For the early settlers of this country, the New World offered freedom as well as the unknown. This was certainly true of the first colonists who had no idea what awaited them on these strange, new shores. The story of The Lost Colony, a settlement on Roanoke Island that was sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, was one of those childhood history lessons that stuck in my mind as a creepy unsolved mystery. Sometime between the years of 1585 and 1587, numerous attempts were made to establish a permanent base for English immigrants in the Virginia territory. Then supplies for the Roanoke community were cut off for three years during the Anglo-Spanish War so when John White, whose daughter and granddaughter were among the colonists, was able to return from England with aid, he found the settlement deserted with no trace of the people, only the cryptic word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. Much speculation but no evidence has emerged over the fate of The Lost Colony. Some say sickness and starvation killed them off, others say they were captured and assimilated into the local native tribes, either the Croatan or Hatteras. A few historians theorized that the survivors attempted to return to England and were lost at sea. There was also a theory that cannibalism may have decimated their ranks as it did the infamous Donner party. Which brings me to Eyes of Fire (aka Cry Blue Sky), a little known, independent film from 1983 that has obvious connections to The Lost Colony in its tale of a band of settlers driven from their community and forced to find shelter in the wilderness. There they find themselves at the mercy of hostile tribal groups, the elements and….something much more insidious.
I’ve always had a fascination with early American folklore and fantasy tales but so few filmmakers have explored this territory in the horror genre. There have been a few distinctive examples such as William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, aka All That Money Can Buy), based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, and more recently Robert Eggers’ critically acclaimed feature film debut, The Witch. But historically based American made horror films are few and far between which is why Eyes of Fire is such a welcome entry in the genre. Despite its obvious flaws (some uneven performances, continuity lapses and a mixture of experimental and cheaply designed special effects), the film succeeds admirably on an atmospheric level and on the strength of its intriguing and haunting storyline that plays on in your mind and offers up enough tantalizing plot threads for several sequels.
A simple subtitle – 1750, The American Frontier – sets the stage for the events that follow. Three girls, one a teenager, the other two children, wander into a French encampment and the eldest, Fanny Dalton (Sally Klein), recounts their story in flashback to the officer in command. While this framing device probably wasn’t needed and might have been even more effective without it, it nevertheless establishes the appropriate note of menace and mystery required for any fireside ghost story.
Fanny recounts when all the trouble started in a community called Dalton’s Ferry on the Alleghany River. It was there that the colony’s minister, Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb), began living openly with Eloise Dalton (Rebecca Stanley), a married woman whose husband Marion (Guy Boyd) was away on a fur trapping mission. Most of the townspeople are outraged and prepare to take the law into their own hands with a public hanging of the heretic but Reverend Smythe is saved by the miraculous intervention of Leah (Karlene Crockett), an orphan he has adopted. We never learn too much about Leah’s back story except that she witnessed her mother being burned as a witch. But we do begin to see evidence of Leah’s sixth sense and magical powers as her first action allows Smythe and his small band to escape down the river.
Hidden marauders pick off one of their party on the raft and when they disembark they are threatened with attack by a band of Shawnee and French soldiers. At this point, Marion Dalton shows up to offer aid to the group and reconcile with his wife and family but the tension between him and the Reverend sets up the internal conflict among the group for the reminder of their time together. The group soon flee into a hidden valley – its entrance marked by an eerie tableaux of bird feathers – and the Shawnee are afraid to follow them for reasons that soon become all too apparent. I won’t reveal much more except to say the valley is not only haunted by the spirits of those who have perished there but rife with evil beings and a shape-shifting demon who snatches souls and entraps them in a tree.
Eyes of Fire has the polished, professional look of a PBS American Playhouse production gone bonkers. The filmmakers aren’t afraid to introduce some avant-garde influenced editing and film techniques into a historic context such as solarized frames, jump cuts and overt symbolism. While the supporting cast isn’t always up to the task at hand, there are a few seasoned professionals in the main roles such as Dennis Lipscomb (the prolific TV and film actor of WarGames, A Soldier’s Story and the series Wiseguy) as the messianic Smythe with hints of a Jim Jones superego. Karlene Crockett (veteran of such TV series as Quincy M.E., Dallas and Murder, She Wrote) stars as the bewitching Leah and Guy Boyd (Ticket to Heaven, Streamers, Body Double) is the film’s true hero, who, in a pivotal scene shares his knowledge about the evil in their midst: “It’s a devil tree. Some Indians believe that the Devil isn’t just a dark angel who lives someplace else like down below. They look on it as a natural thing, as natural as a brook or tree. That devil is born of earth, a part of nature, thriving on the evil half of life, everything that’s good has an evil side to it. To live and breath, the mantis has to kill the fly, the hawk has to kill the sparrow. I killed that rabbit and I’m going to eat it…some believe that every time innocent blood is spilled, it sinks into the earth and joins in particular with the blood of other victims who have died before it…until finally the souls of the slaughtered creatures gather together into a breathing spirit, a devil that captures the living and commands the shadows. This valley is where the lost blood gathers. It’s the home of the Devil.”
