencing some internal conflict. Seems their beloved leader, Reverend Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb), has been accused of polygamy and philandering and I think he may have also broadcast major league baseball without express written consent or something, or maybe he’s a witch, anyway, they’re pretty pissed and things look bad for him until one of his companions (Karlene Crockett) --a mentally ill redhead, also mute-- uses her supernatural powers to set him free, and in short order after a requisite fuck-you-very-much speech, he and a small band of followers are headed West to search for more accepting cultures where a man can marry multiple mentally ill women in peace, as God intended. Unfortunately Mormonism hadn’t been invented yet, so these poor suckers are on their own.
That’s a pretty unusual opening, and this is a pretty unusual film. In fact, it may be that rarest of all things in art: a genuine one-of-a-kind. Everything from the story to the tone to the characters to the iconography seems to have no obvious predecessor or successor in cinema; like the bizarre inhabitants of the valley in which much of the action takes place, it seems to rise unbidden out of the mists of history and vanish just as quickly. It apparently had a tiny theatrical release, but then was dumped unceremoniously directly onto video, where it has languished ever since. No official DVD release was ever attempted*, and an exhaustive search of the usual places failed to come up with a single source for a copy with the original screen ratio, leaving me watching a fuzzy full-screen VHS transfer.
Maybe part of this is the grainy VHS image, but the period costumes, slow, quiet takes, and strange framing (lots of medium shots, full-body shots and deep focus, significantly less close-ups than a typical film) conjure memories of history videos we used to occasionally watch back in school. As an adult thinking back, I honestly have no idea where these films came from. I’m guessing that they, like this, were local productions mostly shot on-location with period reenactors or something. Maybe their aired on TV originally**? How did they ever find their way so ubiquitously into the public schools, anyway? All questions I cannot answer. But this kind of has the same low-key vibe, quiet and cheap but not exactly amateurish, obviously made with some care and not intended as a cheapie cash grab. Authentic costumes and careful period details, but rare and primitive sets, mostly shot on location in Eastern woodland. That may not be the most flattering comparison in the world, but the odd combination of nostalgia and strangeness turns out to be a rather potent one. This seems so familiar, so respectable and old-fashioned, that when things start to get surreal and frightening you can hardly believe it and start to feel strangely off-kilter.
The facts of the movie are fairly clear: Our group of feisty settlers, migrating Westward to more polygamy-tolerant climes, seek shelter in a suspiciously abandoned valley in an effort to avoid hostile Shawnee Indians (which would place our intrepid settlers somewhere in Northern Kentucky or Southern Ohio/Indiana, an appropriate place for a valley of evil). Troublingly, they find evidence of a previous settlement here, now vanished. But they persist, even as things begin to grow stranger and more ominous. A wild-eyed orphan shows up to be adopted by the reverend, much to everyone else’s unease. The mentally-ill magic lady discovers that the Shawnee have absolutely blanketed the surrounding forest with down feathers as a warning to avoid this place. Suddenly human faces start to appear in the trees, mud-encrusted naked people are running around, and it may or may not have something to do with the idea that the valley is the place where “the lost blood gathers -- the home of the devil.”
Though the movie’s surreal imagery is its most potent tool, (understably, considering director Avery Crouse was and remains a prominent still photographer) there are other interesting things going on here too. The characters are thinly drawn, but at the same time resist easy stereotypes; they seem believable and normal, like flawed real people suddenly stuck in this weird situation they can’t understand. Explicit characterization is minimal, there’s not a ton of talking and what little exists is simple and practical, which just adds to the spartan, muted desperation of the scenario (the dialogue is also mixed extremely low in the version I saw. Possibly this is the result of a low-quality VHS transfer, but the muffled and far away quality only adds to the dreamlike atmosphere). There’s not much of a musical score, either, and when it does appear it’s mostly grinding electronic droning and low-end growls (its composed by Brad Fidel, who next year would do THE TERMINATOR). That leaves the film uncommonly quiet, and indeed the ambient noise of the forest --always present-- is almost as assertive a presence as the dialogue.
Lots of horror films are set in the woods, but few seem to capture as well as this one does the vastness of nature and its utter indifference to the fragile humans who think they’re somehow elevated above it. Crouse shoots some beautiful nature footage --in fact, for long stretches (particularly at the beginning) it seems more like a particularly artful nature documentary than a horror movie-- but also carefully cultivates a world which is utterly alien to these self-obsessed invaders who want to make it bend to their will and their God. It’s hard to imagine today, but it was not too many generations ago when nature itself was a powerful antagonist, something full of mystery and danger and from which sudden death could come at any time. EYES OF FIRE does a lot to evoke that sense of settlers in a hostile, incomprehensible alien world whose rules are ill-understood and viewed with fear and superstition. These folks don’t really understand the natural world very well, and they understand the spirit world which is also lining up against them even less, but to a large degree the movie is interesting in conflating these two worlds. Christianity as a religion makes a point of cleanly separating humans from the natural world, and here Crouse seems interested in reminding us of how frightening and paranoid a mindset that must be: to our humble settlers, anything which is not explicitly Christian is tainted and evil, and nature and black magic are inexorably tied. Lacking modern science to explain anything they see --from the changing leaves to the understandably hostile natives to the naked mud people-- the characters here are forever trapped in a baffled, painfully vulnerable position, constantly under siege in a hostile and arbitrary world. Nothing is ever explicitly explained here, so you're kind of in the same boat.
Of course, you may not be able to relate to that very well from your modern perspective where pretty much everything in our world is explained and predictable. Like most surreal horror, this one is probably not going to work for everyone. Either its particular set of images will work past your logical facilities, percolate down to your subconscious and creep you out, or you’ll simply have to give up and laugh at how random they are. There’s not gonna be a lot of middle ground here, because there’s not much to this one except its sparse tone and dreamy images. But those two things are what it promises, and those two things are what it delivers the goods on. Image after image is striking and unexpected, and they’re all executed with startling clarity and surprising competence for such a low-budget affair. There are a few then-cutting-edge video effects (sudden polarisation reversals, for example) which now seem a little dated, but then again you’ve never seen them used in this specific way, either, so it’s not as bad as it could have been. Mostly, though, the movie seems to have exactly the resources it needs to create its weird vision. Even when we get to strange creatures and magical effects they look pretty good, there’s not really anything you have to forgive because of the low budget. For better or worse, I think this is about as good a job as could be done with this idea.
This all might be more interesting to me than it is to you, but I found it genuinely sublime, simply a fascinating, unsettling, totally unique experience. I’ve seen a lot of movies, but occasionally even someone who watches as many movies as I do finds an odd one that has such an effect; something totally baffling and unexpected and unpredictable. You do stumble on these things once in a while, but it’s extremely rare to find such a film that is actually good; mostly this sort of unusual cadence is born from incompetence rather than imagination. Moreover, even in those cases where a film is both unusual and good, it tends to be a result of someone intentionally changing up a known formula in a deliberately postmodern way, i.e. BENEATH or something. They’re unusual because they undermines our expectations, but to do that they first have to acknowledge what those are. This can be fun, but it doesn’t have quite that same sense of giddy discovery that sometimes entirely unconnected to the usual rules does. So to have something like EYES OF FIRE --which is competently, even artfully constructed and yet doesn’t even seem to quite understand just how completely bizarre and outlandish it is-- well, that’s quite a treat. It’s not a perfect film, and you wouldn’t want every film to be like it. But as things stand, it’s a real jewel, a perfectly strange, completely unique creeper which is genuinely unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Hopefully someday Criterion or somebody will figure that out and give it a real DVD release with a restored print, but in the meantime you and I get the joy of watching something really cool almost nobody else in the world knows about. It may not be as exciting as migrating West to form a ultra-religious polygamous paradise in a haunted valley beset by hostile Indians, but it’s about as adventurous as this predictable modern culture gets.
*There’s a longstanding internet rumor that Thailand and/or Brazil did release it on DVD --which would make sense, the glorious Thai people are definitely the only national audience that could be counted on to understand immediately why this was great-- but I can find no direct evidence that this is true.
** A favorite that comes to mind is the must-be-seen-to-be-believed BUFFALO RIDER, also the inspiration for a series of hilarious and maddening earworms about the Guy on a Buffalo.
|A strong 4 thumbs, seeing it in its original aspect ratio with a better print might push it to five.|