Eyes of Fire, which was written and directed by Avery Crounse and filmed in Minnesota on a meager budget, features convincing period detail, often stunning cinematography by Wade Hanks and an ominous blend of natural sounds, electronic effects and Irish music cues by Brad Fiedel, a former keyboard player for Hall & Oates who went on to score The Terminator, Gladiator and other major films. Some of the special effects in Eyes of Fire are truly startling and freakish. The tree with its living, breathing bark of contorted faces is the stuff of nightmares. Quick shock cuts, such as one that reveals the true identity of the little abandoned girl the Reverend brings into the fold, provide unexpected jolts along the way.
Yet some of the most disturbing imagery remains the most potent because it is not explained; it simply exists. One of the children witnesses some nude, chalk white spirits holding a large cow while one of them suckles the beast. An apparition of ghostly settlers appear on a glen staring at Smythe’s enclave and then avert their gaze in unison to something approaching on the right. A cow-headed demon taunts the Reverend. A hail of stones, bones and skulls rain down on the settlers, thrown by phantom, mud-caked warriors. A poltergeist destroys Smythe’s book collection, decorating their fortress with all the scattered pages, and in the midst of it, a goat grazes on the paper. Even when some of the effects reveal their makeshift nature – the tree demon looks like an escapee from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead – they are still a treat for horror junkies.
Director/writer Crounse is especially effective at sustaining a sinister mood while capturing the paranoia and disorientation of the group as their number begins to dwindle and madness and exhaustion take their toil. At a certain point, it becomes obvious to one of the group’s elders, Sister (played by character actress Fran Ryan) that “the evil’s not outside, it’s in here!” Characters are lured away from the settlement and vanish offscreen without a trace. By the end we can’t be sure what happened to everyone, only a few. But that lack of closure helps retain the film’s sense of mystery and the supernatural. Eyes of Fire never enjoyed a wide theatrical release and was ignored by most reviewers with the exception of Caryn James in The New York Times, who wrote “Eyes of Fire is an ambitious idea gone haywire, as if “The Scarlet Letter” had zoomed into the future and collided with the movie version of “The Exorcist.” The majority of coverage Eyes of Fire received was through horror periodicals and reference works, much of it was negative or mixed. Here are some samples:
Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Guide by John Stanley: “This artistic, melancholy period supernatural tale is only partly successful. Its photography, capturing a dank, dark forest with strong beams of light and clouds of mist etching its characters, is strong and sensual. But the story by director Avery Crounse is ponderous and a hodgepodge of imagery….Symbolism and allegory make it literate but nothing about the characters or “monsters” creates suspense.”
The Official Splatter Guide by John McCarty: “An eerie, occasionally haunting and beautifully photographed story about….well, that’s just the trouble: the script is such a jumbled mishmash that I’m not sure what the story’s about….Good makeup FX by Annie Maniscalco – though there are a few too many scenes of tree and mud spirits spitting up green slime.”
Video Trash Treasures by L.A. Morse: “I don’t have a clue what this one’s all about. It moves so slowly and is so murkily meaningful it defies you to pay attention, and I confess I was not up to the challenge. Maybe it’s supposed to be artsy and symbolic, but it sure ain’t a good time.”
The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael J. Weldon: “This extraordinary movie…is a slow but fascinating and unique horror fantasy…Some call it too arty, others criticize the optical effects. I love it….16 minutes were cut by Aquarius [the distributor], which released it to puzzled Times Square moviegoers.”
Weldon also noted that Karlene Crockett had nude scenes in the film which must have been edited out of most versions. Also, there are conflicting reports of the film’s original length (some say 106 minutes, others 108 minutes) but it now only exists as an 86 minute feature.
At any rate, Eyes of Fire was dismissed or misunderstood by the first wave of reviewers. Yet, if you go to IMDB today, and read the users’ reviews of this film, you’ll find an almost entirely different response. Here are some of the comments: “I think this little gem is a masterpiece in its own right”….”This unjustly overlooked movie…ranks along with Pumpkinhead as one of the best examples of dark fantasy rooted in pure Americana”…”This movie is perhaps the most bizarre I have ever seen for such a low budget”…”Eyes of Fire is one of those wonderful little discoveries that makes seeking out obscure films so much fun.”
I first became aware of Eyes of Fire on VHS, released by Vestron Video. It was also available on other labels such as Anchor Bay as a DVD but has been out of print for years. You might still be able to find an import DVD of it but it would be great if some distributor like Criterion or Arrow Films would embark on a digital restoration of Eyes of Fire. Flaws and all, it’s a much more imaginative approach to the horror film than the typical genre outing from Hollywood.
*December 2021 update: EYES OF FIRE plus the original cut Cry Blue Sky have been remastered and released on Blu-ray by Severin Films along with a host of extra features. Hallelujah, who thought this would ever happen?
Other websites of interest: